If Oak Street is a Microcosm of N.O. Economy, the Outlook is Encouraging
NEW ORLEANS – If what’s happened on Oak Street during the pandemic is representative of the New Orleans economy overall, then the prospect for the city’s recovery is good – although not all businesses will be along for the ride.
Always the “main street” of Uptown’s Carrollton neighborhood, the stretch of Oak between Leake and Carrollton avenues is home to more than 60 independent businesses and the popular Po-Boy Festival, which draws at least 30,000 attendees to the street each November. Merchants here enjoy lower prices per square foot than in some other New Orleans commercial areas and they gain foot traffic from the Carrollton Avenue streetcar line and proximity to Jefferson Parish. Some businesses, like Haase’s Shoe Store, have been here for generations while others, like Oak St Brewery, are opening their doors this month.
Oak has plenty of restaurants – from Cowbell at one end, Pho Bistreaux at the other and the world-famous Jacques-Imo’s Cafe in between – plus dozens of shops and offices. You can go to Oak to buy a comic book, get a prescription filled or try on a new pair of shoes. Heck, at Aqua Marine – which has been on the street for more than 50 years – you can buy the boat of your dreams and head for the blue horizon. In the offices of the Microsoft-owned video game design company InXile, coders are working on their latest creation.
Each of the merchants on Oak has experienced the pandemic differently. For some – particularly certain bars and restaurants – that experience has been brutal.
To start, there have been several closures, including contemporary Cajun restaurant Down the Bayou, which shut its doors in August a year after the death of founding chef and co-owner Carl Schaubhut. La Casita Mexican restaurant, which had taken over the site of the former barbecue place Squeal, shut down as well. High-end sushi place Chiba actually closed in January, but current conditions are making it difficult for the building’s owner to find a new tenant. The same goes for the Mellow Mushroom, which served its last pie in February.
Other purveyors of food and drink are holding on – by a thread, in some cases. And then there are the places who simply haven’t been allowed to open because of the city’s health restrictions.
The Maple Leaf Bar, an Oak Street institution since 1974, has been limited to streaming events since March. (A brief stint of Thursday night “Pandemic Piano” concerts outside the bar got nixed by the city.) In normal times, the Leaf would feature performances by George Porter Jr., the Rebirth Brass Band and other icons and up-and-comers, but, for now, the bar is complying with the city’s live music ban and keeping its door closed.
For Oak Street fans, the venerated music venue can’t open soon enough.
“Without Maple Leaf, Oak would be a different street,” said Min Yang, an architect with an office on the street and the president of Oak Street Merchants, Residents and Property Owners Inc., a nonprofit that promotes Oak and produces Po-Boy Fest. “The Maple Leaf is the soul of the street and its cultural center of gravity but right now it has absolutely no business because of the shutdown and it has no way to be an alleged restaurant. They don’t have a kitchen. It’s really terrible – we miss hearing the music. We miss people coming to the street each evening.”
Survivors, Thrivers and New Arrivers
Amid all this, there are businesses that have adapted well to the new realities. Vegan restaurant Breads on Oak, which opened for business in 2012, is one example.
“We’re actually faring a lot better than we expected,” said owner Chamain O’Mahony, who said she focused on takeout for the last five months and then took advantage of existing outdoor seating and expanded hours to keep income flowing. Customers come in for creative vegan meals, giant iced brioche buns and other treats. “So, yes, business has slowly been picking up over the past few months.”
Anecdotally, at least, many of the street’s other dining spots – including Rue De La Course, Tru Burger, Ajun Cajun and Cowbell – are holding their own. Meanwhile, from the ashes of some the street’s bygone businesses, new projects are coming to life.
Next to the former DTB, in a 3100-square-foot space that formerly housed a grocery, Kevin Greenaae spends his days brewing beers for his new venture, Oak St Brewery. For two weeks, customers have been able to order brews in advance and pick them up in “crowlers” to take away but Greenaae is hoping to open his tasting room formally by mid-September, as long as city and state leaders ease current restrictions.
Greenaae said his progress was affected by the pandemic, sure, but another factor was last December’s malware attack on the City of New Orleans, which slowed down permitting. Construction delays didn’t help either. Despite the problems, he said, “We’re doing good – and when I get the tap room open, I can finally hire employees. I’ve actually been talking with one of the former employees of La Casita to see about hiring him. I will have multiple craft beers, big-screen TVs, two tournament dart boards and stuff for kids.”
Greenaae said he hopes to be one of the businesses that brings life back to the street, particularly on Sundays, when things are pretty quiet on the corridor. He’s also encouraged by the sounds of renovation coming through the wall he shares with the former DTB, which he says is going to be a more casual place offering seafood and po-boys.
There are other new places coming soon. An undisclosed restaurant has signed a lease to take over the former site of La Casita. The rumor is it’s a well-known name that’s going to generate a lot of buzz.
Yang from the Oak Street association estimates there are about a dozen properties currently for lease on the corridor. Some say there should be more.
“I think there’s a boom coming,” said Katie Winters, co-owner of the bar/restaurants Oak and Ale near the Carrollton end of the street. “I think there’s a lot of good people coming and the staples like the Maple Leaf, Jacques-Imo’s, Live Oak Cafe and Breads on Oak will remain. The only thing I’m annoyed by is you have property owners with empty properties that won’t sell for whatever reason. One building is about to be torn down because the owner allowed it to fall into disrepair. And I know people have been offered prices over the value of their property and they’re still not selling.”
‘We Shop Like Europeans’
The Louisiana Running + Walking Co. closed its Oak Street location during the pandemic but the store’s flagship location a few miles away in Mid-City is going strong.
Many other shops, meanwhile, have managed to either survive the pandemic or, in some cases, thrive in the new normal.
Take Haase’s, for instance. The 99-year-old family-owned business closed its doors from March 20 to May 18 to all but online customers, but since reopening has essentially sold as much in 2020 as it did the year before.
“The whole situation has been tragic because of the illness and deaths. It’s horrible,” said Judy Caliva, who’s at the helm of the now-iconic business. “But there are good things that came out of the pandemic. We’ve had customers who are so loyal and new people have come in and told me, ‘I didn’t want to go to a big store or the mall.’ It’s been a win win.”
Caliva said the stay-at-home orders boosted business because “people are home, their child’s playing outside and they want to take a walk, so they order sandals or get the shorts they need.”
Another, more unorthodox theory for why her customers have been buying so much? Kids are eating better and growing faster.
“One mother said, ‘We couldn’t get my daughter to gain weight, even working with the pediatrician,’” she said. “But then when she was working from home and cooking three meals a day, it was the best thing that ever happened. That’s one of the good things coming out of this: parents spending more time with their children. I think every child in America learned how to ride a bike.”
The experience at Haase’s has been duplicated across the street at Blue Cypress Books, where owner Elizabeth Ahlquist worked hard to stay in touch with customers online and via email. Early on, she prepared book orders for customers to be picked up by the front door. Now, masked customers are free to peruse the shelves once more. Ahlquist said that her client base is reading more because of all the social distancing and she’s actually selling more in the summer of 2020 than she did in 2019.
A few doors down, the New Orleans Bike Shop – like all bike shops – has been doing a booming business, as has the Ra Shop, a regional chain that supplies “party and smoking accessories.” (Said Caliva: “That shows everybody’s priorities, right?”)
Also doing well: Aqua Marine, the family-run business that has been selling boats from its spot on Oak near the parish line for more than 50 years.
“We’re out of product – people bought all our stuff up and we’re waiting to get new stuff in,” said co-owner Steven Sbisa, whose inventory of boats ranges in price from $35,000 to $85,000. “When the stay-at-home order came down, it drove people crazy and they wanted to go on vacations and do all the things they generally do – some decided to go out on the water. It’s the same with all boat stores and with all RV stores from what I hear. Our sales were only limited by the amount of stock we had.”
Even though there are abundant signs of life, Caliva said it’s important for New Orleanians to continue supporting small businesses on Oak Street and elsewhere. And that goes double for the restaurants, bars and music venues.
“We try to get food from other local restaurants as much as possible,” she said. “We have to keep this city going. This city runs on independent businesses, family businesses, small businesses. We’re colloquial. We shop like Europeans. We walk to the grocery every day.”
Things are going reasonably well for many of the city’s small businesses, she said, but “everybody needs to remember – we need you.”