Restaurateurs Near Hard Rock Fear Demolition Will Come at Worst Time

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L to R: Jordan Herndon, Andrew Principe, Amarys Herndon (Photo by Carrie DeMay)

NEW ORLEANS – Small businesses near the site of the Hard Rock Hotel collapse are worried that the long-delayed demolition of the building will add to their economic woes by taking place after COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease.

Many downtown restaurants and other enterprises have been in crisis mode since Oct. 12, when the building partially collapsed while under construction. Three workers were killed and dozens were injured. The city and developers are at an impasse about the best way to demolish the unstable structure and retrieve the bodies of two workers that are trapped on site.

The owners of Palm & Pine – a North Rampart Street restaurant that opened in the summer of 2019 – recently sent a letter to the daily paper, the mayor and other city leaders to express their concerns.

“On Oct. 12, 2019, my life and the lives of my two chef partners forever changed when the Hard Rock Hotel collapsed,” wrote Andrew Principe, president and partner, P&P Restaurant Group/Palm & Pine. “This disaster, which included inexcusable loss of life and injury to our fellow Louisianans, also created economic chaos for those of us operating within the evacuation zones. But one fact remains: If the Hard Rock does not come down prior to business returning to whatever the new normal will be, how are we expected to yet again suffer closure when a new evacuation zone is created?”

Biz New Orleans reached out to the mayor’s office and to the city council for comment but has not received a response.

Palm & Pine, like other nearby businesses, has endured the disruptions of the initial collapse and the Oct. 20 demolition of damaged construction cranes and, since then, decreased accessibility caused by sidewalk closures near Canal and North Rampart streets. Then, in mid-March, all restaurants in the city had to halt dine-in service to follow COVID-19 social distancing rules.

“I mean not only are we affected as a business but as New Orleanians and humans this hits incredibly close to home,” said Amarys Herndon, one of the restaurant’s co-chefs and proprietors. “What’s happening with the Hard Rock is crucial to our survival as a restaurant.”

Herndon said Palm & Pine had its best weekend of business the week before the disaster and had a full house booked for the night of Oct. 12.

“I was on my way to the farmer’s market when I saw the building fall,” she said. “I got into the restaurant before the ambulances and fire trucks were coming but then as my husband and partner were trying to come in they were getting stopped on the street. We were allowed in the restaurant but no one else could come in or out and we had to stay in the building. So we obviously couldn’t open that night.”

Then came a week of confusion as officials planned the demolition of the construction cranes that were suspended perilously over the site of the collapse. Since then, the restaurateurs have operated as best they could while waiting for authorities to finalize a plan to completely demolish the disaster site a half block away.

“We’ve been open for months now – but it definitely decreased parking and traffic flow to us,” said Herndon. “Now, with COVID-19, our operations are incredibly different. Locals were still showing up [after the collapse] because they love the restaurant but it definitely cut off some of that convention business. We had just started doing grab-and-go breakfast tacos and micheladas for people walking to the Superdome for Saints games. We were really busy with that but then of course for football games nobody was walking down Rampart anymore. That’s just one example. There are a lot of layers to it.”

The Palm & Pine owners applied for the Paycheck Protection Program loan through Hancock Whitney Bank but haven’t received the funds yet. Like many other restaurateurs, they’re doing their best to get by with delivery and takeout meals. Unlike many other restaurateurs, they have a sword of Damocles hanging over their head in the form of another business disruption that could happen at any time – or the worst time.

“We’re only half a block outside of the evacuation zone now and we know the evacuation zone will be extended when the demolition occurs,” said Herndon. “We’re afraid we’re going to be shut down again. Even a couple days will be detrimental but I’m afraid it’ll be weeks and it’ll happen at the worst time.

“Right now should be our busiest time with French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest and we’re just doing takeout and delivery instead so it would be really detrimental to make it through that, make it through this, get through whatever the summer looks like and then see ourselves closed down again in the fall.”

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