March 16, 2015 12:14 AM
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If you missed the March issue of ABiz’s sister publication, IND Monthly, you probably won’t find one in any of the racks stationed around town. That they’re scooped up so quickly is a point of pride among the staff here on Jefferson Street. Yet if you simply walk a block north from our office you can read all the delightful, insightful stories; they’re taped into the windows of Frankie’s, the cool little burger joint-slash-music venue that went belly up in early March.

But if you’re hankering for a gyro, forget about it: Athena’s, Frankie’s’ neighbor to the right, also closed in early March, and Zeus, to the left of Frankie’s, has been “closed for maintenance” for about a year and, according to its owner, probably won’t reopen.

Even with nearby Mediterranean competitor Athena shuttered, Zeus owner Nidal Balbeisi says he probably won't reopen.
Photo by Robin May
One, two, three — and that’s just the start. Americas Coffee House on Buchanan Street behind Tsunami Sushi: shuttered in late February. Anne’s Table on Jefferson: one (year) and done at about the same time (following the equally short life of Pane & Vino in the same location). Citing a need to focus on catering and special events, French Press has eliminated its weekend white-linen suppers.

And let’s not forget The Pie Hole Pizzeria & Tap on Jefferson, an innovative restaurant that lasted about a year and closed in late 2013, not to mention the gastronomic iterations that have come and gone in the old Masonic temple on Vermilion Street since Stan’s Downtown closed in 2011: Trynd Café, which folded in 2012, followed by a very short-lived restaurant, the name of which we strain to remember.

We won’t count Arcadian Bar & Grill against the trend: It was forced to close in early 2015 due to the irresistible allure of selling alcohol to minors.

But there’s no ignoring it: Downtown’s lunch scene is in a downturn.

“I think the overall sentiment and the overall realization is that, just like any other downtown around the world, you go through the challenges of being in a downtown location,” says Gus Rezende, the Brazilian-born owner of Jefferson Street Pub, a gastropub by day and bar/music venue by night. “All the benefits that a downtown brings to you as a business, whatever it might be, you also have challenges.”

To meet those challenges, Rezende last year helped spearhead the formation of the Downtown Lafayette Restaurant and Bar Association. Roughly 80 percent of the bars and restaurants Downtown are now members along with a number of associate, non-bar/restaurant owners including several lawyers and, in the interest of full disclosure, ABiz Co-Publisher Cherry Fisher May.

Rezende lays the difficulty in operating a successful restaurant Downtown, in part, at the feet of the national economy. “With all the economic turmoil we went through from 2008 to now, a lot of food and beverage businesses across town are facing that today. It’s one of the toughest industries to be in, and it’s so tough to make it, especially when the economy’s not on your side,” he explains.

But Lafayette has been producing record sales-tax collections for the last few years following a slump that traced the contours of the early Great Recession. And restaurateur Nidal Balbeisi, whose fingerprints are all over Lafayette gastro scene, singles out Downtown.

“All my restaurants outside the Downtown area are doing fabulous,” he says. Those other restaurants include the nine Zeus locations in Lafayette Parish including the currently (and probably permanently) shuttered Zeus on Jefferson as well as Agave Mexican Cantina on East Vermilion.

And the numbers bear out Balbeisi’s observation: According to figures from the Lafayette Parish School Board’s Sales Tax Division, in 2012, when Lafayette had fully recovered from the national economic downturn, total taxable sales Downtown were $65.7 million. That figure rose a little for 2013, to $67.4 million, and settled back to $65.4 million last year.

But breaking down those numbers into what the tax collector calls “Food Group,” i.e., restaurants and bars, there’s a steady decline over the same period — $31.8 million in 2012, $29.8 million in ’13 and $27.7 million last year.

That’s a roughly $2 million decline year over year or just under a 13 percent drop in sales in the three-year period from the start of 2012 to the end of 2014. By most measures that’s a sharp slide.

Balbeisi, who purchased the Masonic building on East Vermilion from Stanley Lerille (Stan’s) in 2011 to open Trynd and then leased the space out for a few years of non-success by other entrepreneurs after Trynd faded, recently opened Century Irish Gastropub in the building. With $3 million invested in the building, Balbeisi refuses to give up on the location.

His answer for why so many restaurants have had trouble meeting their leases the last few years is two words: “No offices.”

That’s a bit of hyperbole, but the Jordanian-born entrepreneur might be on to something. There’s no governmental or economic development agency we know of that tracks business relocations, but in just the last half decade or so several law offices, including major players like Onebane and Allen & Gooch, have moved, mainly to River Ranch. Others such as Bradley & Moreau have also retreated from the Downtown. And Whitney Bank moved its main branch from Downtown to River Ranch in early 2014.

Those relocations necessarily translate into less foot traffic at lunchtime, which might explain why restaurants have been the hardest hit within Downtown’s “Food Group,” although it’s worthy of note that old-timers like Antlers and Dwyer’s Café, restaurants with decades-old brand recognition, still do a bang-up lunch business.

Yet the DLRBA’s Rezende doesn’t fret, pointing to new and, he says, unprecedented coordination between his trade group, the Downtown Development Authority, Downtown Lafayette Unlimited and Lafayette Consolidated Government to ensure the district’s commercial sustainability.

“I do know that we have a huge opportunity on our hands — huge — because for the first time there is a huge effort from all of these organizations,” he says. “We are rolling, and we’re doing everything we can to make this community and this area more prosperous.”

Frankie's Burgers (blue awning) on the 400 block of Jefferson Street is flanked by fellow out-of-business restaurants Athena and Zeus, the latter of which has been "closed for maintenance" for about a year and is unlikely to reopen.
Photo by Robin May

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