Restaurants Feed Off New Courthouse

The phone rang at Port City Cafe's counter. Owner Ernest Ulrich stepped out of the kitchen and answered it. The caller ordered meatloaf. "All right, we'll have it ready shortly," Ulrich told the caller.

Phone orders are just part of Ulrich's growing business. The downtown Gulfport chef has cooked up a lunch selection that turned his 14th Street restaurant into a money maker. "Yes sir, it really is," he said, just before he made a pot roast lunch plate. "We've been here now three years. And it's been worth the wait."

Ulrich's recipe for success can be attributed to tasty food, and a $58 million federal courthouse that opened in November just blocks from his dining room. "To be honest with you, it's better. It's much, much better than we anticipated," he said. Because of the new courthouse, Ulrich expected a 25% growth in sales. "And it's increased much more than that," he said.

Ulrich isn't the only Gulfport chef who can cater to courthouse workers. Just down the block, Eric Barthelemy has renovated the Helen's diner space. "Let me show you upstairs," he told one of his employees, just before they walked up to the dining room.

Barthelemy moved from southeast France to the two story restaurant immediately southwest of Gulfport's new courthouse. "It's probably the secure place for business," he said through his thick French accent. That was a big reason why he rented the Gulfport space. "I said okay, the new courthouse is going to bring new business, new people down here." The Bonjour owner says good morning to his first downtown Gulfport customers Monday morning. He believes "the potential of Gulfport downtown is real. I really like that."

Ernest Ulrich saw that potential come alive once the courthouse opened its doors. "It's been a lot of hard work, a lot of coming here at 5:00 am and serving breakfast and lunch, and grinding it out," Ulrich said. "But it's paying off."

There are at least a dozen restaurants in the downtown Gulfport area. And many of them report strong sales since the federal courthouse opened. According to city figures, up to 15,000 people work in downtown Gulfport on a daily basis.