From rock-bottom after Katrina, NOLA rallies
Charles Carter, left, a third-generation waiter at Antoine’s, the country’s oldest family-run restaurant, gives your author and Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim a behind-the-scenes tour of the many dining rooms and hallways of this storied establishment that has served countless celebrities and politicians. It’s also the original home of Oysters Rockefeller, invented here in 1899.
It’s now been 11 years since Hurricane Katrina washed over aging levees designed to protect New Orleans from the sea. A rare tempest with 125 mph winds, it killed more than 1,800 people and displaced a million more, destroyed 250,000 homes and brought America’s coolest, most flavorful city to its knees.
In the aftermath, resources poured in as city officials turned the storm into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix long-standing problems and set New Orleans on course for a better future.
As the 11th anniversary loomed, I walked its streets for the better part of a week to see how far the city has come, what work still remains and what business opportunities exist for franchising in The Big Easy.
Shine on, NOLA
My first stop was Antoine’s, the country’s oldest family-owned restaurant, in the French Quarter. My guest was Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim, the South Korean native who purchased the 780-unit, New Orleans-based chain in 2012 and considered moving its headquarters to Atlanta or Dallas before he fell in love with the city.
“When I finally started to see the city coming back, I really felt that not only is it a great win for New Orleans, but also a great win for human beings,” Kim said of his change of heart after moving his family to New Orleans. “I had more attachment to the city after that ... and I started to realize a lot of my employees who’ve been with us for 10 to 15 years have so much attachment to the city—their families live here.”
Kim considered moving Smoothie King’s HQ, before falling in love with New Orleans.
As a trio of oysters arrived from our third-generation waiter, Charles Carter, Kim spoke of his children’s adjustment to the local culture and plans to take his brand from 780 units up to a thousand in 2017.
Part of that requires boosting Smoothie King’s visibility, which is why he secured the naming rights to Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, home of the NBA’s Pelicans. Locals now call it The Blender.
Some Smoothie King ‘zees objected to the lucrative deal, but Kim asserted the franchisor paid for the branding out of its own pocket. It was a symbol to show the city and franchisees that he stands behind plans for future growth and improved franchisee relations.
Outside of his work at Smoothie King, Kim has become a fixture in the local business scene through the New Orleans Business Council and local chapter of the Young Presidents’ Organization.
After struggling to recruit new hires, Smoothie King has since had an easier time as the brand’s visibility has grown.
“A lot of franchisees are liking what we are doing and making money, which is why they want to open new stores,” Kim said, adding that he also weighs the human aspects of his decisions. “There are so many people who depend on our brand, people who send their kids to college through us, and we shouldn’t forget that.”
Feeling the VooDoo
The next day at lunchtime, I hopped in a taxi for the Uptown neighborhood. Following the streetcar tracks, my cab dropped me off outside the doors of the very first VooDoo BBQ & Grill—another New Orleans-based brand that has expanded beyond its hometown.
I was excited for a meaty lunch and some red beans and rice while waiting for my interview with CEO Tony Avila, who co-founded the brand in 2002. I observed a stream of construction workers ordering from the big, brightly colored menu board.
This is the first VooDoo, and its big windows overlook St. Charles Avenue where Mardis Gras parades stream past each February. It’s an exciting menu for this northerner, and I ordered pulled pork and spicy Cajun sausage to go with my sides.
We talked over lunch, while Avila said he’s been pleasantly surprised as he’s exported the local, intensely flavorful cuisine to other parts of the country.
“Anything that’s more New Orleans or more Louisiana on our menu really resonates the further away you get,” he added. “We’ve taken those traditional elements of barbecue and infused it with local peppers, spices and woods—those things that are very unique to us.”
Economic officials from the city made their case for further investment in The Big Easy.
VooDoo now has 18 units that are primarily along the Gulf Coast, but as far away as Indiana. Avila said he’s now focused on growing closer to its home turf to ease logistics and his own travel schedule.
In recent years, VooDoo added traditional dishes like jambalaya, barbecue shrimp and gumbo to capitalize on the popularity of New Orleans-style flavors.
“Here, you can get red beans and rice, jambalaya and gumbo everywhere,” he said. “Locally most people come for the barbecue, but they have really resonated as we’ve moved away from here, which is interesting.”
During the brand’s first years in franchising, where Avila focused on quickly adding units, he now demurs when asked “How big will this brand get?” and, instead, said he’s focused on serving existing franchisees and growing close to home.
“Like very young franchised brand, we‘ve had our successes and areas we think we can do better on,” he said. “If every franchisor was being honest, they could look back and say that it’s not one and the same, being a great operator and being a great franchisor.”
Diversifying the city
After a big VooDoo lunch, I walked a few forkfuls off on my way to an interview in the New Orleans Exchange Centre—a 21-story International Style skyscraper on the edge of downtown. Twenty floors up, I walked into a conference room with two officials from Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office, three members of the New Orleans Business Alliance (NOBA) and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the skyline.
It was a lot of intellectual firepower in one room, and the group quickly rattled off the city’s recent accolades: best American city by Travel + Leisure, No. 1 city for creatives by Smartasset (good thing for those last two letters), No. 1 brainpower city by Forbes, No. 1 cost-friendly business city by KPMG—and the list went on.
Their message was clear: New Orleans hit rock bottom in a way no other western city has in recent memory, but things are different now and remain on a positive course.
“Katrina was devastating to our city,” said Rebecca Conwell, senior adviser for economic development in Mayor Landrieu’s office. “We lost an entire healthcare system, we lost an entire education system, so literally when we returned we were starting from scratch—and with the help of the world, the United States and some incredible philanthropic groups, we are now to a place where we’re beyond recovering.”
Quentin Messer Jr., president and CEO of NOBA, began with a pitch on the city’s massive student population and its impact on putting New Orleans on the list for the country’s creative class.
Enjoying lunch with VooDoo BBQ CEO Tony Avila, who founded the brand in 2002.
“There are seven universities here in New Orleans, so as a function of people just day in and day out going to class, you have a lot of brainpower,” he said. “It’s always been a city that’s creative, and it’s the only place in the world that can say it gave birth to a music idiom as well as a genre of cooking.”
Messer said the city is growing again, “but not fast enough.” Technology, hospitality, restaurant and medical sectors have been particularly strong in recent years, but recent hiccups in the oil and gas industry put pressure on the city. He added that gains in tourism have offset that stress.
“The restaurant growth here is unprecedented, and it’s a function of having the local population here and nine million people coming to New Orleans because of hospitality and tourism,” Messer said. “There are always opportunities here for anything with food or beverage because you have so many people cycling through.”
Hayne Rainey, the city’s press secretary, ticked off a long list of infrastructure improvements including a $14.5 billion flood protection system, new police and fire stations, revamped libraries, parks, hospitals and playgrounds, as well as a streetcar expansion opening as this issue goes to print.
Looking out the windows far above downtown, they pointed to the cranes and construction sites dotting the horizon, and were most excited talking about retail gains throughout the city’s 73 neighborhoods.
New additions include a CVS in the Lower Ninth Ward, a new Taco Bell and Raising Cain’s along the Claiborne Corridor and a Dave & Buster’s rising in the CBD.
“When I came here five years ago we were at least 30 percent under-retailed,” said Brenda Canada, VP of retail attraction at NOBA. “When I first started calling national retailers in 2011, they said, ‘We don’t want to be here’ or “We’re not interested’—now they are calling us and saying ‘Help find us a location.’”