JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) – With what many hope is the worst of Jackson’s water crisis now in the rearview mirror, restaurant owners have a message for patrons: come back, the water’s fine.
“We just want people to know that it’s safe to come back,” said Mimi Grisby, an employee with Broad Street Baking Company & Cafe.
Grisby wasn’t talking with WLBT. Rather, she was speaking to people across the metro area, as one of about five or six restaurant workers featured in a commercial for the “Y’all Come Back” advertising campaign.
Recently, restaurant owners, advertising officials and community leaders came together to launch the publicity effort, urging people to again eat at Jackson’s restaurants.
Rebecca Garrison, executive director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, was one of several community leaders to help with the work.
“Fondren has 28 locally owned restaurants and bars. When our hospitality industry is in crisis, the entire business district is in crisis,” she said. “Our restaurants… were ready to serve up their reliably delicious food and good times, but our friends from the suburbs weren’t coming. We knew we had to do something to let people know we wanted them back.”
In September, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Secretary of State Michael Watson both led tours of Jackson restaurants to help boost business.
Meanwhile, Leah Smith, chief of staff for the lieutenant governor, worked to drum up support from the Cirlot Agency and Spot On Productions to help create and produce the campaign.
Commercials began airing on local television in late October, weeks after the water crisis left tens of thousands of customers without running water. The spots are also posted on social media and on the Visit Jackson website.
Owners say it’s too early to tell if the campaign has paid off. However, they all appreciate the efforts, saying they’re still recovering from the slump in business brought about by the near-shutdown of the capital city’s water system.
“I can tell you right now that we are back to parity [with] all three of our restaurants,” said Jeff Good, co-owner of Broad Street, Bravo! Italian Restaurant and Sal & Mookie’s New York Pizza & Ice Cream Joint. “I can’t speak to the other guys [but] I have a feeling they’re going to say the same thing.”
He said being back at parity, though, doesn’t make up for lost revenues and lost employees. “They just decided that it was just too much to continue to not know if [they’re] going to be able to come to work. And they were able to find employment quickly, just going across the river to Flowood,” he said. “And I understand that.”
Restaurants were among some of the hardest-hit businesses during the crisis. This summer, after the state issued back-to-back boil water notices for customers on the city’s surface water system, restaurants had to spend thousands of dollars extra to ship in bottled water, paper plates and plastic utensils to help keep customers safe.
David Conn, owner of four metro area restaurants, though, said business at Char and Saltine, his two Jackson locations, didn’t really fall off until Jackson’s water crisis made national news.
“When we had to boil water and [the system was] still operating, we were fine, we worked through it,” he said. “But this last bout on the national news, it hit hardest.”
Today, business at the two locations is down about 15 percent, on average, while business is booming at his two other locations outside of the city: Amerigo Flowood and Amerigo Ridgeland.
He believes some customers are wary about coming back to Jackson, while other patrons simply got into the habit of dining somewhere else.
“We just got to get them out of that habit and get them back to Jackson,” he said. “It’s coming back though. We’re working hard on it.”
National and international media descended on Jackson in late August and early September, after equipment failures at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant prompted Gov. Tate Reeves to temporarily take control of the city’s water system.
The Mississippi State Department of Health took over management of the water treatment plant, while National Guard and Mississippi Emergency Management Agency were deployed to distribute potable and non-potable water.
Days later, water pressure was restored to most residents and businesses in the city, and on September 15, the state-imposed boil water notice that had been in place since July 29 was finally lifted.
Steven O’Neill, managing partner of the Manship Wood Fired Kitchen, has seen a “slight rebound” in business, thanks in part to the success of Jackson State University football. However, he said numbers have yet to return to pre-crisis levels.
O’Neill is hopeful the ad campaign will help boost numbers. He’s also looking forward to the holiday season, which typically does bring in more business.
“I tell people it’s as safe to eat in Jackson as it is anywhere else,” he said. “You know, the water quality is being tested by [MSDH] and is being tested by the EPA,” he said. “So, know they’re not scared to put the us under a citywide boil water notice.”
Now, owners are looking ahead to the future, and waiting to see what happens once the governor’s state of emergency expires.
Reeves’ emergency declaration is expected to end on November 22. At that time, Jackson will again take over operations of its water system.
The city is currently seeking a private company to take over management of its two water treatment plants, well water system and elevated storage tanks.
“I just have to let the leaders lead,” said Andy Nesenson, general manager of the Iron Horse Grill downtown. Like other restaurants, the Iron Horse Grill also experienced a downturn, but has seen business come back, thanks in part to JSU football. “I can’t focus my concern on the what-ifs. I just have to live in the moment.”
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