This New Orleans restaurant made it through the pandemic. Can it survive water billing issues?

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Rashah McChesney, Gulf States Newsroom

This story is part of a crowdsourced project investigating utility billing issues in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Do you have a utility bill you’d like us to look into? Submit it here, and with your permission, we may use it in one of our monthly features.


Things were finally looking up for Merritt Coscia and Tyler Stuart.

A few years ago, after living and traveling in India and learning how to cook from locals, they came home and realized that New Orleans was severely lacking in authentic Indian food options. So, they started doing pop-ups at bars around the city, serving delicious, fresh dishes like chicken thali, mushroom kothu roti, and garlic-chili-cheese naan — hot out of a homemade tandoori oven.

“And it just grew from there,” Coscia said.

Coscia and Stuart live in Algiers, a New Orleans suburb on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, and when they saw a building come up for sale on Teche Street, they went for it.

“We always thought that there weren’t enough options for eating within a walkable distance of our neighborhood,” Coscia said. “So we knew that when we eventually started up anything, it would be in this neighborhood.”

The sale was finalized in January 2020 and work to renovate the building into Plume Algiers — the restaurant of their dreams — began in March of that year. And then, the worst happened.

Tyler Stuart cleans up outside of Plume Algiers in New Orleans on November 18, 2023.
Tyler Stuart cleans up outside of Plume Algiers in New Orleans on November 18, 2023. Plume Algiers is currently disputing its water bills with the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. (Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

“I think, honestly, [work began] the same week that the shutdown happened,” Coscia said.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatened to destroy their dream before it even had a chance to be realized. But, as Coscia puts it, they had no choice but to drive forward.

“At that point, we dug a financial hole with purchasing the building and then the renovation costs on top of that,” she said. “So we had to open.”

As the pandemic ebbed and flowed and restrictions regularly changed suddenly and without notice, Plume Algiers adapted. Over the course of the pandemic, they switched to takeout only, then opened for limited seating, then opened an outdoor space, then switched back to takeout only.

But despite the challenges, Plume Algiers was the little restaurant that could — a testament to the quality and care Coscia and Stuart put into their food.

Over the next three years, the couple had a baby and Plume Algiers became a literal mom-and-pop restaurant. And they recently hit another major milestone: being able to pay themselves an actual, consistent salary.

But after years of struggling yet managing to stay on their feet, weathering natural disasters like Hurricane Ida and persevering through a global pandemic, Plume Algiers is now facing its greatest challenge yet: water bills.

At one point, the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board (SWBNO), the utility service that manages the city’s water supply, was demanding nearly $8,500 from the small restaurant — an amount Coscia said would put them under. And it’s all because of a practice SWBNO uses called estimated billing.

Problems from the start

Tyler Stuart and Merritt Coscia finish some last-minute prep work ahead of opening Plume Algiers in New Orleans on November 18, 2023.
Tyler Stuart and Merritt Coscia finish some last-minute prep work ahead of opening Plume Algiers in New Orleans on November 18, 2023. Stuart and Coscia own and operate the restaurant together. (Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

To understand how Plume Algiers got here, you need to start at the beginning — which goes back to before the restaurant was even open.

After Coscia and Stuart bought the building and began renovations, they got a bill from SWBNO for about $800. The thing is, they hadn’t turned on the water yet. So, Coscia called them up to figure out what was going on.

“I remember arguing with them about it and saying, ‘We’re not even operating yet, we have no water on anywhere, we don’t even have a sink installed,’” Coscia said.

At the time, their account was on autopay, so SWBNO withdrew the money from their bank account — and they never got it back. That was the end of autopay.

“Never again,” as Coscia put it.

But it was only the beginning of their water billing issues. Along with expensive, unexplained charges, their account balance fluctuated both up and down — also without explanation.

For months, Coscia and Stuart had thousands of dollars in credit appear on their billing statements. They don’t know where it came from, but they have a hunch it was a holdover from the previous owner of the building. One day, that credit just up and vanished.

But then, six months ago, things took a turn for the worse. Coscia went online to pay their monthly bill manually and noticed that the amount was slightly over $1,100. She again called SWBNO and talked to a customer service rep who said they would investigate the charges, but to keep paying their usual monthly amount in the meantime — about $260.

Over the next few months, that’s what Coscia did. Until she logged on in October and saw the bill had jumped to more than $5,000. This time, no more calls.

“I actually went to Sewerage & Water Board the next day,” Coscia said. “I just talked to a lady at a desk who’s just doing her job, and she said, ‘You should just pay your normal bill. That does look weird, but an investigation will ensue.’ And that’s it. Just the same advice. Always.”

Going outside the system

Tyler Stuart prepares to insert naan bread dough into the tandoori oven behind him in New Orleans on November 18, 2023.
Tyler Stuart prepares to insert naan bread dough into the tandoori oven behind him in New Orleans on November 18, 2023. (Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

The SWBNO kept telling Coscia the same thing — that they’d have to wait until someone from the city came out to take a reading and confirm their water usage. This is because New Orleans uses estimated billing, or basing your monthly bill on an average of how much water you’ve used in the past, every other month. Staffing shortages have left SWBNO without enough people on its payroll to come out and take regular manual readings from the meters, making the practice necessary.

At that point, Coscia was fed up. So, she went outside of the system. She posted a screenshot of Plume Algiers’ water bill on social media, asking for help — almost like putting out a bat signal. And it worked.

“We posted about it trying to get people to help out, to see if anybody knew anybody,” Coscia said. “And we were contacted by a Sewerage & Water Board vigilante. And he came out the next day.”

The mysterious, friendly, neighborhood water vigilante wouldn’t go on record for this story, but after he contacted Coscia, he came by the restaurant and used a special key to open up the underground water meter. He showed Coscia and Stuart how to read the meter, and it turns out that they were actually using a ton of water — hundreds of thousands of gallons.

After they realized that the reading wasn’t a fluke, Coscia and Stuart did some investigating and figured out that there was a running toilet in the back of the building — in a small apartment they rent out to a tenant. Coscia looked up some tutorials on YouTube, went to Home Depot to get some supplies and fixed the leak within a day.

But despite no more leaky toilet, Plume Algiers is still getting hit with really high water bills. So what gives?

Coscia explained: “Because these estimated bills are based off of this skewed actual reading that they had, it’s just kind of snowballing,” she said.

So even though they fixed the running toilet, their estimated bill is incredibly high because it wasted so much water. And each month, the balance only gets higher.

Uncertain future

Merritt Coscia rearranges tables in the Plume Algiers dining room in New Orleans on November 18, 2023.
Merritt Coscia rearranges tables in the Plume Algiers dining room in New Orleans on November 18, 2023. Coscia has been dealing with confusing water bills from the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board since before the restaurant even opened. (Drew Hawkins/Gulf States Newsroom)

New Orleans isn’t the only city that uses billing estimates. In many places, like Jackson and Birmingham, it’s just a commonsense way to deal with staffing shortages. The problem is that the practice makes it easy for things like leaks or running toilets to go undetected for a long period, building up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in water bills.

This can be a “nightmare scenario” for many customers, as Manny Teodoro, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an adviser to local governments on public utilities, described it.

“One of the things that bills do is send a signal to customers about their water use,” Teodoro said. “If you’re getting a better, more frequent read, a small business owner is going to open that bill and go, ‘What the heck?’ And they’re going to get after that leak much more quickly … before letting it run into the thousands of dollars.”

New Orleans is working to replace its current meters with smart water meters that can collect accurate readings much more frequently. Teodoro said that one advantage of this “advanced metering infrastructure” is that they can send near real-time information to customers about their water consumption. And they can help people identify and stop leaks much more quickly.

And this isn’t just a theory for Teodoro. He’s experienced firsthand how smart meters can make a difference.

“I discovered a leaky toilet in my house because I saw the water consumption go way up, and I’m thinking, ‘What the heck is going on in here? Why am I using so much water?’ And within a day or two, I was able to notice that spike in water consumption,” Teodoro said.

Teodoro recognizes the challenge of replacing an entire city’s meters. The average meter in New Orleans is 14 years old, and the city is no stranger to infrastructure problems. But, in his opinion, it’s worth it and pays off in the long run.

And it could potentially prevent situations like what’s happening at Plume Algiers.

Restaurants face a ton of challenges to stay open. Competition is fierce — especially in New Orleans, a city known for its love of food. And despite it all, Plume Algiers overcame every challenge through hard work and a commitment to authentic cuisine with fresh ingredients.

But if they aren’t able to resolve their problems with SWBNO, they’ll be forced to close. Not because of the myriad of reasons that most restaurants fail — like a lack of customers, poor location or poor management. No, their dream of running their own restaurant will go down the drain because of their water bill.

In November, SWBNO told them they had to pay $8,669.62. Coscia said they’re still trying to get their water billing troubles resolved. If they have to, they’ll pay for it.

“But if that happens, we are definitely shutting down,” Coscia said. “Because I could not put myself in a situation where that has the potential to happen again.”

Since then, the utility has updated her balance — she now owes just under $2,000, but. the remaining $7,000 is still under investigation. On December 10, Coscia logged on again and saw that there were random payments made on their account. More activity without any explanation.

“They didn’t come from us and I can’t see where it came from,” she said. “Another mystery.”

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

 

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