This past week I had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Paul Ballard, president and CEO of WOW Café and Wingery. Mr. Ballard is a larger than life kind of man with a captivating grin and a presence that leaves listeners hanging on his every word. His strong family ties and love for all things New Orleans were evident within the first several minutes of our encounter. We were just sitting down at a table overlooking a rainy Orleans avenue sipping cold brewed coffee when Mr. Ballard first surprised me by immediately thanking me for our interest in his company. For the first time in a long while I did not feel as though I were pestering someone who had more important work to do than indulge the curiosities of a budding young anthropologist. It was also about this time that I learned Paul was a title that Mr. Ballard was more comfortable with.
Paul is a first generation New Orleanian, who grew up in a music store, Tape City USA, owned by his parents. They operated locations in Metairie, the CBD, and on Carrollton Avenue. Paul said it was a big day for them when then franchisee Nancy Bounds opened the Mid City location. “It was exciting for us to be back in the neighborhood”, Paul said with a smile. This excitement, he later claims, was one of the main reasons he and his brothers, also his partners in WOW, thought it was important to get back open after the storm.
Paul graduated from Tulane University with a degree in History and an intention of going on to Law School. It was while he was attending Tulane he met his wife, and future mother of his 4 children (the youngest only a matter of weeks old). Like many of New Orleans’ college students he found work at several bars and restaurants around town. Sal & Sam’s, which he defined as New Orleans Italian fine dining, required he wear a tuxedo and understand the importance of a good sauce, a notion that stuck with him as the WOW franchise began to grow.
Paul also recounted his experiences as a bartender at Rosie’s Big Easy on Tchoupitoulas. “Having been around for the progression from 4 track and 8 track players to LPs and so on, working at Rosie’s, just down from Tipitina’s, was a blast. We grew up around the music”. He went on to say how he feels very connected to New Orleans culture. He spent parts of his childhood all over this city, and says that when he sees a WOW in some of his old stomping grounds he cannot help but feel good.
Paul’s narrative is a great example of how culture reshapes itself. He grew up part of New Orleans music and food scene. Now he and his wife are raising their own children in an entrepreneurial environment. They are exposing them to an avenue that is clearly one of the cornerstones of New Orleans identity: food. Hot wings and beer may not be the first thing you think of when you think New Orleans food, but the Ballard family has dedicated themselves to creating and spreading representations of New Orleans. I will explore more of this next week when I discuss the connections that Paul has established over the years including his links to PJ’s Coffee founder Phyllis Jordan, and Chefs George Rhode and Paul Purdhomme.