NEW ORLEANS—On Café Dauphine’s opening day, at the end of June 2012, no one knew what to expect. The restaurant, in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, was packed. People ordered not from the restaurant’s test menu but from its full menu: gumbo, steaks, and shrimp po’boys—the city’s answer to submarine sandwiches. The owners—Tia and Fred Henry Jr. and his sister, Keisha—had never worked in the restaurant business. They’d never used heat lamps. They didn’t know the importance of timing and pacing in a restaurant—how to keep red beans hot, for example, while grilling hamburgers and frying fish. It was a disaster. “Thankfully,” Tia Henry says, “we have a very forgiving crowd.”
Even for seasoned restaurant professionals, it would have been an audacious undertaking to open the only full-service, white-tablecloth restaurant in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures had devastated seven years earlier.
New Orleans has one of America’s most robust and peculiar culinary traditions, with roots in France, Spain, Africa and, lately, Vietnam and Honduras. It is a city that literally lives to eat, and proudly supports its indigenous restaurants. But if a restaurant with Café Dauphine’s ambitions ever existed in the Lower Ninth Ward, evidence is buried deep. Older residents recall small family- or church-run places, but none seemed to last more than a few years. New Orleans restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris doesn’t remember any fine dining restaurants in that area during his lifetime.
The Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly African American neighborhood roughly four miles down the Mississippi River from the French Quarter, doesn’t figure prominently in Fitzmorris’ tally of metropolitan New Orleans’ 1,406 restaurants. (Café Dauphine, however, is on his “400 Most Essential New Orleans Restaurants” list.) The neighborhood is what the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a food desert: a low-income area with at least 500 people living more than a mile from a supermarket or a large grocery store. For decades before Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had been one of New Orleans’ most economically disinvested neighborhoods. Yet it was a relatively stable community of homeowners, with several corner grocery stores and small businesses, many of them locally owned.
When Katrina hit and the levees failed, in August 2005, Fred was a compliance monitor for the Orleans Parish School Board, Keisha was a psychotherapist, and Tia was a nursing student (and nine months pregnant). They all lived in the Lower Ninth, though Fred and Tia had closed on their first home in nearby New Orleans East five days before the storm arrived. Thankfully, by that point they had evacuated to a relative’s house three hours’ drive west, in Tia’s hometown of Lake Charles. That’s where they stayed for a year and a half, until they could move into a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in their old neighborhood and finally rebuild their lives. Everyone in the family received flood insurance settlements. Out of a job with the school board, Fred turned to construction work for income.
Fred and Keisha grew up eating po’boys from what neighbors called “Mr. Bob’s Store,” across Dauphine Street from their grandmother’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward’s Holy Cross section, which is lined with Creole cottages and bungalows and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was the kind of timeworn spot found on corners throughout the city, a place walked to for canned goods, cold drinks, and basic prepared foods. Fred and Keisha’s cousin, Jennifer Turner, worked in the kitchen at Mr. Bob’s for roughly 20 years, until Katrina. Mr. Bob’s took on 11 feet of floodwater. Its owners, an older couple of Honduran heritage who didn’t live in the neighborhood, decided to retire rather than reopen. Before putting the building on the market, they approached Fred.
The Henrys never discussed opening a business. They weren’t looking for an investment property. But the neighborhood anchor spoke to Fred. “My husband wanted to reinvest in his neighborhood,” Tia recalls. “And when this building became available, it was a perfect opportunity to build something that people needed.” There was a need: People were slowly returning to the Lower Ninth Ward, especially the Holy Cross section, but it was hard to find food.
In the months after Katrina, nearly any business idea seemed possible, which made New Orleans fertile ground for the most audacious entrepreneurs. It’s understandable, then, that the Henrys had no business plan. They were driven simply by a belief in community. Skeptics asked, “How will you survive? Nobody comes to the Lower Ninth Ward.”
At first the Henrys considered opening a modest coffee-and-sandwich café. The neighborhood had supported a sandwich business before, and serving coffee in a casual atmosphere jibed with the aesthetic of places they liked. But it took nearly four years to secure $300,000 in bank loans and to renovate the building to the historic district’s specifications. Fred did all the millwork.
If the Henrys wanted to provide a place for their neighbors to patronize, they would need customers from other parts of New Orleans to help subsidize the business. In a city teeming with cafés and po’boy shops, coffee and sandwiches wouldn’t be enough to draw them all the way to the Lower Ninth Ward. So Tia began to think bigger: stuffed bell peppers, grilled shrimp pasta, baby back ribs—all widely popular foods.
Tia and Keisha began developing recipes and generating buzz for Café Dauphine by hosting Friday suppers—pop-up catering events that black New Orleanians have long used as fund-raisers. They prepared the suppers at home and test-marketed the recipe for Lizardi Rolls, one of Café Dauphine’s signature dishes: Creole-Asian eggrolls filled with cabbage and shellfish and served with a sticky, sweet chili sauce. As a restaurant appetizer, they sell for $8 an order. (Lizardi is a street in the Lower Ninth Ward.)
It might seem counterintuitive to open a restaurant with a $25 check average in a low-income neighborhood. But is it? Or is it instead patronizing to suggest that a low-income neighborhood can’t appreciate and benefit from such a restaurant? It’s tempting to search for parallels between New Orleans and other cities where relatively upscale restaurants have opened in economically challenged neighborhoods. One might point to New York City’s Harlem, where celebrated chef Marcus Samuelsson opened the Red Rooster restaurant in 2010. But the truth is, such comparisons are difficult.
While the financial dichotomy between Café Dauphine and its neighborhood is exceptional, these are common questions posed throughout a city that has been changing apace over the past decade. One of the most swiftly gentrifying areas of the city is the Upper Ninth Ward, also known as the Bywater neighborhood. The Upper Ninth Ward is adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward, separated by the Industrial Canal. It was a solidly working-class neighborhood before Katrina, with nary a sit-down restaurant. Today it’s hard to find a two-bedroom home in the Upper Ninth Ward for less than $500,000, and the neighborhood bustles with restaurants and bars.
Tia explains her rationale for Café Dauphine. “I thought the community would benefit more from a full-fledged restaurant, because there was nothing else to eat in the area—not even a drive-through McDonald’s,” she says.
Not to mention a supermarket. The Lower Ninth Ward is on the mend: There’s a shiny new community center. A CVS will soon open. There’s talk of a supersize general store. A Lower Ninth Ward resident is expanding services at his convenience store. Entrepreneurs who dream of opening grocery stores are stymied by city building regulations, which have become onerous since Katrina. Many residents are working hard to ameliorate the Lower Ninth Ward’s food access crisis via urban gardens, mobile grocery services, and small stores selling basic necessities. There’s a take-out restaurant offering homey breakfasts and lunches. But the closest fully stocked supermarket with competitive prices is a Walmart three miles away.
Historically, the Lower Ninth Ward was a low-lying cypress swamp. Once reclaimed, much of the land was used for farming. Some of the handful of elders who’ve returned since Katrina raise chickens, tend mirliton vines, and grow okra. Jenga Mwendo, the founder and director of the Lower Ninth Ward’s Backyard Gardeners Network, believes growing food is critical to her community’s preservation. She also supports Café Dauphine’s owners. “They could have just opened up another corner store or a low-quality fast-food place, which is what happens in neighborhoods like ours,” Mwendo says. “But they were determined to open up a quality restaurant with good food.”
Café Dauphine and the BGN have become partners. The Henrys have donated food for BGN events and fund-raisers. Café Dauphine’s chef, Shawn Smith, a Lower Ninth Ward resident, judged a BGN collard greens cooking contest last year and gave a workshop there on how to cook healthier pastas using vegetables and olive oil.
People from cities whose real estate markets have popped are realizing middle-class families can still buy multi-bedroom homes with yards in New Orleans. That’s contributed to the city’s post-Katrina population growth—and a bundle of new restaurants. The fact that New Orleans now supports more restaurants than it had pre-Katrina is often cited as proof of how far the city has come.
And yet, Café Dauphine’s story feels unique—in part because no such restaurant existed in the Lower Ninth Ward before Katrina. In part because it is still a city wherein an African American family opening a white-tablecloth restaurant is newsworthy. And also because there aren’t direct parallels to Café Dauphine’s of-the-neighborhood, for-the-neighborhood gentrification model in other badly flooded, economically disinvested neighborhoods.
“It was a huge risk, and I don’t think we really even knew what we were getting ourselves into,” Tia says. “And it’s still a struggle.” Fred still does contracting work in addition to his maintenance and dishwashing duties at Café Dauphine. Keisha still practices as a therapist for extra income.
Tia intends to succeed. For inspiration, she looks to the legendary African American Creole chef Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, “because she started off as a small, black-owned business in a predominantly black area of town, just like we have,” Tia explains. “I know President Obama ate at her restaurant when he was in New Orleans, so I’m hoping the next time the president is here, he’ll come to Café Dauphine.”