In New Orleans’ workaday trenches, Mardi Gras a big deal

Published 3:44 pm Wednesday, January 30, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — That happy, sing-song sound heard on Bourbon Street is trickle-down economics at its best as hundreds of thousands of Carnival season visitors spend themselves silly before Fat Tuesday.

The city’s tourism industry, getting back on its feet after Hurricane Katrina, is counting on a big weekend crowd to fill restaurants and hotels leading up to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) on Feb. 5.

The payday may be big for the hotels and restaurants — hundreds of millions of dollars in a typical Carnival — but for rank-and-file workers it’s a chance to fatten the purse with the payoff from a healthy helping of hospitality.

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At Rick’s Cabaret in the French Quarter, income from tips could rise 30 percent over a typical weekend for Phoebe, who snaps up tips for her dances from a largely male crowd that wanders in to eat, drink and behold the charms of scantily clad women.

“You get a lot of people who ride in the parades who will come in, party, get loose, getting ready for their rides,” said Phoebe, who for privacy reasons would only identify herself by her first name. “They’re happy, in good spirits and income does go up.”

Before Katrina, which struck in August 2005, the four-day run-up to Mardi Gras typically put up to 1 million people on parade routes and in the French Quarter. The annual pre-Lenten celebration was much curtailed in 2006 but rebounded last year. This year’s early date for Mardi Gras could slim crowd expectations a bit because it comes before college spring breaks. Also, cold, rainy weather is a greater possibility.

Still, at least 90 percent of the metropolitan area’s 32,000 hotel rooms are booked for the big weekend, said Mavis Early, executive director of Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association. Early said she expected the final bookings to reach 92 percent, the same figure as the 2006 celebration. Before Katrina, there were about 38,000 rooms in the region.

In New Orleans, 1,355 restaurants are open, about 72 percent of the 1,882 pre-Katrina establishments, said Tom Weatherly, a spokesman for the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

This year’s Mardi Gras is part of a tourism bounty that included back-to-back college bowl games (the Sugar and BCS championship) in December and January at the Superdome. After Mardi Gras comes the NBA All-Star Game at the New Orleans Arena, major conventions that will bring up to 100,000 people to the city in March and April and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival from April 25-May 4.

At Rick’s, manager Charles Weber hopes a big Carnival season will add to “a good first quarter.” He said that on a weekend or during a special event, a waitress can pull in up to $500 while entertainers can see $2,000 to $3,000.

“We’re seeing a lot of new faces,” Weber said. “People are coming in to Mardi Gras for the first time.

Unfortunately for his club, Weber said, many fans of the University of Georgia football team who came for the Sugar Bowl fell under the drinking age of 21 and spent their time on the streets of the French Quarter after someone else got them a beer. But business rolled during the BCS championship game and Weber said he expects a big-spending crowd of basketball fans — including rap music artists and other professional athletes — in for the All-Star Game.

“If a guy can afford four nights at $399 a night,” Weber said of a nearby hotel, “he can afford to come into Rick’s Cabaret.”

Susan Sowash, a waitress at Bacco, the upscale Italian-themed restaurant owned by the city’s Brennan family of restaurateurs, said she and her husband, a waiter at another French Quarter restaurant, hope to double their usual tips. They moved to the area from Burlington, N.C., before Katrina to purse a life long dream: post-retirement careers as New Orleans waiters.

Sowash wouldn’t discuss specifics of her tips target, but there’s no doubt she’s looking forwared to the generosity of revelers. “It’s huge for us,” Sowash said. “You make a lot of money and people are so happy. It’s a great time to work in New Orleans. My husband and I will do well.”

Some French Quarter business owners don’t share the same enthusiasm, such as Ron Julian, half owner of Robinson’s Antiques, who bemoans the reduced number of big-money conventions with lawyers and doctors since Katrina.

“Normally, the second week of Mardi Gras, I put up a mesh fence, lock the doors and join the crowd,” Julian said. “It’s best that I do that. When people walk in, they’ve been drinking, they’re a bit tipsy and it’s best that I join with them.”

Julian now has another investment: a martini bar called Napoleon’s Itch.

“It’s beginning to be the first-priority business because people who come to New Orleans now are more interested in Bourbon Street, not like the old days when people drove up in a limousine, dropped $150,000 or $200,000 on porcelain and drove away,” he said.

Albert Moses III, a doorman for 15 years at Le Pavillon, a hotel just down the street from the Superdome, said Carnival is changing for the better as more New Orleans residents return home — and return to the streets for the Carnival season.

“It means a great deal, a real great deal,” he said.

Moses is looking forward not only to the big Mardi Gras weekend — and the possibility of nice tips for his service — but also the high-rolling All-Star Game week.

“That’s the best we’ve ever had,” he said of the twin football games. “It was awesome.”