No Gulf seafood means no po-boys, anything else at shuttered Louisiana cafe; others hurting

By Jason Bronis, AP
Friday, June 25, 2010

No Gulf seafood, no po-boys; owner shuts La. cafe

GHEENS, La. — Vicki Guillot has served her last seafood po-boy.

The local bounty of fresh shrimp and oysters that once kept the only restaurant in this rural Louisiana town bustling can no longer be culled from the Gulf of Mexico because of the massive oil spill that has fouled the water.

All her distributors can offer her now is imported shrimp at twice the price she was paying 10 weeks ago before an oil rig explosion triggered the disaster that has dumped millions of gallons of crude off the Gulf Coast.

“The last price I got from him was for imported shrimp, and I said, ‘No thank you,’” Guillot said Thursday. “Our waters are all around here, our boys fished all the time. To buy imported?”

Then, she shook her head from side to side as she broke down in tears in the kitchen of Debbie’s Cafe.

Guillot, 49, had to close the restaurant for good Tuesday after just six months in business.

She said she battered her own shrimp and fried her own fish. But now there’s no more batter, no more frying oil where Guillot and her family served up sandwiches, ice cream and ice snowballs seven days a week to loyal customers in the town of mostly commercial fishing families.

Guillot is one of a slew of small business owners who rely on the Gulf waters for fresh seafood. But with more than 70,000 square miles of those waters closed to fishing since the spill, the well that kept the businesses running is running dry.

Larger restaurants are able to maintain their seafood stocks, but at a price.

“We are a strong player in the market,” said Tommy Cvitanovich, owner of famed Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. “I’ve got a few more cards to play with some other people.”

Nevertheless, Cvitanovich says the price he pays for Gulf oysters has nearly doubled since the spill. He pledges not to pass those price increases along to customers, but may remove some oyster dishes from his menu.

Meanwhile, he says if prices continue to rise, more and more restaurants will be forced to drop the Louisiana staple from their menus.

“Oysters have reached the ceiling,” Cvitanovich says. “At some point, restaurateurs or consumers will only pay so much.”

At Zydeco’s Cajun Restaurant in Belle Chasse, owner Raelynn Scott pulled shrimp from her menu a week ago and put an end to the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat shrimp special.

When she can get shrimp, Scott says the cost has increased by more than 50 percent. The restaurant has raised the prices of some seafood dishes.

“We pretty much ate the cost for about a month and finally had to make some adjustments temporarily,” Scott said.

None of that matters anymore back at Debbie’s, where the paper menu still hangs on the wall next to the idle cash register.

As a small restaurant — the yellow, narrow building at the center of town only has one table inside — Guillot has no leverage with seafood distributors. Near the end, she made po-boys with shrimp from her own home freezer.

“When I knew I couldn’t get the seafood like I wanted, it brought my business down,” Guillot said. “For everything that you need to have in a business, I would have been working in here for nothing, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.

“I will miss it.”

Then, she locked the front door of the restaurant — adorned with a sign that reads “Welcome Friends” — one last time.

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