Antoine's CEO Once Told He'd Have No Future There

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Rick Blount had always figured he'd work for his family's restaurant when he graduated from college. After all, he'd started work at Antoine's when he was 13, taking reservations, and had worked up to assistant night manager while studying finance at Loyola University.

         Then he did finish college and sat down to talk with uncles Roy Guste, who was running Antoine's, and William Joseph "Billy" Guste, Jr., then Louisiana's attorney general. They told Blount he had no future there — he'd be like a bull in a china shop.

         Now Antoine's, the nation's oldest continually operated, family-owned restaurant, is celebrating its 175th anniversary. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum has opened an exhibit about the restaurant. It will run through summer.

         And Blount, 57, is going into his 10th year as Antoine's CEO.

         In his 30s, Blount said, he probably would have said his uncles discriminated against him because he wasn't a Guste. "But today, I would tell you that I probably was a bull in a china shop. I had this absolute righteousness about me that I knew what was right."

         Blount is great-great-grandson of the restaurant's founder, Antoine Alciatore, and the grandson of Roy Alciatore, who ran the restaurant for 42 years until his death in 1972, when Blount was 13.

         His mother, Yvonne Alciatore Blount, was Roy Alciatore's only child. His father was a marine surveyor. Blount said they took their six children to Antoine's perhaps once a year, for Mardi Gras.

         "That restaurant was a novelty to us, and quite honestly it wasn't that attractive to us as kids," he said. "It was very formal. You had to be quiet."

         He said the family had pride but "no economic advantage" in being part of the Antoine's family.

         "We didn't get to drive a Corvette. We struggled to figure out if we could get new shoes," he said.

         In college, Blount studied to be a banker. But he said the wave of bank consolidations at the time made it difficult to find a job in that field. He created a business to repair and rehab boats for blue marlin fishing. That's principally how he earned his living until 2004, although his mother still owned an interest in Antoine's and Blount received regular financial reports on the restaurant.

         In 2005, Antoine's needed a new leader. Shareholders elected Blount. In 2007, Blount said, he and his immediate family bought the half stake in Antoine's they didn't own from the bank J.P. Morgan.

         When he walked into Antoine's as chief executive officer, Blount was ready to shake the foundations of the restaurant that sprawls across almost an entire block.

         "There was rampant nepotism everywhere," he said. "Everyone was related to everyone. Everyone dated everyone. I thought, 'How does anyone manage under these conditions? It's just crazy.'"

         Before he could impose changes and try to modernize a place that had always treasured being stuck in the past, Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. A burst of wind toppled a wall at Antoine's, and the floors of the main building buckled. The ceiling of the dining room that faces Royal Street drooped in the middle.

         As Blount led the reopening in the hobbled city, he learned to value the way things were and always had been done.

         Most of the staff returned. And Blount recognized that, over generations, the staff had forged a loyalty and culture that was the old restaurant's essence.

         "I thought we needed an operating handbook. We needed service standards. We needed recipe files," he said. "What we had were rituals, and I thought we needed laws. I was wrong."

         How will Blount, the fifth generation of his family to run Antoine's, leave his mark on the restaurant's long history?

         "I think I've been a good defender," he said. "I've changed things to allow me to keep things."

         Among the changes he has made: He relaxed the dress code, because he saw it as the only way to stay in business. He opened the Hermes Bar as a more "approachable" option, so that the main restaurant could remain classic and formal, at least by 21st century standards.

         "I think we're a work in progress," Blount said. "I think we always will be."

         – by AP/ Reporter Todd A. Price with NOLA.com | Times-Picayune

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