It may not have been the city’s biggest renovation following Hurricane Katrina, but it was bursting with history. The 2015 re-opening of the 140-year-old St. Roch Market on St. Claude Avenue was greeted with fanfare from city officials, neighborhood residents and tourism leaders.
That optimism over the city-owned property has now been replaced by empty stalls, dwindling customers and threats to close the market altogether.
A series of emails obtained by WWL-TV between the city and market operator Will Donaldson reveals how the market’s dire financial straits and lingering repair issues have left it hanging by a thread.
Donaldson, who leases the market from the city for $6,500 a month, wrote that pre-COVID sales of about $4 million dollars a year have dipped below $2 million. The revenue comes from a dozen food and beverage stalls that had served as a successful proving ground for up-and-coming chefs and food innovators.
But over the past couple of months, several of those stalls have been left vacant and workers often outnumber customers, even during peak hours.
“I do not see a way that we remain a lessee after our term is up at the present moment,” Donaldson wrote to Cynthia Connick, CEO of the New Orleans Building Corporation, a city agency. “At present, our timeline is to publicly announce closure next Monday, with a final week to enjoy the market and a permanent closure on August 20th.”
Initially, Donaldson suggested a year-long closure to allow time for repairs and upgrades to fix a wide range of issues, including HVAC and roof maintenance, and the construction of features such as a cold storage unit and exterior trash enclosure.
But after a two-week email exchange, Donaldson’s position quickly turned ominous.
“I felt like we could relaunch after some time,” he wrote, “but it became increasingly clear that we would need to shoulder additional operating losses during this period, which, again, simply doesn’t make sense for us.”
Then came a reprieve. Donaldson’s proposed Aug. 20 closure date came and went after one of the market’s original vendors stepped up and offered to assume his lease.
Kevin Pedeaux, owner of CR Coffee, said he was heartbroken over the prospect of the market closing and offered to take over as manager and leaseholder. That offer remains under consideration by the city, which did not respond to calls for comment.
“I never thought about running the market myself,” said Pedeaux, who also lives in the neighborhood. “But the thought of it closing is very demoralizing, very depressing…If St. Roch closes, it’s kind of like losing a part of the family.”
Pedeaux believes he can revitalize the market back to its pre-pandemic bustle, when it attracted a mixture of locals and newly arrived hipsters to the fast growing St. Claude business corridor anchoring the Bywater.
“We’ve got to fill it in. Because this place is at its best when it’s full. St. Roch, this building, feels amazing when it’s full,” Pedeaux said.
Some previous vendors say the market stalled under Donaldson’s leadership. Operating under the business umbrella called the Politan Group, LLC, Donaldson and his partners also opened the Pythian Market and Auction House Market food halls in the CBD, only to see both close after four years.
But those were private ventures. St. Roch is a city property and an important piece of New Orleans history. Once home to fish-mongers, live chickens and locally grown produce, it is the city’s second-oldest public market still in operation. Only the French Market is older.
“For 130 years it stood as an icon in this neighborhood,” then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu said at the ribbon-cutting for the 2015 re-opening. “And now I think it will put it back in a place that for the next 300 years.”
Donaldson was unavailable for an interview, but in a statement to WWL-TV, he wrote, “We are excited about the possibility to transfer the market to a great long-term steward in Kevin Pedeaux. He has been with the market since the beginning and lives in the neighborhood. The deal isn’t done yet, but we are trying to find something the city will approve and appreciate everyone’s patience.”
Pedeaux is so confident that St. Roch can succeed, and he has reached out to some of the vendors who left to try and lure them back.
Tung Nguyen, who launched T2 Street Food at St. Roch, was one of the first to say yes.
“I’m eager to come back,” he said. “This is a great structure for up-and-coming chefs and restauranteurs.”