When Katie’s Restaurant flooded following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, it was hard to imagine the restaurant ever coming back. A Mid-City mainstay, the building had taken on 7 feet of water and owner Scot Craig had to replace everything. Without enough insurance money for the repairs, Craig hustled, juggling multiple jobs until he finally was able to reopen the restaurant nearly five years later.
Katie’s always was a neighborhood institution, and the warm welcome Craig received from locals helped bring the Iberville Street restaurant back to life. But the city was still recovering, and while business was steady, it could have been better. Then, about a year later, one customer made a big difference: Guy Fieri, the gregarious, spiky-haired celebrity chef and host of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
In 2011 Katie’s was featured in an episode of “Triple-D,” as Craig now refers to the show. Nothing could have prepared him for what came next.
“We had a line out the door the next day,” Craig says. “All of a sudden everybody in New Orleans and every visitor we had knew we were there. It literally tripled my business overnight.”
Tourists from around the world were lining up for the restaurant’s Boudreaux pizza and its signature Barge po-boy — a 3-foot loaf loaded with fried shrimp, catfish and oysters with Tabasco mayonnaise — both of which Fieri had featured on the show. The following years saw repeat visits from the chef (another dish, crawfish beignets, became one of the most-ordered items on the menu after being featured on the show).
Craig eventually remodeled the upstairs of the restaurant (where he once lived) to expand for extra seating. He still sees upticks in business that he attributes to Fieri’s show and subsequent media attention, which he calls “the gift that keeps on giving.”
If you can't wait until next week to watch Gordon Ramsay make over the Trolley Stop Cafe, you can tune in tonight to Food Network, where bowli…
The power and sway of food tourism — popularized by celebrity chefs and the continuous rise of food-fueled entertainment — is well-documented. Anyone who has driven by Willie Mae’s Scotch House or Turkey and the Wolf on a Friday around lunchtime can see the influence a “Top 10” list can hold. But in a city like New Orleans, with an increasingly competitive restaurant scene where roughly 18 million tourists spent close to $9 billion last year, the amount and type of publicity can make a restaurant.
Although New Orleans is a city of neighborhoods, restaurant business depends largely on the influx of tourism dollars to survive, especially as more restaurants continue to open, tightening the competitive grab for customers. Many restaurant owners realize that the publicity they receive could very well be the key to their survival.
Growing pains following a huge national press push might include operational changes like readjusting business hours or hiring additional staff as well as risking alienating a few local customers. But the consensus among most restaurants is that any press is good press. As many owners learn, however, that life raft doesn’t come without strings attached. The sudden onslaught of business can be overwhelming for many small restaurants not equipped to handle the increased volume, and local customers can feel left out in the cold when their favorite spot suddenly has an hourlong wait for a table.
“We lost a lot of money in the beginning because we didn’t have enough seats, and locals — locals would just keep driving,” Craig says. “They’d see 100 people standing outside and they’re not coming in.”
Over the years, Craig says he’s developed relationships with Katie’s regulars, often telling them to text him before they arrive so special accommodations can be made.
Locals also know when to visit Willie Mae’s Scotch House to find the shortest line, says Kerry Seaton-Stewart, the current owner and great-granddaughter of the restaurant’s namesake, Willie Mae Seaton, who died in 2015.
Seaton-Stewart said the restaurant’s rise to its current fame was gradual, as the restaurant closed after Katrina and depended on local customers once it reopened — and many customers still were in the process of returning home to New Orleans.
Once a bar where Willie Mae Seaton would serve up Scotch and milk, Willie Mae’s Scotch House grew to become a local and national sensation, kn…
Since then, the restaurant has been featured on the Food Network and the Travel Channel, won a James Beard Award and tops many of the city’s “best fried chicken” lists. Essence Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, in particular, are extremely busy times for the Treme restaurant, Seaton-Stewart says, with lines sometimes reaching up to 100 people. On busy days, the line averages around 50 to 60 people, with wait times around 15 to 45 minutes, depending on the party size.
“We’re constantly growing with our business and learning to keep up with the crowds,” she says. “The only people that had an indifferent or negative approach [to the attention] would have been our older guests — the ones who were there before this broke, before Katrina, before James Beard, before Food Network and the Travel Channel. Now, we’re sharing Willie Mae’s with the world as well as with New Orleans, so obviously there’s a yin and a yang to everything.”
The appetite for reality-TV chef Gordon Ramsay's televised kitchen abuse (screaming, swearing and calling people "donkeys") appears to be endl…
Reality television shows with makeover or renovation pitches are different. These often depict a struggling business on the brink of financial collapse — and push that narrative aggressively — and often exploitatively.
The premise, made famous on shows like chef Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares” and “24 Hours to Hell and Back,” often includes an angry, insult-hurling host who belittles the restaurant’s current management and then in the second half of the show swoops in with makeovers of the dining room, menu and kitchen to create — voila! — a new, presumably improved restaurant.
The problem is that restaurants don’t always end up succeeding when the camera crews leave, and after the show is aired the participants are sometimes less than thrilled with their portrayals.
Oceana Grill’s 2011 episode on “Kitchen Nightmares” portrayed two quarreling brothers overseeing an allegedly poorly managed French Quarter restaurant. Earlier this year, the restaurant’s owners sued Ramsay and the show’s producers for reposting old footage of the restaurant online, including a particularly grotesque clip showing Ramsay vomiting after smelling some improperly stored shrimp way past its prime.
Other restaurants featured on Ramsay’s shows include The Old Coffee Pot Restaurant, which achieved online infamy for a sequence in which Ramsay discovers a dead mouse in a toaster. Some of the Old Coffee Pot episode’s footage is excruciating to watch, including the public and humiliating firing of a cook, who leaves the set sobbing while fellow employees look on, helpless to comfort her as the cameras keep rolling.
In 2014, "New York Magazine" food blog Grub Street released a report that claimed 60 percent of the restaurants Ramsay featured on his show “Kitchen Nightmares” had closed. Metairie restaurant Zeke’s, also featured on Ramsay’s show in 2011, closed shortly after the renovation.
(Emails to both Oceana Grill’s management and Ramsay’s press operations for comment were not returned. Management at the Old Coffee Pot responded to a request but declined to speak about the show.)
Restaurants have to go though a vigorous vetting process to be on Ramsay’s shows. And while it may seem counterintuitive, even cruel, to subject their staff to one of Ramsay’s angry tirades, many restaurant owners choose to participate, figuring any press is simply better than no press at all and hoping their 15 minutes of fame could help the bottom line.
Is the return on investment worth it?
Trolley Stop Cafe owner Ragnar Karlsson certainly hopes so. The owner of the St. Charles Avenue mainstay was featured on the Jan. 2 season premiere of Ramsay’s latest show, “Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back.”
“I wanted to do something special for the restaurant,” Karlsson says. “Something to get that exposure local and nationally and I thought, well, FOX primetime — you can’t beat that.”
Karlsson purchased the restaurant in January 2017, taking over the venture his Swedish-born grandfather first opened in 1995. But business had waned significantly over the years and the restaurant was struggling. When Karlsson was contacted by television producers last year and asked whether he’d be interested in being featured on a celebrity chef-hosted renovation series, he had an inkling Ramsay was involved, but the name of the show was kept secret.
It wasn’t until taping day that Karlsson’s suspicions were confirmed, when Ramsay walked into the restaurant for lunch, disguised as an Orleans Parish Sheriff’s deputy. In a clip of the show, the chef voices his disgust and disdain for the restaurant’s state of affairs and swiftly moves in his team to overhaul the entire operation.
Karlsson, of course, didn’t escape the experience without a few insults, including having to stand in the middle of a crowded street while customers unloaded their disappointments; Ramsay also belittled his education and his appearance and threw a piece of corned beef in his face, Karlsson recalled.
“It was very jarring; very difficult — but I knew at the time it was also very necessary,” Karlsson says of the experience. “We only had 24 hours with him so I didn’t want to waste any time being defensive with him.”
Within the 24-hour revamp, the Trolley Stop Cafe received a full makeover; both the menu and the restaurant’s operations were overhauled. Despite Ramsay’s antics, Karlsson said before the show’s airing that he was still grateful for the experience.
“I love the restaurant and it’s my family’s legacy and there’s nothing I won’t do for it,” Karlsson says. “I knew what was at stake here and I knew that if I was a good sport about it that a lot of great things can happen for this restaurant. Me being humiliated on national television is a small, small price to pay for the amount of money that they’ve invested into the restaurant and the exposure that we’re going to get.”
An increase in travelers interested in “authentic” hole-in-the-wall restaurants has created a new kind of food tourism — a trend that producers, journalists and Instagram influencers have seized upon. This can be helpful for small business owners who can’t afford a publicist or advertising.
“People in New Orleans are still kind of sketched-out about coming to Tulane (Avenue), but tourists are not afraid,” says Christy Pitard, who together with her husband Justin runs the po-boy shop Avery’s on Tulane.
The roast beef on “the sandbag” po-boy at Avery’s on Tulane is a mix of irregular strands and falling-apart bits, like it’s been simmering on …
Avery’s, which opened in 2012, survives because of a loyal local following, Pitard says, but she estimates roughly 30 percent of business comes from tourists. “A lot of the ones who know that it’s best to get off the beaten path are the ones who find us,” she says, “and those are the ones who come back every Mardi Gras, every time they come back to town.”
But business still could be better, and it’s part of the reason why Pitard say she and her husband agreed to be featured in an unnamed upcoming celebrity food show, which is set to air next month. (Producers for reality television shows often have participants sign non-disclosure agreements forbidding them to talk to any press prior to the show’s airing.)
“From a small business standpoint it really does go a long way,” Pitard says. “Especially for us — we don’t have an advertising budget, and every little bit helps. Every time we get a little bit of ding, it kind of encourages us to stick with it. It’s easy to hustle through the really slow times when you know you have something really good right around the corner.”