Cover Story

What Better Time to Eat, Lafayette? The local eats campaign is doing important work: Keeping our food culture afloat while we wait out the storm.

by Christiaan Mader

Ryan Trahan, owner of Dark Roux
Photo by Robin May

Restaurateurs call them the terrible J’s — January, June and July — the months when folks are either too stuffed on Christmas ham or too on vacation to eat at their restaurants, dropping sales of their sundries to seasonal lows. And that’s in a good year. Not surprising, Lafayette’s restaurants have suffered the fate of the bottomedout price of oil which, combined with the cyclical summer squeeze, makes for an anxiously sweaty summer. Throw in a glut of new chain restaurants, and you’d think the local food scene could be down for the count going forward. Enter the 12th annual EatLafayette campaign. The Lafayette eats advocacy tempts diners out of their usual haunts and re-pollinates the food scene with the world’s most powerful economic incentive — cheap dining. The strategy has proven an effective buttress for slumping Lafayette eateries, and this year it couldn’t come at a better time.

Over the past decade, you would expect to see retail numbers dip in those J months. But, particularly for June and July, Lafayette’s restaurants have shown little summer suffering in the aggregate since 2010. It’s difficult to quantify how much of that is due to EatLafayette, but there should be little doubt that the campaign has greased the wheels for years. Moving into June 2016, however, restaurateurs are reporting some mid-year pain.

Ryan Trahan, owner of award-winning farm-to-table eatery Dark Roux, says sales in his restaurant are down 25 percent from last year. By and large he credits the dip to oil industry layoffs that have his clientele tightening belts.

“Customers who used to come in once a week are now coming in once a month,” Trahan says.

On the whole, 2015 was a down year for Lafayette’s restaurants and watering holes, both local joints and chains. Total receipts were down 2 percent from the previous year. That reflects a general sobriety in dining habits as Lafayette sheds jobs and local businesses close expense accounts around town. And that’s after five years of runaway growth. Since 2010, city restaurants have enjoyed a 17 percent climb in sales, according to numbers compiled by the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.

There’s a silver lining in the sales numbers if you own a Lafayette-based restaurant or bar. Conventional wisdom would hold that diners flock to cheaper establishments to stretch their declining buying power. In most markets, that would mean diners would turn to fast food and lower priced chains, which take advantage of scale economies and centralized commissaries to keep costs down. It’s easier to stomach a Big Mac when your food options are financially constrained.

But since the oil bust, local restaurants have actually shown remarkable resilience against their national counterparts. Chain store receipts dipped 8 percent from 2014 to 2015, while local restaurants and bars combined for a modest 2 percent gain in the same period.

Charlie Goodson of Southern Hospitality Kitchens
Photo by Robin May

Much of that reflects wise proprietorship on the part of Lafayette restaurateurs. Southern Hospitality Kitchens, which operates Charley G’s and Social Southern Table & Bar, bought classic Lafayette dive Pete’s Bar & Grill and famously re-reopened it earlier this year following a recast as a more expensive bistro by previous ownership. The move afforded Southern a low cost option in its fleet of restaurants that could be marketed aggressively to diners looking for a solid burger and sudsy respite from tough times.

“I think local restaurants do have a competitive edge if they recognize it and focus on it,” says Southern Hospitality chief Charlie Goodson. “That we’re local, we know the clientele more than anyone.”

Lafayette’s locally owned restaurants have always competed with the chains, and they’ve done it quite well. Throw in some economic turmoil and local restaurateurs simply up their game. Enter the competitor intrusion marketing plan. Yep, that’s a thing.

When Blaze Pizza, a chain of design-yourown pizza shops, hung a shingle at Ambassador Town Center recently, locally owned Pizza Artista, which has a similar theme and had only been open in nearby Time Plaza near the Johnston-Ambassador corridor for a little over a year, didn’t flinch.

“We look at them as a competitor, and we also look at them as an intruder on our potential market,” says Pizza Artista proprietor Scott McClaskey. “So we put together a very specific and aggressive competitor intrusion marketing plan. It was wellthought-out, well-coordinated and very impactful, and so we had for our company, after they opened, we had three record weeks.

Scott McClaskey of Pizza Artista
Photo by Robin May

“We didn’t take it for granted, like, you know, ‘Oh well, competitor’s coming in and we are so much better.’ We didn’t look at it from that perspective at all. We looked at it from the perspective of, ‘Competitors coming in, we have to be the best that we can be. We have to be aggressive at playing our game.”

Rough times put the onus on creative salesmanship, says restaurateur Gus Rezende, who owns four establishments in town including regular IND lunch-haunt Jefferson Street Pub, self-effacing daiquiri dive Dix and two Tropical Smoothie Café storefronts.

“You’ve got to make sure emotions don’t get in the way,” Rezende says. “We can’t be too reactive. We have a responsibility to take good care of our employees and our customers. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we doing the right thing as a company?’”

That’s a valuable message moving into the longest EatLafayette campaign to date. For three solid months, more than 100 of Lafayette’s finest eateries and drinkeries will tempt diners with bargain basement prices and plenty of lagniappe, testing new dishes and new concepts. This year, against the back drop of Lafayette’s worst economic conditions in decades, restaurants will be making a collective pitch to local diners: Stick with us and we’ll stick with you.

Writer Kailey Broussard contributed reporting to this story.

Eight is Enough

Win a dinner for yourself and group of friends crafted by a team of Lafayette’s best chefs by entering the Chef’s Table Food & Wine Experience drawing.

EatLafayette is in full swing, and come Aug. 1, one lucky local foodie and seven friends will enjoy the ultimate Hub City dining experience. But you have to enter The Independent’s Chef’s Table Food & Wine Experience drawing to do it.

The evening begins at E’s Kitchen in Parc Lafayette at 5:30 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres followed by a 6:45 dinner. Featured chefs include Indulge pastry chef Tuesday Sunshine, Charley G’s executive chef Holly Goetting, Mortar and Pestle owner/chef Hannah Ellaham, Saint Street Inn chef Ashley Roussel, Dark Roux owner/chef Ryan Trahan, Social chef de cuisine Kyle Waters III and E’s owner/host Paul Ayo. In addition to an evening of fabulous food and wine, the winner will also receive a commemorative poster signed by the chefs and the opportunity to watch some of Acadiana’s top gastronomists in action.

The deadline to enter is July 25. Visit The IND’s Facebook page and look for the red graphic. Bonne chance and bon appétit!