As Jackson water crisis persists, restaurateurs worry customers are scared to dine out
In order to keep his new cafe open, Ezra Brown hauls at least 100 pounds of ice into his boutique tea and coffee spot every day.
When Brown – the owner of Fondren’s Soulé – hosts special events, his weekly ice total easily hits 1,000 pounds.
The Iron Horse Grill’s general manager Andy Nesenson estimates the restaurant is spending up to $2,500 a week on bottled water, canned soda, ice and other water-crisis related expenses.
The Bean, a coffee house and restaurant, invested in specialized coffee filters and bypasses the city waterline altogether.
“People have been beat to death with national headlines of dirty water,” said The Bean’s owner Kristy Buchanan. “But we businesses do not have dirty water.”
Operators across Jackson say they’re working tirelessly to provide clean water and safe food and drinks to customers during the city’s ongoing water system failures. While their costs to stay open have racked up during the ongoing crisis, the number of customers has plummeted.
“The city and the government are saying to take a shower with your mouth closed,” Nesenson said. “A lot of people are not going to want to go out to eat because they have a negative feeling like it’s not safe.”
Paper plates and plastic cups have become commonplace in Jackson restaurants because they can be disposed of, rather than cleaned in water that will take extra time to boil. No more fountain drinks, but there is plenty of canned soda. Want a margarita? It will be made with water and ice all secured from outside the city.
For the last two decades, Jackson businesses have dealt with boil water notices and insecurity from the troubled and aging water system. They have become pros at workarounds and water tanks. But as the crisis reached new heights last week, so have their economic concerns.
Water pressure was restored city-wide Monday, but businesses say customers have yet to steadily return downtown. After splurging on clean water and ice for weeks, eateries are eager to make up costs.
Ahead of the recent holiday weekend, Nesenson said Iron Horse had one of its slowest lunch hours he’s seen in the last decade: fewer than 100 patrons over five hours. It hasn’t gotten better.
“In our industry, that’s awful,” he said. “Downtown Jackson feels desolate.”
Six weeks into the boil-water notice, some fear the businesses who have been dealing with Jackson’s water problems for years will finally give up.
“It’s a matter of time before some things start closing down or moving across city lines,” said Tamika E. Jenkins, the executive director of the Hinds County Development Authority.
Martin Clapton, the owner of Barrelhouse, has counted 55 days his business has been with zero water from his own plumbing in the last five years. When he loses water pressure, that means no toilets. The costs of portable toilets are too much. He did that in the winter during a 16-day water outage. It wasn’t cost effective.
He was closed for three days last week, and opened when water pressure was restored. He closed two more days this week because business was so slow. Now he’s considering closing his doors permanently.
“The losses restaurants have incurred since COVID, it’s very hard economically to stay open,” Clapton said. “Normally we do $30,000 in sales a week. To do only $4,000 or $5,000 while all those bills are still rolling in? It’s tough.”
Operators mostly agree people either largely don’t know Jackson is open for business or are skeptical about businesses’ water use. Some also say the extra costs of bottled water and child care while schools were closed has probably left some families without extra spending money.
Brown, a musician-turned-entrepreneur, opened his sleek new cafe in August, amid the latest boil-water notice. Inspectors said he was clear to open as long as he got all his ice from outside the city of Jackson.
That’s a tall order for a shop that serves more than half of its beverages cold. But Brown has persevered. He’s made it work.
“But we shouldn’t have to make it work,” he said. “We don’t get paid to do that. It’s not my job. It’s my job to want to spend money in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, the right way, and already have clean water.”
His shop serves specialty tea and coffee with fancy swirls and colorful boba balls. He has bright furniture and modern decor. In just a month-and-a-half, he has hosted sold-out events with famed chef Carla Hall and Mississippi drummer Maya Kyles.
Brown is from South Carolina originally but studied at Jackson State University. He was familiar with the city’s water woes ahead of opening his shop but did not expect the burden to be of this magnitude.
No new business owner expects a city’s infrastructure to fail so horribly that they need to have a bucket of water next to the toilet so customers can flush.
“We’ve gotten letters and emails from all over the world,” Brown said. “Things like ‘thank you for letting me know’ to ‘is Jackson a third-world country?’ … We want to change that. I’m here, I’m committed and I’m not going anywhere.”
He says he wants Jackson to be the capital city Mississippi deserves.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced he’d be visiting five Jackson restaurants on Friday evening in hopes it would encourage others to the do the same. His tour will start at Johnny T’s on Farish Street in downtown Jackson and end at Sal & Mookie’s in the District at Eastover.
Visit Jackson, the city’s tourism bureau, recently announced a grant program that will provide $500 to $2,000 grants to reimburse businesses for some of their water expenses.
Businesses appreciate the gesture, but say the grants cover a small portion of the expenses they’ve had to front to keep their doors open.
Pat Fontaine, the executive director at Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said some restaurants have reported $500 to $700 in extra costs per day related to the water crisis.
“They are also still dealing with increased labor costs and inflation’s pressure on their food costs,” Fontaine said. “This has all been diminishing their profit margins.”
Nesenson, at Iron Horse, says his employees are struggling because fewer customers means fewer tips.
Clapton worries some of the best parts of living in Jackson could disappear. He’s hoping the U.S. Small Business Administration will offer loans to businesses affected by the crisis – a lifeline he knows many could use right now.
“It could really knock out some of the mom-and-pops,” he said, referring to the water crisis. “The right steps are being made, but it’s a little too late for some of us.”