A taco here, a taco there

National retailers sitting on the sidelines could open a window of opportunity for locally owned businesses.  “People thought we were crazy,” says Molly Richard as she feverishly writes down my order for two tacos (one pork, one chicken), and passes it down the line to one of her three lunch-rush employees. Molly and her sister Katy are now best known as the Taco Sisters. Back in February, they opened a tiny taco stand on Johnston Street in downtown Lafayette. Now, the Richard sisters provide some of the best evidence of how local business owners are holding their own while keeping Acadiana’s economy healthy.

Despite dire warnings of doom and gloom from across the country, many local businesses are doing great — and even expanding. The Richards hope to enlarge their 12-by-20-foot restaurant soon; they desperately need more refrigerator space. Molly chalks up the success to having a good product and perhaps more importantly, a good business plan. “I put a conservative model in my business plan, and we surpassed that,” she says.

Drive around Lafayette and it’s easy to see that business growth in certain sectors is anything but dead. On major thoroughfares, small and local businesses are seeing “now” as the time to grow. In the past few weeks the following businesses have received building permits: a Little Caesar’s franchise on Pinhook, Candy Craze in the Mall of Acadiana, Taco Bell on Louisiana Avenue, two new Asian restaurants on Johnston Street, and a doctor’s office building off Kaliste Saloom. These are all small but important investments in Lafayette.

Bigger projects are also afoot. The new $120 million Our Lady of Lourdes campus on Ambassador Caffery promises years of construction, as there will also be doctors’ offices and other medical support facilities that will flock to the area. I’d imagine the entire Ambassador Caffery/Kaliste Saloom area will become South Louisiana’s next big medical district. It’s already happening with medical office developments on Rue Louis XIV and Beaullieu Drive.

Along with other projects including two chain drug stores, Walgreen’s and CVS, more than $150 million in new commercial construction has been permitted in Lafayette in the past seven months.

There’s more evidence that local shoppers are clamoring for these new stores and retail outlets as they continue to buy despite the nation’s economic downturn. At the Mall of Acadiana, marketing manager Brian Lutz says traffic has been “significantly” up since October 2008. That’s not something most of the mall’s sister properties (also owned by retail giant CBL( can brag about. “It’s ourselves, and a handful of others that have seen a significant traffic increase,” says Lutz. “A lot of the stores here are leading their districts [in sales].”

It does, however, appear that Lafayette’s major, big-box building boom is probably over. In the past five years, our city’s retail scene has experienced impressive growth. From the new Target-anchored shopping center on I-10 to the major retail components of River Ranch, big projects were the norm for a few years. Now, however, even many national major retailers still faring well have adopted a wait-and-see approach. Even though Acadiana’s economy may be more than holding its own, those big retailers simply have bigger fish to fry (while some of them are in so much trouble they are just trying to survive).

So while we’re not likely to see many new kids on the block, it’s still great to see that out-of-state companies continue to expand here with multiple locations. However, as that, too, has slowed, it may be up to Acadiana and Louisiana businesses to find creative ways to keep our economy growing. As I chowed down on my chicken and pork tacos I couldn’t help but think that’s exactly what’s happening.

Louis David formerly worked as a reporter for KATC-TV3 and now runs a Web site covering local development and other business-related news. Follow him at . To comment on this column, e-mail [email protected]