One week, local headlines tout the opening of Chimes, Top Golf and Dave & Buster’s. The next, they’ll lament the closing of longtime establishments like Randol’s, Café Vermilionville and Ground Pat’i on Kaliste Saloom Road. Are these the best of times for local restaurants, or the worst?
In terms of raw dollars spent on food, these should be salad days for restaurants.
According to sales tax receipts reported by LEDA and industry GDP data reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Lafayette’s hospitality sector is up more than 20% over the last few years, roughly matching or exceeding the average increase in food spending nationally.
So what’s happening? The cost of everything is up.
Food, supplies, utilities, services, labor — and that’s assuming you can find people able and willing to work. Most restaurants have been forced to increase their prices. Which means customers are getting less value for their money, which can put downward pressure on demand especially for cost-conscious consumers. At the same time, the restaurants are usually making less margin despite charging more because they don’t feel like they can pass along the full increase of their costs.
The restaurant business has always been notoriously tough. Even more so in a place like Lafayette, where the bar has been set so high by so many establishments for so many years. So it’s natural to see favorites old and new close every year.
And, in fact, when new restaurants open it could force surrounding establishments out of business. That’s the unfortunate reality of new developments. There’s usually only so much pie to go around in any given area in terms of market demand.
With margins tighter than ever after a tumultuous last few years, it all but guarantees that the disruption caused by the opening of any major new entrants like Chimes or Dave & Buster’s will tip any restaurants that were teetering over the edge.
Even if the new spots are passing fads that close in a year or so, the damage will have been done because many restaurants are still vulnerable as they recover from the pandemic and navigate this new operating environment.
What this all means is that if you have any favorite restaurants, go eat there! Early and often, and bring all your friends. If you want to have the highest odds possible that you’re still going to be able to enjoy your favorite dishes in the years to come, don’t take them for granted and assume they’ll always be there.
I have personally experienced the heartbreak of losing a delicious loved one — RIP the Cajun Cuban at Saint Street Inn among so many other brave soldiers — and I don’t want any of us to have to suffer like that again.
Additionally, if you really want to be a part of the solution to increasing the vibrancy of our local restaurant scene, everyone who is able should get serious about figuring out what we can do to get Lafayette’s population growing again.
As I’ve written about previously, the city’s population is flat, and the surrounding parishes are shrinking almost as fast as the rest of Lafayette Parish is growing.
In addition to us eating out more, we need to get more people to join our table. Restaurants need more mouths to feed if there’s going to be enough room to keep all of our old favorites, support our new ones, and attract the creation of more delights in the future.
In a weird way, from my perspective these are both the best of times and the worst of times for local restaurants. As someone who eats in local restaurants, this is definitely some of the best of times as Lafayette’s arguably more delicious than ever.
Even with the loss of some rock star places like Café V, Lafayette’s food scene has never been more diverse. With multiple Indian places, new Asian places, great new bakeries, secret new pizza spots, new barbecue spots, brewpubs, and so much more.
But I also worry for my friends in this business. It’s tough out there right now, and it’s looking like that’s not going to change any time soon. I find myself getting anxious every time I go to a favorite spot and find it half-full or worse. Because I know how much tighter things are now than they’ve ever been before.
Rather than worry about an uncertain future, I think it’s best we focus on the present and enjoy the many fine dining establishments that are cornerstones to what makes our community great. Because remember, only you, your appetite and your pocketbook can prevent your favorite restaurants from closing when Dave & Buster’s opens up down the street.