Downtown dining rebound not happening fast enough for some restaurants

    With COVID-19 cases once again on the rise around the state and the nation, local restaurateurs are worried they’ll be forced to shut down again or, at least, limit their indoor dining service.

    Still reeling from months of restricted service earlier this year, restaurant owners fear what may come after Thanksgiving if the virus spreads as much as health experts predict.

    “We’ve been through a shutdown once,” says Louisiana Lagniappe owner Kevin Ortego. “A lot of guys won’t be able to make it if they have to go through it again.”

    Some downtown restaurant owners are particularly concerned. With thousands of state employees and downtown office tenants continuing to work remotely, as they have throughout much of the year, the lunchtime business that keeps many downtown eateries afloat is way down.

    “There is nothing going on down there,” says Brad Watts, whose Cecilia on Third Street is down about 70%. “Hotels are empty. Office buildings are empty. There are no festivals, there are no events and people are preparing for the inevitable shutdown.”

    By comparison, Watts says his restaurant under the Perkins Road Overpass, Kalurah Street Grill, is down about 30%.

    Mike Wampold’s eatery in the Watermark Hotel, The Gregory, has also seen a sharp drop off in business, as has longtime downtown institution Poor Boy Lloyd’s.

    “It’s still a work in progress,” says Lloyd’s manager Rachael Taylor. “Lunch is slow because the office business hasn’t come back yet. We’ve stayed open late on Friday and Saturday nights, which has helped, but it hasn’t been what it typically is.”

    Not everyone is pessimistic, however. Enrique Pineura says his Sixth Street restaurant, Cocha, has seen activity almost return to normal, which he attributes to the fact that Cocha never stopped serving food, unlike some other downtown restaurants that didn’t even offer takeout service at the height of the shutdown last spring.

    “That helped us develop a lot of loyalty with our customers,” he says. Our outdoor seating also has made a tremendous difference.”

    Downtown Development District Executive Director Davis Rhorer also is optimistic about downtown and says he has seen the number of restaurant patrons continue to grow in recent months.

    “During the weekday lunchtime, things may be a bit shallow,” Rhorer says. “But from what I’m seeing, restaurants are filling up. Over the weekend, Tsunami was packed. Stroubes was packed. People are coming back.”

    While that may be the case for many restaurants, Watts says the crowds are not coming back in large enough numbers to help Cecelia, which is particularly troubling heading into the normally busy holiday season.    

    “The holiday season is not happening this year,” he says. “No parties. No banquets. That’s usually a huge part of our business.”