JACKSON, Ms. (WLBT) – With what many hope the worst of Jackson’s water crisis is now in the rearview mirror, restaurant owners have a message for diners: Come back, the water’s fine.
“We just want people to know it’s safe to come back,” said Mimi Grisby, an employee of the Broad Street Baking Company & Cafe.
Grisby did not speak to WLBT. Rather, she spoke to people across the city as one of about five or six restaurant employees who were featured in a commercial for the “Y’all Come Back” ad campaign.
[Click here to watch.]
Recently, restaurant owners, publicity officials and community leaders came together to start outreach and urge people to eat at Jackson’s restaurants again.
Rebecca Garrison, executive director of the Fondren Renaissance Foundation, was one of several community leaders who helped with the work.
“Fondren has 28 local 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 their reliably delicious food and good times, but our friends from the suburbs didn’t show up. 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 conducted tours of restaurants in Jackson to boost business.
Meanwhile, Leah Smith, the Lieutenant Governor’s chief of staff, sought support from the Cirlot Agency and Spot On Productions to help create and produce the campaign.
Commercials were aired on local television in late October, weeks after the water crisis left tens of thousands of customers without running water. The spots will also be posted on Visit Jackson’s social media and website.
Owners say it’s too early to tell if the campaign has paid off. However, they all appreciate the effort and say they are still recovering from the slump in business caused by the near shutdown of the capital’s water system.
“I can tell you now that we are back on par [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 talk to the other guys [but] I have a feeling they will say the same.”
However, he said the return to parity could not make up for the lost revenue and lost employees. “They just decided it was just too much to continue not knowing if [they’re] can come to work. And they could find jobs quickly just by walking across the river to Flowood,” he said. “And I understand that.”
Restaurants were among the hardest hit businesses during the crisis. This summer, after the state issued consecutive boil-down notices for customers in the city’s surface water system, restaurants have had to spend thousands of extra dollars shipping bottled water, paper plates and plastic utensils to keep customers safe.
But David Conn, owner of four restaurants in the metro area, said business at Char and Saltine, his two Jackson locations, didn’t really take off until Jackson’s water crisis made national headlines.
“When we had to boil water and [the system was] still operational, we were fine, we worked it through,” he said. “But that last fight on national news hit it the hardest.”
Today, business at the two locations is down about 15 percent on average, while business is booming at its other two out-of-town locations: Amerigo Flowood and Amerigo Ridgeland.
He believes some customers are wary of returning to Jackson, while other diners have simply made a habit of eating elsewhere.
“We just have to get her out of that habit and bring her back to Jackson,” he said. “But it comes back. We are working flat out on that.”
Jackson was the subject of national and international media in late August and early September after equipment failures at OB Curtis’ water treatment plant prompted Gov. Tate Reeves to temporarily assume control of the city’s water system.
The Mississippi State Department of Health and Human Services assumed management of the water treatment plant, while the National Guard and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency were deployed to distribute potable and service water.
Days later, water pressure was restored to most residents and businesses in the city, and on September 15, the government’s boil warning that had been in place since July 29 was finally lifted.
Steven O’Neill, managing partner of Manship Wood Fired Kitchen, has seen a “slight rebound” in the business, thanks in part to the success of Jackson State University football. However, he said the numbers are yet to return to pre-crisis levels.
O’Neill hopes the ad campaign will help boost numbers. He also looks forward to the holiday season, which usually brings more business.
“I tell people it’s just as safe to eat in Jackson as anywhere else,” he said. “You know, the water quality is tested by [MSDH] and is being tested by the EPA,” he said. “So, you know, they’re not afraid to put the US under a city-wide boil notification.”
Now the owners are looking to the future, waiting to see what happens when the governor’s state of emergency expires.
Reeves’ declaration of emergency is expected to end on November 22. At that point, Jackson will resume operation of his water system.
The city is currently looking for a private company to manage its two water treatment plants, the well water system and the high storage facility.
Proposals are due November 7th. However, it’s unclear if Jackson will meet the deadline until the state pulls out to have a contractor.
“I just have to let the leaders lead,” said Andy Nesenson, general manager of the downtown Iron Horse Grill. Like other restaurants, the Iron Horse Grill experienced a downturn but was able to return to business thanks 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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