Rock ‘n’ Bowl and Ye Olde College Inn, which have remained open in limited capacity throughout the coronavirus pandemic, have temporarily shut down due to what owner John Blancher describes as “hostile” restrictions for businesses.
The adjoining facilities on South Carrollton Avenue have suspended take-out and dine-in food service. The bowling alley has also stopped renting bowling lanes.
Blancher posted a notice about the shut-down on Facebook over the weekend. It follows a similar announcement late last week for the Rock ‘n’ Bowl facility in Lafayette, which is managed by John’s son, Johnny Blancher.
The notice read in part, “Ye Olde College Inn and Rock ‘n’ Bowl have decided to temporarily not open beginning June 28th until some confirmation of when we can begin Phase 3. The current hostile conditions during the COVID period has made it untenable to function at a productive capacity.”
Ye Olde College Inn offered take-out meals in the earliest days of the pandemic. When reopening restrictions were eased to allow restaurants to have indoor seating at a limited capacity, Blancher added tables in the parking lot and also sat patrons in the vast Rock ‘n’ Bowl, serving the College Inn menu.
Musicians can’t plug in just yet in New Orleans.
With that arrangement, Ye Old College Inn was able to gross around 80% of its normal revenue, Blancher said Monday.
But that represented only around 30% of the combined revenue of Rock ‘n’ Bowl and Ye Olde College Inn, as Rock ‘n’ Bowl generates the bulk of it. “It is the engine that drives everything,” Blancher said.
Under Phase 2, New Orleans restaurants can seat 50% of their normal capacity, with a maximum of 100 people. For a venue as big as Rock ‘n’ Bowl, which operates under a restaurant license, that total just doesn’t work, Blancher said.
“I can’t operate like that,” he said. “My facility can’t operate with only 100 people.”
One of Rock ‘n’ Bowl’s big draws in both New Orleans and Lafayette is live music. Live music with an audience was allowed in the rest of the state, but not New Orleans, following the “Phase 2A” modification issued on June 12. Venues had to apply to the State Fire Marshal’s Office for a permit and demonstrate that all requirements were met.
The Texas Club, a country music venue in Baton Rouge, hosted a show on June 13, then canceled a concert the following weekend because of confusion over the permitting process.
Other venues, including the Lafayette Rock ‘n’ Bowl, were not issued permits even though they applied and apparently met the requirements, Blancher said. Trying to operate and not run afoul of restrictions has proven stressful.
“The walking on eggshells wasn’t worth it,” he said. “I was making myself sick.”
Bowling was allowed in Phase 2, so patrons could come into Rock ‘n ‘Bowl to bowl and eat. The New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Bowl has also hosted live-streaming performances, where bands played for online tips. Some bands, Blancher said, grossed as much as or more than they do in ticket sales for a normal concert.
For now, Rock ‘n’ Bowl will still present occasional live-streams, such as Cajun musician Ryan Foret’s regular Tuesday night broadcast.
But patrons will no longer be allowed in for either bowling or food service. (The venue is still available for private events of fewer than 40 people.)
Ye Olde College Inn is still selling some menu items at three area Rouse’s grocery stores. The restaurant is also capable of contracting to serve large groups, as when it fed National Guard troops for a time.
Blancher has continued to pay his employees with federal Payroll Protection Program loans. But that money is now nearly exhausted. Without it, his employees can make more by going on unemployment than working with the restaurant and Rock ‘n’ Bowl at limited capacity.
“The numbers just don’t work,” Blancher said. “But I’m not despondent at the moment. I think the government is going to come up with another program in July. And I’ve done better than the majority of restaurants. If there’s not more funding coming, they’re not going to be around.
“I’m hopeful that, in a few weeks, more PPP money comes out, or we go to Phase 3. Until Phase 3 happens, you’re really just spinning your wheels. Phase 3 has to happen for us to really go into operation.
“The current lid of 100 people, we can’t make that work. It’s frustrating that New Orleans has that restriction, and the rest of the state doesn’t.”
He hopes that local restaurants, nightclubs and bars in New Orleans can survive, given how essential they are to the city’s hospitality-driven economy.
“The pandemic is a lot worse for the city than Hurricane Katrina was. After Katrina, we had the sympathy and attention of the world. Everybody came here to help New Orleans. That’s not going to happen now. And if you don’t have music and food and bars, who’s coming here?”