Gulf Coast's food market a mixed bag after storm

Oysters lost, but fate of coffee beans uncertain

September 14, 2005|By Carolyn Jung and Aleta Watson | Carolyn Jung and Aleta Watson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

It is the place to revel in blackened redfish, boiled crawfish, he-man muffuletta sandwiches, achingly sweet pralines and beignets that coat you in a cloud of powdered sugar after the very first bite.

It is the home base of celebrity chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. It is famous for legendary restaurants such as Antoine's, Commander's Palace, K-Paul's, Nola and Galatoire's. And it is a major hub of production and transport for food products from coffee to shrimp.

But will New Orleans ever be all that again?

With the city focused on basic human survival now, it's too early to know how its famed restaurants and food companies will fare in the awful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those in the food industry are holding their collective breath in hopes that the people and businesses that infused New Orleans with its warm and generous "spirit of the table" will survive.

"It's one of America's food capitals," said Clark Wolf, a New York- and Sonoma, Calif.-based restaurant industry expert. "New Orleans gave us a sense that there could be a regional American food style. It gave us the notion that food was about celebration, and taught Americans that a little spice never hurt. It's the original fusion cuisine in this country -- Cajun."

Wolf is hopeful that some of the city's culinary dynasties, such as Lagasse and the Brennan family, will be able to pull through.

"One of the things that gives me comfort is that these people have restaurants in Las Vegas, Orlando and elsewhere -- that they have the wherewithal to survive this," Wolf said. "People used to give Emeril grief about having so many restaurants. But now, thank goodness."

At least some of New Orleans' landmark restaurants appeared to be in relatively good shape, though others had sustained visible damage. The Los Angeles Times reported that half the facade of Commander's Palace was gone, as was one wall of Antoine's. The Dallas Morning News reported that Cafe du Monde (the place for beignets and chicory coffee) and Central Grocery (home of the muffuletta) appeared to have sustained little damage.

And salon.com reported that at Brennan's Restaurant -- owned by the family that owns Commander's Palace and several other New Orleans eateries -- Jimmy Brennan, some relatives and the restaurant's chef were sleeping on air mattresses and cooking food from the larder for themselves and French Quarter police.

"We have been instructed by the matriarchs that we will rebuild," family member Brad Brennan told The New York Times, speaking from his office at Commander's Palace Las Vegas.

One of Louisiana's most famous products is Tabasco sauce. Its maker, McIlhenny Co., which counts California as its top market, was lucky. Based on Avery Island, 120 miles west of New Orleans, the pepper farm, manufacturing plant and headquarters were spared. But its New Orleans marketing office had to be evacuated.

About 75 employees and their families are being housed on Avery Island indefinitely, said Paul McIlhenny, president and chief executive. His daughter, who had to flee New Orleans, is ensconced in his house on Avery Island.

"A lot of our employees live in New Orleans, so they're without homes. They'll have to live on Avery Island, and their kids will have to be schooled here, probably for many months," McIlhenny said. "It's a horrible situation."

Not until the cleanup begins will it be certain just how much damage the food industry sustained when ports were pummeled and warehouses threatened by floodwaters. Here's what was known about some of the Gulf Coast's best-known products in the days immediately after the disaster:

Shellfish: Shrimp and oysters took the biggest hit. Not only were boats, docks, ice houses and processing plants destroyed, but the gulf's vast oyster beds also were disturbed by the deluge, which churned up the ocean floor and altered seawater salinity, said Stacey Felzenberg, communications manager for the National Fisheries Institute.

Consumers will feel the oyster loss most because Louisiana produces about 42 percent of the nation's harvest. California, though, gets most of its oysters from the Pacific coast.

Shortages of gulf shrimp will not be as noticeable because the gulf produces only about 10 percent of the shrimp Americans eat.

"For most of the shrimp we eat, we're not going to see much of a price increase because most of our shrimp is imported," Felzenberg said.

Bananas: Shipping facilities at Gulfport, Miss., one of the biggest ports for banana shipments from Central America, were seriously damaged, but the loss is not expected to cut banana supplies. Officials at Chiquita Brands, the second-largest banana importer in the United States, reported that they had diverted a shipment to Freeport, Texas, to avoid Katrina and would use three other ports until Gulfport is rebuilt.

Michael Mitchell, Chiquita's communications director, said he did not anticipate a shortage of bananas.

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