From Fat City to Fit City: New Orleans becomes health-conscious
Douse the deep fryers. Unplug the frozen daiquiri machine. Smother the Bananas Foster. And get off that porch swing or bar stool and at least look like you’re doing something active.
The “GraNOLAs” are coming. A formidable faction of health-and wellness-conscious advocates, they’re setting up shop in nearly every full-figured curve of the Crescent City.
Do not be fooled: These are not your father’s hippy-dippy tree huggers. They are youth-driven, world-traveled and possess cunning strategic skills and social media wiles. And if they have their way, they’ll cut the local citizenry down by a few pants sizes, transforming Fat City into Fit City.
While it may seem premature to envision a place legendary for its excesses being overtaken by Pilates instructors, there’s ample evidence that the incoming brigade is having an impact on the metro area, and it is not retreating soon.
The quintessential city of indulgence is on a very real fitness-and-nutrition kick, spurred by a population that is reinvigorated, diversified and far more fixated on healthy living than in the past.
Considering that New Orleans’ populace remains, on balance, about 5 percent fatter than the national average, with about 65 percent of adults here deemed overweight or obese, the timing couldn’t be riper.
In just the past two years, for every new Dat Dog, which serves gourmet wieners and sausages on sourdough rolls, there’s been a Satsuma farm-to-table cafe, a Green Fork cold-press juice takeout or a Big Easy CrossFit gym opening up shop.
Meanwhile, the city, now dotted with bicycle rentals and group tours, has created 87 miles of designated bike lanes for burning off Jungle Juice sugar bombs and deep-fried beignets. At least 20 more miles are slated by 2015. The initiative already has earned New Orleans a designation as a Bronze Level Bike-Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists. And taking a page from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Citi Bike-share program, the city is considering the viability of a similar program here for decreasing pollution and traffic.
While the yoga mat had been rolled out here for some time, the number of studios has nearly doubled since 2011, when the national fitness magazine Yoga Journal named New Orleans one of the top 10 “fantastically yoga-friendly towns” in the U.S.
Hollywood South influence
If there’s a whiff of the West Coast to it all, it’s not coincidental. Many cite the emergence of the Hollywood South crowd as playing a leading role in the demand for more health-oriented services, which up until five years ago were in anemic supply in New Orleans.
Other influences include the young-entrepreneur migration to the city in the years following Hurricane Katrina, most of them fitness-savvy New York City and Silicon Valley types seeing business promise and affordable square footage. And as a younger generation — many of whom have sampled the flavors of larger metropolises — has moved in, they have brought with them a more socially aware line of thinking, helping to bring “gluten-free” and “100 percent organic” into the local terrain.
“It’s the kids, the girls in their early 20s, who are driving this one,” said Bella Nut Butters owner Sidney Bazan. “They’re the ones that are really in the front seat. They’re obsessed with Instagram-ing their gluten-free dishes and smoothie drinks.”
Clare Landry, a 27-year-old part-time staffer at vegan-and-juice station Raw Republic, is one of them. She grew up in New Orleans but has done stints in both Los Angeles and New York. Sitting with friends outside an Uptown coffee shop on a recent morning, she likened New York’s celebrity-endorsed SoulCycle franchise to the local Romney Pilates Center’s “Romney Ride” indoor cycling class.
“Katrina put eyes on the city like never before,” Landry said, “and then the perception was even worse than ever. But in the years following the storm, so many health-wise New York and L.A. transplants moved here, and we saw the opportunity to provide for a demand. It trickled down to the rest of us, what they saw as a given, including eating healthy, and not just to look thin.”
There was pride involved, too. “I think a lot of locals just wanted to prove the universal perception wrong,” Landry added. “That is, that New Orleans was all about Mardi Gras partying and boozing on Bourbon Street. … In fact, it is just so much more.”
The celebrity scene
However, some are capitalizing more than others on the lucrative niche business of the film industry arrivals. For one, Franco’s on Magazine Street — an offshoot of the Franco’s Athletic Club franchise that opened Uptown last month — actively promotes its star factor.
“We want to be the club that celebrities go to when they’re in town, the club of choice for the stars,” said Alice McClenahan, Franco’s media and business relations director based at the fitness center’s north shore location. To that end, they’ve recruited Brad Pitt’s “personal trainer,” she said. “He’s on staff.” And the club is actively recruiting instructors from Los Angeles to keep its workout practices in line with the latest fitness trends du jour.
Franco’s on Magazine also boasts a tie-in with the nearby Second Line Stages studios. Besides its star trainer, its BodyPump Express class and its Pilates and yoga classes, “Franco’s provides major celebrity-watch opportunities,” she said.
Farther uptown on Magazine, Erin Romney, owner of Romney Pilates Center, provides a private workout room and back entrance for paparazzi-shy luminaries wanting to sweat it out in the shadows, including Saints quarterback Drew Brees and his wife, Brittany.
“We have a lot of big names coming in, celebrities and film people. I’m trying to cater to them more,” Romney said. “Our members tend to leave them alone. Once they realize that we’re a sanctuary, they’re in a safe environment, that nobody is going to pester them for autographs, they often join in with the rest of the classes.”
Not all are so taken with the red carpet set. Joseph Stone, the owner of Magazine Street’s Superfood Bar, a veteran of the food-as-medicine and cold-press scene, has been nicknamed “the Smoothie Nazi,” he confided, due to his reticence to break from his set menu. “Why follow an outsider’s format when we have so much more here to offer them?” he asked. “The problem I have with the L.A. and New York people is that they assume we’ll make them the drinks they’re accustomed to.”
To many, the breadth of it all is impressive, if not entirely amusing.
“I have to laugh now at slogans like, ‘Eat mo’ bettah,’ because prior to 2005, it was a real challenge to eat healthy here,” said hotelier Sean Cummings, who helped develop Bywater’s new riverfront Crescent Park. “Three years ago, (‘CSI: NY’ actor) Hill Harper would rib me, saying, ‘Man, I love this town, but you don’t even have a Jamba Juice.’ ”
David Halliday, a local artist represented by the Arthur Roger Gallery, said: “Certainly CrossFit is a nationwide craze, but for it to become a fad … here? It does seem a stretch.”
Yet Halliday, who customarily turned to tennis for his fitness fix, said he’s a convert to the back-to-basics regimen. He now regularly works out at the Big Easy CrossFit gym, located in an airy warehouse on Tchoupitoulas Street. “It’s shock and awe, really,” he said of the variety of alternative fitness venues now available. “That we’re finally thinking outside of the box … I just can’t believe it sometimes.”
To mention the “V-word” — that is, “vegan” — in New Orleans just a few years ago “was nearly sacrilege,” said Melissa Bastian, founder of the pro-vegan blog New Orleans in Green, who was jeered by locals when she told them she was considering “going vegan” to lose weight. “ ‘Are you joking?’ they said. ‘No way, no how.’ People thought I was nuts to even blog about living vegan here.”
In the new go-green climate, she now receives about 200 blog views a day “coming from both locals searching for vegan options and visitors fearing there’s no vegan food in New Orleans,” she said. She considers it a victory “that the V-word is now printed on some New Orleans menus,” not to mention “gluten-free” and “vegetarian.”
Some hard-core locals have even become healthy-living poster boys.
Last week, Port of Call bartender Travis Thompson lifted a voluminous plastic Monsoon go-cup. But there was no Monsoon to be found. Instead, it held a homemade smoothie of bananas, strawberries and goat whey, all purchased from Whole Foods.
“I decided one day to tally up the calories in one mushroom cheeseburger, a fully dressed baked potato and a Monsoon, and it came to more than 3,500 calories,” said Thompson, 36.
Two years ago, he said, “my diet consisted of Jim Beam, Jameson and a pack of Camel Filters.” But the Big Easy lifestyle caught up with him. “Now I’m really boring,” he said, “but I feel a lot better.”
“In this town, if you want to live forever, you have to eventually change your lifestyle,” said Jacques Leonardi, 52, owner of Jacques-Imo’s Café, celebrated for its rich dishes such as shrimp and alligator-sausage cheesecake and deep-fried roast beef po-boys.
Leonardi, who’s been known to rent party buses for bar crawls and carry a canister of Campari and soda with a shot of vodka, said: “I know it’s not good advertising for my restaurant, but I’m now the poster boy for what you’re talking about.”
In the past six months, Leonardi has dropped 15 pounds by spinning to instructional videos at home, attending local Bikram yoga classes, doing laps in his French Quarter swimming pool and riding his bicycle. “I have a head of romaine lettuce and avocado and some yogurt during the day, some salmon at the restaurant at night. I’m in my pool right now.”
However, it hasn’t changed his restaurant menu. “The Hollywood set expects a gluten-free alternative, but I’m not going after that crowd. Jacques-Imo’s is still the poster boy for old-school Creole-and-soul cuisine. It’s what people come for.”
A daunting challenge
In fact, the universal perception that New Orleans is the quintessential city of indulgence is so indelible that The New York Times reported last year that the city was kale-deprived.
And earlier this year, The Washington Post dispatched a reporter here with the daunting “challenge of eating healthfully and staying fit” in New Orleans. The article pondered: “Can you stay healthy while visiting the Big Easy, a city known for its excess and indulgence?” (With bicycle stops at Satsuma, Raw Republic and Freret Street Yoga, his findings proved affirmative.)
Even Steve Watson, the owner of Kingpin Bar, is getting fit and losing weight, nearly 30 pounds. For his efforts, Watson’s girlfriend rewarded him with a new seersucker suit with a slim-fit cut. But he has other plans.
“My 45th birthday is this week, and damn it, I’m going to reward myself with some fried chicken,” he said.
And so it goes.
“There’s no danger of this town morphing into the daily shirtless sea of runners pounding the median strip like they do on Santa Monica’s San Vicente Boulevard,” Cummings said. “Newcomers are mostly just mixing into New Orleans culture … cocktail, of course, in hand.”