When I applied for a position on the Restaurant Recovery Team I knew that a great deal of my research would be centered on the affects that Hurricane Katrina had on the local businesses that I would be studying. I guess you could say I was prepared for a little bit of “distanced heartache” in my interviews, after all, it has been five years and those we are interviewing have all made it back to the row. Angelo Brocato’s even has a little bronze plate on the door as you exit, reminding customers of where the waterline was when the floods came. Although this reminder of disaster might seem a bit morose to those who aren’t from here, I see it as a “Hey look, we made it!” sort of thing, an attitude that this city has got down-pat.
Knowing of the resilience of New Orleanians, I was excited to meet with Kenan and Jamie, husband and wife owner and operators of Kjean Seafood at 236 N. Carrollton Avenue. I had known prior to my initial interview that the building had needed to be entirely rebuilt post- Katrina, and I was eager to hear a “post-K success story” first hand. What I learned from Kenan was heartbreaking to hear because although he did rebuild after the storm, he is now undergoing an even bigger struggle in dealing with the BP oil spill.
Kenan explained a bit about the history of Kjean’s. The name, he says, is a combination of his own and his sister Jean’s, who was the initial co-founder of the establishment. They chose this catchy combo not only because it was a clever way to lend credit to both, but, as Kenan explains, because the state has trademarked the traditional spelling of “Cajun”, and its usage is subject to a $5,000 annual tax.
In any case, Kjean Seafood was quite successful- it had opened in 1992, and two months before Katrina, the business and building were entirely renovated and paid off. Then the water came. Kenan tells me there was six feet of water, and considering that it was making a filthy gumbo out of his refrigeration rooms for several weeks, no one was willing to try and clean up the mess. They made the decision to tear down and rebuild entirely. When I asked Kenan why he decided to rebuild he told me that after being his own boss as a fisherman since the age of fourteen, he just couldn’t see himself working for someone else. Makes sense to me.
This time, things are different. Kjean’s business has been terribly affected by the BP spill. Customers walk in and ask, “Where are those oysters from? Those shrimp oily?”
Kenan makes light with his regulars and quips, “Naw, Baby, we scrub ‘em real good with Dawn first and they’re good as new”. Never the less, although his seafood is perfectly safe and comes from unaffected areas, such as the deep gulf where no oil has reached, business is suffering.
Kenan’s got a plan. I tell him I’m writing about the local businesses and he tells me, “I’m gettin’ Daiquiri Machines tomorrow, could you please make sure and put that in there? Don’t forget to write that down.”
Daiquiri machines and a revised menu are in the works. Instead of just seafood, customers will soon be able to order icy cool refreshments, meatball po’boys and veal parmesan. For now, things like oysters will be off the menu as Kenan’s supplier was hauling in his last day’s catch on the day we met last week.
Although Kjean Seafood has once again met adversity, I hope that with the understanding and support of local residents and the resilient attitude of the owners, we are looking at yet another “against all odds” success story in the making.