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Mardi Gras is back, but New Orleans businesses are dealing with a volatile economy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Mardi Gras is back. Parades in New Orleans were called off in 2021 because of COVID, and they were shortened in 2022, so this year is the first full-blown Mardi Gras since before the pandemic. But local businesses are still dealing with the weird, volatile post-pandemic economy. WWNO's Carly Berlin has the story.

CARLY BERLIN, BYLINE: At Loretta's Authentic Pralines, an industrial-sized standing mixer churns a batch of sweet-smelling dough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIXER WHIRRING)

BERLIN: It's one step in the process of crafting the season's beloved king cakes.

ROBERT HARRISON: Oh, Jerry (ph), how many cakes can you get out of one batch?

BERLIN: Fifty king cakes in this batch. Robert Harrison runs the day-to-day operations at this family business. He says they're selling more than three times as many king cakes a day, and the pace just keeps picking up the closer Fat Tuesday gets. A key ingredient in the recipe - eggs.

HARRISON: Well, guess what? Eggs have went up.

BERLIN: Last time Harrison looked at an invoice from his supplier, his eyes popped. His egg order cost 2 1/2 times what it used to. The impacts of avian flu in chickens, along with inflation, have caused the price of a dozen to skyrocket. But just as high as the prices is the demand for the king cakes.

HARRISON: There is no substitute for eggs. I mean, it is one of the most critical ingredients in a king cake for bakers everywhere. But we've still gotten that - OK. Well, we have 2 1/2 times the amount of customers buying king cakes, almost three times.

BERLIN: Harrison thinks it's partly because this year is the first full-blown Mardi Gras since 2020. And because of that, he hasn't raised prices. It also helps that not all the king cake staples went up.

HARRISON: They haven't went up on the babies that go in the king cake, so that's a great thing.

BERLIN: Those little plastic babies, part of any king cake you get here - they have to come from somewhere. And getting them to New Orleans, along with the beads and other random trinkets the people on floats throw down to parade-goers - that's the job of Mark Flood. He shows off some shiny necklaces with beads the size of baseballs that are flying off the shelf.

MARK FLOOD: These are like an ornament. They're called blow molds. It's 'cause they're hollow. But these are very popular.

BERLIN: Flood owns TJ's Carnival and Mardi Gras Supplies, one of many local shops in the business of selling Mardi Gras stuff. And how does it all get here?

FLOOD: Slow boat from China.

BERLIN: Yeah.

FLOOD: That's about it. Everything comes from China.

BERLIN: And getting all this here in time for Mardi Gras hasn't gone smoothly this year. COVID is still slowing down shipments out of China. They've been coming in months behind schedule, and that's left Flood scrambling.

FLOOD: Rushing to get it unloaded and then get it on the floor and sell it, selling product before it was here. It's - that's not good, not fun playing catch-up - still doing it right now.

BERLIN: And the later his shipments come in, the more expensive they get, which is tough because he tries to have the cheapest prices.

FLOOD: That hits the bottom line, you know?

BERLIN: On top of all that, he is short-staffed, so he'll be hustling up until Fat Tuesday, which he says will be his first day off this year. For NPR News, I'm Carly Berlin in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF REBIRTH BRASS BAND SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carly Berlin
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