Ashes to Ashes, Blogs to Bricks: Booty’s and the Cult of Small Business

ANTIGRAVITY-FEB2016-WEB_Page_10_Image_0001When, late on a weeknight, I received confirmation that Booty’s Street Food was closed for good, I announced it to the dinner party around me. A cheer rose from the assembled. Two out-of-town guests were confused: what was the big deal about Booty’s? “So it was… a restaurant?” one asked. “Why did everyone hate it so much?”

First of all, Booty’s was no fusty analogue restaurant. It was, per its founders, the debut of something unprecedented: a blogstaurant. Inventing terminology is fun! It so happens blogstaurant is a perfect example of the noncept, a word or phrase that describes or represents a non-idea. The time one squanders pondering what the fuck a blogstaurant could possibly be is wasted time, stolen time, time gleefully appropriated from you by the word’s coiners. Like its overpriced, poorly-run concretization on the corner of Louisa and Dauphine, the nonceptual neologism ‘blogstaurant’ is equal parts hilarious and blithely annoying—a word freighted with more unearned self-congratulation than most of us could ever hope to experience without the aid of high-grade methamphetamine.

Booty’s and the malakas who ran it were singled out for ridicule because their enterprise and methods encapsulated so much of the last decade of negative change being imposed on New Orleans. Whether it was announcing they were accepting Bitcoin or their latest insulting, inaccurate statement about downtown to some lazy travel blogger, Booty’s continually soaked up a staggering amount of press, sucking up media oxygen exponentially out of proportion to its merits. Just for instance, searching “Booty’s” on nola.eater.com brings up 131 results. Nearby seafood stalwart Jack Dempsey’s, open more than ten times as long, has netted only seven mentions.

Booty’s upset people because it reinforced a dark and terrible truth: that any random jackass with enough money to burn can literally redefine reality in post-flood New Orleans. It is by the same principle that Sean Cummings’ new clump of generically hideous luxury high-rises on Press Street “celebrates creativity, the essential character of Bywater… inspired by a romantic artist colony in Italy… European traditions. African influences. Caribbean ways.” A yuppie food court expressly built to foist overpriced small plates on a status-conscious subset of tourists is “a neighborhood market,” and a silly, bad blogstaurant is fawned over by the New York Times travel section as an authentic local place to enjoy #EmpanadasWithSolange.

The menu items ranged from $7 to $9, but of course there was a catch: each item was less than bite-sized, a dimebag of overcooked belly-button fluff garnished with an artisanal eyelash. They were like tiny thumbnail images of actual entrees, doll food for doll people. Service veered between indifferent and actively hostile. The only aspect of the operation I ever heard praised by anyone with taste was Booty’s expensive and overthought mixed drinks. I don’t give a shit about “craft cocktails,” but by all accounts Booty’s did them well, with an ever-changing lineup of hyper-premium mixological inventions that ranged from “Old Money” to the “Yuppie Scum.”

Booty’s owners, Kevin Farrell and Nick Vivion, met at Burning Man. I would urge anyone keeping tabs on the cultural forces shaping New New New New Orleans to note the ubiquity of Burning Man as a touchstone among the moneyed white Disruptors lately making their marks on our city’s blank slate. “[W]e affectionately say that it’s always Burning Man in New Orleans,” Farrell told the Austin Chronicle in the same interview where Vivion asserted that, given the choice between South by Southwest and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, “I’d much rather go to SXSW. It feels like everyone who is anyone I would want to meet is there.”

The Booty’s narrative centered on their role as Bywater pioneers. Farrell told the Chronicle, “No one was doing anything else here before we put this here.” Out Magazine, one of many out-of-town outlets in which Farrell positioned himself as a New Orleans expert and guide, said “Booty’s has in short order become an anchor in a formerly unmoored neighborhood,” a business that “exemplifies the neighborhood’s transition.” That’s a lot to put on an establishment that, as a Gambit commenter pointed out, had at the time been open less than a year. In a 2013 blog entry, Farrell claimed “taxis literally and uniformly refused to drive to Bywater for the year we spent building Booty’s,” news no doubt confounding to the cabbies who lived and worked in the Ninth Ward before the Booty’s types who Kabacoff and Cummings lured in rendered it unaffordable.

I think a big piece of what was so frustrating to people about Booty’s was that its owners so manifestly weren’t interested in New Orleans, or indeed in running a half-decent restaurant. They instead cannily focused their time and energy convincing national press that Booty’s was a destination. It worked, for a few years.

Their second venture, Ursa Major, worked for a few months. Ursa Major, which sought to operate via an esoteric system requiring each customer to make a non-refundable $25 online deposit, was a bistro based on the postmodern intermix of “nomadic tribesmen” with “stars and moons,” an aboriginal wizard-hat theme so aggravatingly abstruse it seemed like deliberate provocation. It opened in the hellishly Houstonian “New South Market District” amidst an explosion of hype dutifully regurgitated by local food writers. Despite being named in the New York Times Travel section’s “52 Places to Go in 2015,” Ursa Major did not survive 2015. It failed, because it sucked… and then Booty’s failed too, because it also sucked. The Booty’s Facebook vanished, and its Twitter and Instagram dropped suddenly from a firehose of manic, rictus-grin w00t! w00t! enthusiasm to nothing at all—from uncle-at-the-rave to the silence of the grave.

Booty’s knew they were reviled. In 2013, Farrell complained to Gambit that in New Orleans, “individuals who want to make a change for the better are often smacked down.” The owners attributed their unpopularity to homophobia, a stance harder-hearted cynics might suspect of being disingenuous. “There were people literally thinking: this is a gay couple starting a restaurant, this is gentrification at its finest,” Farrell told the Financial Times in August ’15, echoing Vivion’s 2013 comments: “As far as the general community, there’s definitely some friction between those of us that are change agents and those that prefer to keep things as they are, or as they were. These discussions happen in every neighborhood, every city: ‘The gay boys moving in on the corner,’ this kind of stuff.”

While Farrell and Vivion were lousy bosses and made many personal enemies, they honestly wouldn’t even crack the top 25 for asshole business owners in the Marigny/Bywater. They told lies, but a lot of people tell lies. A lot of their employees hated working there, but most people hate their jobs. Still, the turnover rate at Booty’s was exceptional. As repeated waves of workers quit, prep cooks rose almost overnight to become executive chefs, albeit still at the $11 an hour they’d been making chopping watercress.

 

Crystal Logic

Unicorn Booty is a blog whose HTML title attribute is “Funny Gay Blog & Media | LGBTQ Community” and whose top news item, as of the time I’m writing this, is a loving and unironic memorial for Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey.  In October 2011 Farrell and Vivion, the Seattle operators of Unicorn Booty, announced they were moving to “the bayous of New Orleans” to build “the first truly vertically integrated gay company, like, ever!”

I’d direct readers interested in alternate history to Booty’s since-deleted crowdfunding campaign, indiegogo.com/Bootys (still visible via web.archive.org), where the Booty’s boys laid out their plan via a heaping, Rocky & Carlos-sized platter of deep fried hyperbole. As described in its Indiegogo, Booty’s would be “located in the the famed gayborhood of New Orleans’ French Quarter.” The real hype was reserved for the top floor: “The third floor of the building will house Unicorn Booty HQ and Studios, a state-of-the-art space for producing crazy-town-awesome written content, video content in our green-screen studio, and podcasts + radio shows from our audio facilities…  The third floor will not only beat as the glowing heart of independent gay media, but will also host a co-working space for gay and equality-minded freelancers and entrepreneurs.” They promised, “We will be broadcasting live everyday with the most up-to-date content. We will also be capturing live responses to the day’s news, as well as featuring a Video/Photo Booth for anyone wanting to post their own content to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or other sites. Together, we will be the fastest moving media organization in the world!”

Instead, the boys ran their building’s upper floor as an Airbnb for additional income.

Nestled amid its repeated exhortations for readers to “Gay it Forward” by giving Vivion and Farrell money, the pitch struck a somber note: “Without this project, there will continue to be a slide in the number and strength of LGBT voices in the media…  There will be more stereotypes and less creativity.” That must be where we find ourselves today: queer voices increasingly muffled, gay cismen entirely invisible. Alas, to think what might have been, had the blog-to-bricks crowdfunding efforts of Unicorn Booty, “the most followed LGBT media site in the world on social media” not stalled out at .015 of their goal.

 

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Good Business, Bad Business

I hated Booty’s. I’m glad it finally failed, and I would never discourage anyone from celebrating its demise. But much of the criticism for Booty’s, however justified, too readily breaks down into empty distinctions between “good” versus “bad” businesses. Of course the owners were vacuous and arrogant, but Booty’s did offer its employees healthcare. Of course Booty’s hosted a fundraiser for cartoon-evil politico Jackie Clarkson, but they donated some sliver of their mostly non-existent profits to AIDS research once. So how bad was Booty’s, really? Was it worse than Sidney’s? Better than Paladar 511? Before we can excoriate Booty’s, we must hash out these boring details indefinitely, bickering towards an unreachable consensus on the exact size of rock its windows hypothetically deserved.

These time-wasting exercises are depressingly reminiscent of how arguments over gentrification end up mired in navel-gazing and die with a whimper of “it’s complicated!” After all, Louisiana is stolen indigenous land, so how can we criticize Sean Cummings? Such inescapable spirals into subjectivity are the fatal (and built-in) flaw of any criticism of a profit-making venture or system that isn’t grounded in a critique of capitalism. It’s like trying to sort out which cop is worse than another.

Capitalism exalts the entrepreneur, the business-starter. Former daily newspapers devote acres of online coverage to “start-ups.” Unpleasant nebbishes like Steve Jobs are lauded as geniuses and visionaries. Politicians push back against a living wage with the warning that giving workers enough pay to survive on will harm those precious Mom-and-Pop small businesses. In actuality, this myth of small business as a bedrock of American capitalism is a smokescreen to deflect our attention away from how the vast majority of goods and services are produced: through the exploitation of workers and the environment to enrich the very, very few.

At its base, capitalism relies on economies of scale to extract ever more profit. Little fish who fail to grow and dominate will be eaten by bigger fish, or at least more ruthlessly efficient fish, sooner rather than later. Even successful small businesses will be bought and consolidated. This inexorable process is how true capitalists, the titans of industry, concentrate the means of production into fewer and fewer hands.

Admittedly, small businesses can seem worlds away from these heinous realities. When you work at a small business, you see first-hand how hard it is and how narrow the margins are. Because you spend hours there, you may naturally begin to feel invested in it. Quite possibly your boss, the small-business owner, is not a bad person. You don’t wish her ill. If she can’t pay you fairly or regularly, it’s easier to accept and understand. She’s not Walmart or some faceless multinational, she’s just a struggling small-business entrepreneur, the sort you’ve heard valorized your entire life. She has cool tattoos. She’s anti-racist. She has good taste in music and smokes pot. And again, she may work as hard as you, or harder.

It’s gratifying to be a valuable piece of a team. Operating in a small, cohesive group can give you a sense of belonging, purpose, and accomplishment, especially compared to the experience of slaving away for a big-box business with a steep hierarchy. In the small business setting, workers may feel part of a family, a dynamic bigger businesses often try, clumsily, to suggest because they know it’s a key to worker self-sacrifice.

It’s easy to feel invested. It’s easy to lose perspective. If you aren’t careful, you risk becoming that most debased creature: a worker who defends their boss.

 

Being Your Own Boss

Like home-ownership, starting a business is a marker of legitimacy, adulthood, dynamism, seriousness, respectability. It is, we are assured, the magical American path to wealth, security, and success. That this is provably and overwhelmingly untrue doesn’t matter. However clearly a game may be rigged, we all long to believe ourselves exceptional. Personally, I love scratch-off tickets. I don’t care that it’s foolish. Who wants to live by statistics? Maybe I’ll get rich. Maybe your small business will succeed. Scratch-offs only cost me a few bucks, though. A small business is a massive amount of work, a massive amount of time, and—since you could never otherwise justify the energy and expenditures it demands—it also requires a massive investment of faith in the system. Once you’ve sunk your life into a small business, you are very literally invested in capitalism, and like a hardcore gambling addict, you are held fast. Every upturn and downturn reconfirms how vital it is you stick it out for what you hope will be the eventual jackpot—until you have no more quarters to feed into the machine, are no longer useful to the system, and get escorted off the premises.

The cult of small business, much like the newer piecework “sharing economy,” attempts to make capitalism appear kinder and gentler by pretending to reward personal initiative. The Uber driver or small business owner are told they are masters of their own destiny, that they are in control of their income. This is how, to quote the sportswriter Scott Leedy, “the techniques of power disappear from view and appear, instead, in the form of self-discipline and individual responsibility. The goal of the institution is to produce a subject who welcomes the increasing demands.”

There are worse things to do with your life than start a small business. You could be a cop or a district attorney. But can’t we set the bar just a little bit higher than that? You could find a way to exist, difficult as it may be, that doesn’t entail chaining your personal interests to the ongoing success of an economic model hostile to all life on earth. I promise it’s possible. You might even find you have more time left over to struggle against the existence of the system itself.

 

Non Satis Odisse

Small businesses seem in many real ways less horrible than big businesses, but they’re only less successful. They’re just pint-sized, chubby-cheeked cute baby versions of the same damn thing. I have friends who run small businesses. Many nice people run small businesses. Similarly, lots of nice people pay rent to horrendous slumlords like Ernest Joubert. Can we criticize this arrangement without being accused of wishing homelessness on their tenants? Can we bemoan worker exploitation without being accused of wishing unemployment on minimum-wage earners? Can we find fault with the lionizing of small-business entrepreneurialism without a chorus of liberal private-property fetishists rushing to designate us dangerous nihilists and throw us under the bus?

By all means, friends, hate Booty’s. Dance on its grave. Hating Booty’s is healthy, and natural, and a sign of good character. Yet hating Booty’s is not enough. Booty’s phantasmagoric tackiness was noxious, as is the suburban ugliness of the towering high-rises with which Sean and John Cummings are blocking out our riverfront. But when we fixate too firmly on superficial characteristics, we’re in danger of missing the larger and more serious evils underlying these entities. Had Farrell and Vivion’s now-dead blogstaurant been better in a hundred minor ways, it still would have been worth hating: a rose by any other name would smell as booty.

 

Pauline M. Alvar contributed significantly to this piece.