David Rubenstein was just 8 years old when he began working in the family business started by his uncle Morris Rubenstein in 1924. In the years since, he has learned apparel retail from the ground up and, along with his brother Andre Rubenstein, has grown Rubensteins into a nationally renowned menswear store that still operates from its iconic location at the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue.
While other retailers left Canal for suburban shopping malls several decades ago, Rubensteins has stood firm, and David Rubenstein has been a fierce advocate for the once-storied downtown retail corridor. He has battled the proliferation of T-shirt shops and litter, and fought to preserve Canal Street’s historic buildings.
His latest project involves a partnership with developer Joe Jaeger to develop a 40-room boutique hotel that is under construction on the upper floors of Rubensteins. In this week’s Talking Business, Rubenstein discusses the timeline for opening the hotel, how his retail business has changed over the years and why he remains bullish on New Orleans.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the latest on the hotel?
It’s going well. We are looking to open by the end of the August. They still have some punch list items, but we think it will be ready by the end of August, early September.
How is demand? Have you started marketing yet?
That’s really Joe’s end of the business, but they haven’t started booking yet. They’re getting ready to launch the website soon and we’re optimistic. I have never seen so many tourists downtown in all my life — not only convention travelers, but people who come regularly because they have bought condos or second homes here. Some of them are almost regular customers in our store. They come from all over the country and our hotel rooms are scarce. Even with Airbnb, we’re running out space for lodging.
Have short-term rentals changed the vacation market, the type of visitor to the city?
Sort of. You see more young people coming now; people who travel in groups who maybe couldn’t come before because we didn’t have accommodations for large groups. Now, we do and the increase in travelers is mind boggling. Our restaurants are booked, too. I just wish we could get people who wanted to work in them. I know restaurants that are closed two days now instead of one because they can’t get workers.
How is your retail business?
We are doing well serving the medium price to upper-end customer — that 5% to 10% of people who still dress up for work. That is our customer base and they come to us from all over. They’re business travelers, conventiongoers, and they don’t shop at home. They shop with us.
How do you reach them? Do you advertise in markets around the country? Direct market to them?
It’s through our location. We are at the prime corner of New Orleans, and we spend a lot of money on our windows. If you’re a clothes guy, you recognize the brands and the merchandise. We also benefit from a lot of word of mouth — people who go home and say, “I got it at Rubensteins in New Orleans.”
But people do not dress up anymore. Has that impacted your sales?
You see so many people dress casually but there are still a lot of people, whether doctors, lawyers, businessmen, that still dress up. The upper end segment of the market has not really shrunk. There are two worlds today — the upper and the average person. The upper people have made so much money and they will spend it on clothes. Our units are smaller today because the price has gone up so while the volume may be down, sales are up.
So, your market today is primarily the upper end?
It’s the upper end, from the top of the middle all the way up. Another thing that is really noteworthy here is that people are comfortable walking around our downtown. We’re not San Francisco. We’re not Chicago or L.A. There are people who are afraid to go shopping in big cities. People are not afraid of shopping here.
Perhaps not tourists but locals don’t shop downtown anymore in part because of safety concerns.
That is true. But there is crime all around, and when you look at any kind of statistics, we are not in a dangerous area. Crime on Bourbon Street gets played up but that is its own world. I do know locals who brag about not going downtown. It’s almost a chic thing to say, “I don’t go downtown.”
You have been vocal about the condition of Canal Street and overall health of downtown. How do you see things today?
It is doing well. There are few vacancies left in stores. Upper floors in most buildings have been converted to hotels and Airbnbs. They made a big deal when Starbucks shut down (across the street from us). But we got a better local coffee store, French Truck, which opened in their space and they are doing well.
What are your thoughts on the future of New Orleans?
The future of New Orleans is really tourism. We are a regional destination with the Saints, the Saenger, fun things to do. Our tourism business is a gem, and if the ruling people can understand and help us protect it, New Orleans has a very big future. We wouldn’t have built the hotel if we didn’t think things are getting better.
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