Vendome Place & Broadmoor Post-Katrina
beauty after the beast









press clipping

Groceries rise from rubble

Stores aim to serve areas rebounding after Katrina
Sunday, October 23, 2005
By Ronette King
Business writer

If you didn't know better, the Winn-Dixie store on Veterans Memorial Boulevard seems ordinary. There's fall foliage in the floral department, piles of Granny Smith apples in the produce coolers and a table piled high with Christmas toys.

But if you look again, you'll see these are not ordinary times. There's a curiously high number of men in workboots loading up on bottled water in the early morning. There's a 10-foot-high pile of rubbish at the end of West End Boulevard as homeowners return to clear their flood-ravaged Lakeview homes. And there's often a line of shoppers at every register.

This Winn-Dixie, like most other supermarkets that have reopened in the nearly eight weeks following Hurricane Katrina, is seeing increased sales as residents return to pick up the pieces of their lives but find fewer shopping options.

Grocery stores are perhaps the most crucial businesses to the return to a rebuilding city. No matter what else has gone wrong, people have to eat. In fact, when a grocery store reopens, it means the neighborhood is more or less back in business.

That's how Peter Lynch sees it, and as chief executive of Winn-Dixie Stores Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., he's overseeing the comeback of his stores in this area -- as are most of his counterparts in the local grocery industry.

"We want to be there when people come back," he said during a tour last week of the Veterans store.

But the comeback hasn't been, and won't be, simple.

Much of the area's grocery inventory was damaged in the hurricane by wind and in the aftermath by flooding and looting. Some operators are taking advantage of the storm-induced closures to refurbish stores or implement companywide plans to revamp their chains.

Like other retailers, supermarkets are facing tight labor markets as their employees don't have homes to live in and government-supplied trailers have been slow to arrive.

Also, many workers apparently have opted not to return to their jobs bagging groceries and stocking shelves. Local Sav-A-Center stores are working with just a third of their usual staff. Breaux Mart stores are closing a couple of hours early because they're operating with half the usual staff. Winn-Dixie says about a thousand workers have indicated they won't or can't return.

Big chains and independent grocers alike are recruiting staff for stores already open and others yet to be rebuilt. Rouses Supermarkets is busing employees from Terrebonne and Lafourche to the Metairie and Covington stores. And Rouses is offering existing employees a nearly $2,000 bonus if they bring in three people to work for the company and they stay for 90 days.

Also, with increased gasoline costs and upward pressure on wages -- fast-food stores are paying much more -- grocers' costs are rising, said Glenn Dickson, vice president of operations for the Sav-A-Center division of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co.

Of course, the first step for a grocery to make a comeback is to repair the stores themselves. That alone often is a mountain of a task.

Barry Breaux has three of his four local Breaux Mart stores back in operation, starting the week of the storm. Breaux hasn't decided what he'll do with the Algiers store, which was looted pretty badly, with cash registers, cameras and other parts of the infrastructure damaged, he said.

After Hurricanes Rita and Katrina passed through, 13 of the 15 Rouses stores were shut. As of last week, just one remained closed. At that store, located on Veterans near David Drive, part of the roof came off and it suffered some structural damage, said President Donald Rouse. The company is looking for a possible new location for that store.

The second store on Veterans near Transcontinental Drive had about 8 inches of water. But heavy looting caused more damage than the hurricane, Rouse said. Workers pulled everything out of the store, replaced products and refurbished equipment.

A new location under construction in Mandeville had minor wind damage and opening date has been pushed back to December. The Covington store reopened a few days after the storm, working on generator power.

That store is doing well as are stores in Houma, Thibodaux and Morgan City as people from the New Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard area have settled there.

Rouse is looking to expand in those areas that are experiencing growth, some spurred by hurricane relocation. The company has acquired the former Schwegmann site on Gause Boulevard in Slidell and plans to build a store on a six-acre parcel. The company is seeking city permits for that project.

All of the Robert Fresh Market stores remain closed for now. The first to come back will be the store at West Esplanade Avenue and Transcontinental, which is set to open in a week to 10 days, said Chief Financial Officer Rick Fernandez. That store suffered a lot of wind damage and the floor had to be replaced.

Two weeks ago, demolition began at the Robert E. Lee store in Lakeview, which had 8 feet of water inside. That job will take six to 10 months, Fernandez said. Work recently began at the Robert store located at Canal Street and Carrollton and is expected to take six months to a year as well to repair damage caused by 4 feet of water there.

The chain is eager to get the St. Claude Avenue store open. That store escaped with just about 18 inches of water. The residents of the nearby French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods are returning quickly. The fix-up job in that store could be six months to a year, Fernandez said.

The store on Annunciation will remain closed for now but Fernandez held out the possibility that the company will reopen down the road. That store, close to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, was completely looted, Fernandez said.

Winn-Dixie now has 28 stores open and 15 closed throughout southeastern Louisiana. Of those closed, 10 are in the metro area. Lynch visited the closed New Orleans-area stores last week to get a first-hand look at the damage. Those stores had anywhere from 4 to 10 feet of water and will have to be stripped down to the studs. Whether those stores will reopen depends on what the government's plans are for the area.

Sav-A-Center has 20 of its 28 stores open. In November, the store on Franklin Avenue is slated to reopen. That store suffered some wind damage but didn't' flood, Dickson said.

The Carrollton Avenue and Airline Highway Sav-A-Center stores, both of which took on about 18 inches of water, are set to reopen in early December. Workers already are pulling out flooring, dry wall and ceilings as part of the remodeling there. The company will spend about $5 million on those two stores to convert them to the Fresh Market format implemented at the Veterans store, Dickson said.

Of the remaining five stores that are shut down, the Bullard store was hit hardest, taking in 6 to 7 feet of water. Likewise for the Chalmette and Mereaux stores, and two locations on the Mississippi Gulf Coast were severely damaged. Sav-A-Center will review the situation in six months, he said. "We will see how the economy recovers."

New Orleans already was a highly competitive grocery market and it likely will remain so, said Mark Hamstra of Supermarket News, an industry publication.

But if there are fewer people in some areas, fewer grocery stores will be needed, several grocers said. But there's also going to be a lot of money pouring in to rebuild the community and those stores that remain want to get some of it.

"If people are there," said Winn-Dixie's Lynch, "we're going to be there, selling to them."

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Ronette King can be reached at or (504) 826-3308.