A Slice of Mid-City: Part III- Your Neighborhood Pizza Joints

Further down the spectrum from creolization-to-Americanization lay Mid-City’s finest neighborhood pizza joints: Wit’s Inn, Katie’s, and Theo’s as well as Mid-City Pizza and Crescent Pie & Sausage Company, which will be discussed in the next post about Banks Street’s recent redevelopment.  Each of these locally-owned Pizza restaurants have on their menus items that are unmistakably New Orleans.

Wit’s Inn, located at 141 N. Carrollton Ave, is a neighborhood bar and pizza kitchen. According to research done in 2012 by UNO undergrads, Wit’s Inn is owned by Dennis Schuerman and has occupied its current space since 1995. Prior to this the building had housed a pool hall in the 1970s and as early as 1937 is listed on Sanborn Maps as a restaurant although further details could not be discovered.

witts inn.jpg

So what makes Wit’s Inn’s pizza representative of Mid-City and New Orleans?  The first thing, is the space.  During the course of this research project, I spent many hours observing individuals at Wit’s Inn.  It is a place where neighborhood folk come to hang out for hours on end.  Wit’s Inn’s pizza topping options also representative of New Orleans. With tasty options like the Muffuletta, the BBQ Shrimp, and the Creole Italian Pizzas it is hard to imagine toppings that are even MORE New Orleans.

Katies collage.jpg

Katie’s approached pizza in a similar way, offering diners options like: The Iberville with “grilled eqqplant, fresh spinach, red onion, fresh basil, feta, and our garlic butter cream reduction”, The Atchafalaya featuring “roasted garlic, sautéed shrimp, oysters, and crawfish, crabcake, tri-colored bell peppers, tabasco, and marinara”, and The Boudreaux with “cochon de lait, roasted garlic, fresh spinach, red onions, scallions, and garlic butter cream reduction” (http://www.katiesinmidcity.com, 2014).

Theo's collage.jpg

And Theo’s also presents pizza in the same way offering neighbors from Mid-City a place to sit, hang out, and gobble-down some of their favorite New Orleans-esque toppings.  When asked: “What makes Theo’s a New Orleans restaurant?”, one waitress commented that it was the people that come there. She told me that she enjoyed her job there because she was familiar with most of the people who frequented the restaurant. “It’s my friends and my neighbors and all the other folks who work in Mid-City that I see all the time coming in here.” (Fieldnotes, 3/26/14).  This is an important sentiment that the young waitress expressed.  Perhaps part of what keeps the Mid-City’s restaurant row embedded in New Orleans culture and ideology are the vast number of locals that frequent these places, as opposed to a neighborhood like the French Quarter.  It is undeniably observable that the national Pizza chains in Mid-City fail to maintain a space for patrons to come and hang out, grab a drink, and eat some pizza with friends while ALL of the locally-based Pizza joints do.

 

posted by Arianna King

Local (Culture)

By Danielle Boudreau

 

The second of our three concepts of “local” refers to local culture.  The food served at the establishment does not necessarily have to be grown in the garden next door for it to still represent the local culture. For instance, the self-dubbed “Creole Taqueria,” Juan’s Flying Burrito (http://www.juansflyingburrito.com), integrates Latin American culture with New Orleans’ culture beautifully. Albeit “Americanized” cuisine, with plenty of cheese and variations of sour cream, it is still a sit down establishment where family and friends can congregate over burritos, tacos, quesadillas or enchiladas, much to the tradition of the Latin American way. Locals and visitors alike frequent this place- its hard to get a table around lunchtime any day of the week! As there are numerous people in business attire as well as scrubs, it seems that Juan’s is the hot spot for taking a break from the daily grind.The “Mardi Gras” tacos, coupled with a full Saints drink menu and décor made from Mardi Gras beads give one the impression that the New Orleans vibe is still seeping in at this establishment. Those wanting to fully integrate both worlds can purchase a T-shirt sporting the logo “Hecho in Nola”. Or, perhaps they can start a New Orleans traditional “second line” parade down  Carrollton Avenue headed by a Mariachi band? Anything is possible in New Orleans where all culture is welcome, but local culture is celebrated fiercely.ImageImageImage

Piecing Together the Canal/Carrollton Community

Contributed by: Deyna Cimino

It’s been about a month since my first blog entry. Jenny and I are still working on Lemonade Parade and Venezia’s. We’ve since achieved an interview with the owner of Venezia’s, Mr. Anthony ‘Tony’ Bologna. Mr. Bologna described Venezia’s as a family-owned-and-operated establishment. He was full of pride while explaining that his son and daughter helped re-decorate the restaurant after Katrina destroyed the Canal/Carrollton area. The restaurant has white linen and pictures of Venice on the walls but doesn’t forget its loyalty to New Orleans. Pictures of Saints, LSU, and Katrina memorabilia make the dining and bar area seem like you’re eating at a friend’s parent’s house. The restaurant is busy and the close seating helps spark up conversations between patrons. Jenny and I remarked on our fellow diner’s caper pizza but weren’t disappointed when our veal entrees came out. The food is way more than you can finish and during the interview, Mr. Bologna explained that he kept his prices down for the people and its working because the people definitely come. We watched as the early birds enjoyed their dinner and then were amazed with the swarm of people who came around 7pm for dinner. The building filled with laughter and clinking plates. Mr. Bologna explained that they were originally among the few pizza places in the area, but he didn’t see Dominos or the pending MidCity Market as a threat because it wasn’t the same type of food nor was it the same type of atmosphere or service. He explained that all the restaurants in the area actually helped each other. “The more people the better” he said and continued that even if someone ate next door, they’d say “we have to try that Italian place next time, so they still come.” Jenny and I sat at the bar and enjoyed drinks, more food than we could eat, and then coffee so we didn’t slip into an Italian food coma on the way home. Our bartender/waiter, Chris, was more than accommodating. He’s worked at Venezia’s going on five years and also attends UNO. This showed aspects of the UNO and Canal/Carrollton community merging. Metairie is also a factor in Venezia’s, where their other location is found. Mr. Bologna explained that the street cars increased business because tourists were able to venture to different parts of the city, including MidCity, and he appreciated this. But, he still made sure to treat his loyal local customers with reverence. After Katrina, this reverence became even stronger. He explained that he was touched to find out that people who were displaced, temporarily and, or permanently, still kept Venezia’s on their list of New Orleans must haves upon returning or visiting home. Mr. Bologna explained that his contribution to Venezia’s was built on the idea of family and that his mission was to perpetuate that feeling through his service and food. Compared to the bustling inside of Venezia’s the outside is relatively unassuming. The sign is neon lighting—part of its method of marketing may be, as an authentic Italian restaurant located in New Orleans, the very lack of seemingly deliberate marketing. It’s plain, rustic, white-walled exterior lets the food speak for itself.

https://i2.wp.com/menuorleans.com/files/menu_images/Venezia1.jpg

Photo borrowed from menuorleans.com

photo borrowed from virtualtourist.com

Lemonade Parade’s logo is reminiscent of the 1950s era dancing fruit commercials and reminds me of the Prytania Theater’s “Let’s all go to the movies” clip. Mike and Lori Bennencourtt also own The Peanut Gallery which hosts exhibitions and other community events. Some of the same people involved with the gallery seem to be involved with Lemonade Parade—extending the Canal/Carrollton community reach. The exterior brick is light blue and their sign is canary yellow with dancing fruit. They’ve compensated for their visibility problem by placing huge yellow banners in front that does attract attention. They have tables outside for seating and this seems to be the way to enjoy Lemonade Parade. This atmosphere works nicely as the community is the backdrop of the restaurant and patrons are literally surrounded by the area as they enjoy their food or beverages. This also yields more community involvement as those passing can engage with patrons, see the items they have to offer, and momentarily become a part of the restaurant’s atmosphere. It seems like Lemonade Parade’s patrons are mostly from the MidCity area.

Photos borrowed from: http://www.yelp.com

Strategically Located Hidden Gems

I had never really been to the Restaurant Row Recovery area other than as a quick drive by on my way towards other parts of the city. As it turns out this area houses so many culturally important destinations that at times I felt like I didn’t know the city at all.  So often “we” rarely venture outside of our comfort zones and truly experience what else the city has to offer.  I’d never heard much about many of these staples of New Orleans culture that were hidden gems in a sea of traffic and congestion. Yet, it seems like everyone already knew about these places, already understood their significance as a part of daily life. The almost limitless food options have made for a fun research experience.

So what and why should anthropologists care about food?  I think it tells us about what we think is important, clearly not all of the options are nutritionally significant nor financially attainable for some but here you have all types of restaurants and people coming together in crowds to enjoy what this area has to offer.  For the business owner, does this area attract people that would otherwise go elsewhere? With so many options what type of relationships are present?  What, if any community organizations bind them together?

So why do these certain spaces attract people?  What is it about the growth of this centrally located area that continues to grow and adapt to the major changes throughout the city?  When we consider the disparity on what we spend our money on, we find that food and entertainment has a special place.  Sometimes food as entertainment attracts us in ways we never thought of.

Thus far, some of the research teams have already delved into some of the big questions?  Like why are these restaurants here?  What are the relationships between them?  As anthropologists, I think we want to know the hows and why, the histories and social structures behind what makes these restaurants tick but we rarely get to know their back stories. I’ve particularly enjoyed eating in many of these places in the process of initial “research” as a way to understand the clientele, the menus, the employees and even the environment.

It’s been said that we are what we eat and what we eat reflects who we are.  To some extent understanding food and our relationship with it, gives us a better understanding of our culture and what it means here in New Orleans. To some, New Orleans cuisine is a masterpiece of culinary craftsmanship full of flavors and combinations otherwise unknown to the world at large… while to others, it is largely just a deep fried over gluttonous mountain of sauces masking the purity and natural flavors of whatever the given dish may be.  It seems like our relationship with food is complex and fraught with challenging contradictions, whether you are a local, a tourist or a new transplant to the city. Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, 45 million Americans will rely on food stamps this month to put food on the table for themselves and their families. Food hardship, or the inability to afford enough food, affects families around the country, particularly those with children and throughout this city.  So how does an area full of choices impact not only the surrounding community but the entire city at large?  This area has a multitude of interesting selections but it is home to many staples of New Orleans culture that somehow potentially touch us all.  Through investigations on the how’s and why’s perhaps we can learn just a little bit more about ourselves and our city in the process.

Blogosphere Realizations of a Noobie Blogger

As some of you already know, an on-site (and online) exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum is going to accompany our Restaurant Row Recovery Project. We are working on the possibility of publications in scholarly journals as well. All of this seemed relatively standard for this type of project, but as to how blogging fit into this, I was clueless.

Rising Tide NOLA 5 New Media Conference Poster. Graphic Art by Greg Peters of Suspect Device (click the photo for a link to more of Greg's work)

On August 28th I discovered that we had at our disposal an entirely new media format for our project to tap into: blogging. I know this sounds odd since we have been blogging about our project for weeks now, but I never really understood the potential of such an avenue until I attended the 5th annual Rising Tide NOLA New Media Conference. Until that rainy Saturday I thought of our blog as simply a method of providing some chronological feedback on our progress, and as a possible source of topics for further exploration.

Prior to this project I was not a blogger. Until this conference I never truly understood the power, and access, blogging could provide. The new media conference (subtitled A Conference on the Future of New Orleans) changed that.

What I am somewhat familiar with is the jambalaya of emotions that go along with doing field work in New Orleans. Self doubt gets sautéed with shyness and preemptive humiliation to create the perfect discomfort food, and I had a feast before me. What did come as a surprise were the jitters I had about making our project public. The bloggers I met at the conference seemed immune to such thing. In fact, they actively strive to be public.

At this point in my life all of the conclusions and analysis of my previous work remained in a closed academic system, thus lessening potential shortfall fears. The final outcome resulted in grades in a grade book, some brief experiences and encounters with the public, and a new semester of classes. In other words, no harm, no foul. But this project is different; this project is not just for a grade. This project is for adding to the knowledge base of Anthropology, for shedding more light on the role restaurants play in New Orleans culture, and for contributing to the understanding of a New Orleans post Katrina neighborhood recovery. All of this sounds fantastic on paper (and in theory), but how can it become practical? How do we add our findings to the elusive knowledge base? How does our research, and academic fantasizing, make the way from bits of collected data to printed literature and disciplinary journals to public knowledge and discourse?

The bloggers and conference attendees– active and aware citizens – are providing us an alternative answer: new media. Part of the same media some the restaurants on our Row use to tell their own stories (a topic covered on this blog by David Beriss). Key note speaker Mac McClelland of MotherJones.com and author of For Us, Surrender Is Out Of The Question: A Story From Burma’s Never-Ending War, went so far as to say that the rise of “citizen journalist” was evidence that new media was a forerunner to pushing for cultural change and cultural awareness. I came away from this event in agreement.

Keynote spearker Mac McClelland. Photo by Bart "Editor B" Everson of b. rox (click the photo for a link to more of Editor B's work)

McClelland also spoke against the recent government, and BP, reports on the amount of oil still present in the Gulf. She argued the oil is not gone and that the seafood and restaurant industry are going to be reeling from this for a long time, a sentiment echoed by two of the restaurant owners I have interviewed. McClelland praised the blogging community of New Orleans for its dedication and passion for the city. The New Orleans blogosphere (and now us, the RRR team, to a lesser extent) are creating transparency and focus to a city in recovery.

Taking this one step further it is now apparent to me that new media can be tremendously useful for future academic recovery projects like this one. Gone are the days of the lonely anthropologist heading off to some far away exotic locale with a notebook and pencil. Technological advances like new media allow us to not only document our ongoing work, but also to achieve a level of transparency previously unattainable. Analysis and conclusions can be viewed as a process instead of an event. Consultation can come from a variety of far away sources, and perhaps most importantly, our study subjects can be involved like never before.

New media is a powerful tool. I am honored to have been invited to the conference, and am inspired to further utilize this avenue for my future anthropological and social justice work. I would like to say thank you to all those who continue to provide the community with an alternative voice.

Exploring Their Connections

One of the objectives of our Restaurant Row Recovery Project is to try to better understand how restaurants have played a role, if any, in the relationships with, and within, the neighborhood and the Greater New Orleans area.

Obviously, as businesses, they compete to provide a service in exchange for an established price. From the other side, the consumer provides the restaurant owner and his employees a means of financial support. Bottom line is that these are businesses, and profitability is fundamental to their survival. But these local establishments seem almost as dependent upon their relationships as their bottom line. After interviewing some of the owners, employees, and customers of the Row it quickly became apparent that there was much more to this story.

For starters, most of the restaurant owners interviewed by my colleagues and I have described a type of local connection fundamental to their supply chain. Some, like the owner of EcoCafe, actively engage in more grass roots community networking, by striving to buy from local farmer’s markets as much as is absolutely possible. Others like, Paul Ballard, founder and CEO of WOW Café and Wingery, as well as PJ’s Coffee, are supplied by larger firms, but are nonetheless local. Frank, owner of Rinconcito, went so far as to express a sense of loss when he mentioned decreasing his seafood order from local supplier Vincent Piazza, Jr. & Sons Seafood Incorporated due to the BP oil spew plunging the demand for seafood. These all serve as examples of restaurants playing the role of consumer and local patron, but also express how each strives to maintain a connection to place.

Afternoon Delivery

The bartender and daughter of Delmy Cruz, owner of Fiesta Latina, echoed what Paul had said about being there not just to make money, but to serve a community in need. This got me thinking about what we, as consumers, need to have in a restaurant relationship. What is it we expect to get out of a restaurant beyond a quality meal? How are those expectations met? I know I enjoy going to the places where I know the staff. Making a connection to the people who work in my favorite haunts is fundamental to it actually becoming one of my favorites.

Paul talked about his amazement with the response to first opening after the storm. He said he had never heard so many heartfelt thank you’s in his life. He recalls seeing people piling their MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat distributed by the military in the wake of Katrina) on the table while they ordered their first familiar meal in weeks. Paul says he will always remember how happy people were to be in one place eating wings of all things. To them, the folks at WOW were heroes. They brought back something familiar. They brought back a little bit of normality and Americana: beer, wings, and college football.

Above all, these examples go to show how restaurants can often play a much larger role in the neighborhood beyond providing substance to an already nourished population base.  They can serve as counselors, organizers, entertainers, neighbors, and sometimes friends.  Of course, for our study group it doesn’t hurt to have a tasty baseline from which one can operate.

Telling Their Own Story

I will start with the obvious: chefs and restaurants are trendy.  Above all, chefs in fancy white tablecloth restaurants have become important players in the making of the symbolic economy (that is the one in which you buy things—a sports car, a zucchini, a house, shoes—because it means something to you, not just because you need it).  Eating in their restaurants, reading and watching their interviews and TV shows and buying their cookbooks and other products are all part of the process by which we consumers make ourselves into the kind of people we think we want to be.  Through all of the media they create, these restaurateurs tell their own stories and make themselves into who we think they are…and help give meaning to our own dining and cooking experiences.

The process through which some of the more savvy chefs define themselves is fascinating to watch.  One of the difficulties faced by social scientists who want to study restaurateurs is precisely that they are great at telling their own stories.  They are good at connecting with the desires and ideas that permeate our societies.  The stories of chefs’ lives, of the highs and lows of kitchen life, of the creative process in the restaurant, of difficult customers or unusual settings to prepare a meal all help create a kind of template that the rest of us can use to frame our lives, culinary or otherwise.

There are no famous chefs or media stars in our Mid-City restaurant cluster.  But there are stories to tell, as we have already documented here.  Perhaps more importantly, the restaurateurs are, in many cases, already telling their own stories.  They use web pages and social media, along with more traditional media, to create this narrative.  Restaurants like Mandina’s and Brocato‘s have quite elaborate web sites, outlining their histories, including pre and post Katrina events, details about rebuilding and links to outside writing or video about them.  Of course, they also include menus, addresses and hours as well as contact information.  Not all the neighborhood restaurants have web sites (we list those that do on the right side of the blog) and not all of them have extensive information.  Some of the restaurants also have Facebook pages and some may also use other social media as well.  I am linked to several of them in this way and mostly get regular—and mouthwatering—reports of daily specials.

Still, the media are there and the restaurants are beginning to employ them to do more than simply announce specials.  They are using them to tell their stories and thus shape the way we think about them.  This is rapidly becoming an important part of how we can think about forces shaping the neighborhood and city.  The manner in which the restaurant owners represent themselves through their web sites and social media shapes our knowledge about them and will eventually help contour our understanding of the neighborhood beyond their doors.  All of this raises a lot of questions: why do some restaurants pursue this while others do not?  (In our study, restaurants catering to recent immigrant populations seem less likely to have extensive web sites, for example.)  Who reads the sites and what do they take away from that?  As restaurants reach out in this way, are they fundamentally changing the dining experience?

The fact that the people we are studying are telling their own stories through these public representations raises another set of issues as well.  What kinds of insights do anthropologists (or other social scientists) have that might be different from or complementary to information presented by the restaurants themselves?  If we are going to make our work useful, we have to be able to put the restaurant stories into a broader context.  We have to show how the restaurants in our cluster fit into and shape the contours of the city’s broader culture and history.  As the summer winds down and we start to look closely at our data, we will be concentrating on this.  The restaurateurs continue to tell us their stories, both directly and through their public representations.  Our job is to put this together and see if something emerges that gives us new ideas about restaurant clusters, neighborhoods, Mid-City and New Orleans.  Stay tuned!

Minh-City Cafe

One of my research adventures took place at Cafe Minh. It is located in what used to be Michael’s Mid-City Grill before the storm. When the latter restaurant did not re-open Post-Katrina, Chef Minh Bui decided that it would be a fitting abode for his Cafe Minh.

With his roots in Vietnam, Chef Minh got his New Orleans start cooking at places such as Emeril’s and Commander’s Palace. After mastering his skills, he developed a Vietnamese-French fusion cuisine that contains hints of local Creole cooking. His first restaurant Lemongrass was opened next to Angelo Brocato’s on Carrollton Avenue. A second location of Lemongrass located in the International House hotel was opened, and a third restaurant called 56 Degrees was also opened in the Whitney Hotel. Before Katrina, both the Carrollton location and 56 Degrees closed. After the storm, Chef Minh decided he wanted to return to Mid-City and opened Cafe Minh at its current location.

Cafe Minh fits perfectly in the Restaurant Row even though it is not physically in line with the others. About a block into Canal Street, it is still in close walking distance of the area, however. One thing we can recognize about the Restaurant Row is that even though there may be similar types of food (for instance, Wit’s Inn, Venezia, Theo’s, Papa John’s and Domino’s all have pizza), there is still enough variety throughout the restaurants that they are all able to survive. Among the Asian restaurants, you may find that Little Tokyo, Doson’s Noodle House, Yummy Yummy, and even Cafe Minh have similar items on the menu. Yet because of the creativity of the chefs, the different environments of the restaurants themselves, and the specific cravings of those searching out food, co-existing is not a problem for these places.

Another similarity I have noticed between the Asian restaurants is that the owners or head chefs all learned to cook in their birth countries. This seems to come full circle as they originally learn to cook in the authentic way of their birthplace, then they end up drifting into another type of cuisine (whether it be another Asian cuisine or something completely different), and in the end, they come back to their original style of cooking, adding a bit of their own flair. That little bit of flair and originality is what sets each of these restaurants apart from the other.

During my visit, I discovered that the food at Cafe Minh is excellent, however, when one typically thinks of the item he or she is ordering, one might not get exactly what they are expecting. For instance, when I ordered the fried eggplant, I did not expect it to be topped with mozzarella, on top of tomatoes, on top of a bed of lettuce, on top of toast. It was amazing nonetheless. This is an example of Chef Minh’s genius at work.

For dessert I had the white chocolate raspberry cheesecake, and it was divine. Colorful and divine.

Also, while visiting Cafe Minh, I immediately noticed all of the artwork on the walls. With the high ceilings and ambient lighting, I almost felt that I was in an art gallery for a moment. The bartender even told me that the artwork is rotated by several local artists throughout the year.

When wandering Mid-City and you find yourself wanting something different than the norm, try stopping by Cafe Minh. If anything, the experience is one you’re unlikely to find anywhere else on Restaurant Row.

The Red Door Lounge

The Red Door Lounge is described to me as having “Mid-City charm.”  Online reviews, as well as the bar’s homepage, consistently use the same adjective.  The bar’s bio states that it is “a cozy place for regulars and an inviting space for newcomers.” Not being overly familiar with Mid-City, I wanted  to see what about the bar gave it such obvious Mid-City charm.  Then I hoped to discover what Mid-City charm even meant – the term seems to be used and understood by locals with some frequency, as if there were a particular qualifying criteria for such a description.  

The front door of the bar is angled in such a way that if viewed in isolation, it would appear to be a corner lot. However, it is not.  It is positioned between Taqueria Guerrero and a discount mattress and futon store.  Charming.  Inside it is narrow, long, dark, and last night, hot; the air conditioning had gone out earlier that day.  The walls are lined with a mix of (reproduction?) nostalgia, Saints stuff, some acrylic art, photos from the flood, and bar events promotion boards.  There will be free food for next weekend’s Saint’s game.  The Red Door also offers a variety of activities, other than drinking.  One can gamble using video poker machines, play Wii, darts, pool, or watch TV.  It also appears that you could have a dance party.  There is a disco ball all the way in back by the pool table.

The crowd seemed almost entirely regulars and many service industry workers. This could be in part because the Red Door offers a discount for industry people.  The bartender was very friendly and the drinks were extremely cheap.  Though I did not order a $10 bucket of beer or a $5 pitcher, if I had it would have been served with a bag of ice floating to maintain drinking temperature.

The Red Door during a Saint's game

I understand that the bar was originally opened in 1940, but after Katrina, was bought and renovated by its current owner.  I have come across reviewers that long for the old Red Door, saying that the new one is “straight out of suburbia.” There are others, though, that feel it is the “perfect neighborhood bar.”  One such blogger goes so far as the have specific requirements for earning this title, requirements worth reading as they paint a vivid picture of the Red Door – http://millyonair.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/new-orleans-part-iii-the-red-door/ .  Despite the heat and the 90’s pop grunge playing last night (later changed to Erykah Badu, which was great) and the sports-bar-feel of the Red Door, I was charmed.  There was an odd assortment of effects that did this; street car going by, holiday string lights, the fact that the bar decorum makes it seem as if they are always hosting a party, and that Restaurant Row and the Red Door Lounge have a slightly dilapidated look and feel to them.  It feels like a neighborhood here, maybe that is “Mid-City charm.”.

Paul Ballard, A New Orleans Inspired Wingman

Wow!

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.