Restaurateur Ralph Brennan leads Biz New Orleans on a personal tour through the newly renovated Brennan’s and discusses plans for his latest high profile acquisition.
From the moment he appeared, descending from the second floor of 417 Royal Street, one thought stood out to me: Now this is a man clearly in his element.
Jovial and relaxed, Ralph Brennan stuck out his hand and welcomed me to Brennan’s in a manner much less like a businessman than a proud new homeowner, delighting in every detail around him.
This may be because Brennan’s, officially the eighth business owned by Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, is a bit different from all the rest. Not only does it happen to be the birthplace of his family’s empire (doors opened in 1946), but it also served for years as Brennan’s own personal playground, the setting of many of his most cherished childhood memories.
“I had the ability to play in this restaurant,” he says, glancing around the dining room. “I’d come over here with my aunts when I’d spend weekends with my grandparents — my aunts lived with them. They’d all work until around 8 or 9 o’clock and then we’d have dinner. While they worked, I played. This was my playhouse.”
Ralph Brennan stands in the Morphy Room, a new addition to the upstairs named for the famous American chess player Paul Morphy.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
By 1974, as Brennan was finishing up a degree in finance at Tulane University, the Brennan family, now known for both Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace, became deeply divided.
“My three cousins kept this restaurant with their mother, and the rest of the family went to Commander’s Palace,” Brennan explains. “At that point, there wasn’t really any opportunity for me so I had to go get a job. And as it turned out I made a great decision.”
Brennan earned an MBA and spent eight years working as a CPA at Price Waterhouse.
“Price Waterhouse was a great company to work with,” he says. “The variety and diversity of clients taught me a lot real fast and I really appreciate that. It was almost like getting an extra graduate degree in a lot of ways.”
When he did enter back into the family business, Brennan quickly began making his own mark, opening restaurants around the city and even branching out to Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen at the Disneyland Resort.
By 2013, Brennan’s old playhouse was in deep financial trouble.
Brennan stepped in, and, along with business partner Terry White, purchased the restaurant in May 2013.
“I just didn’t want it to go outside the family,” he says.
And so it came that finally, 40 years after he last stepped foot in the restaurant, Brennan found himself coming home.
Biz: What was that like? Coming back to the restaurant after 40 years, this time as the new owner?
RB: It was a really emotional experience. It had changed a lot over the years and I just thought, “I want to do something really special.”
Biz: Where did you begin?
RB: First thing is, I wanted to have an elevator. When we renovated Ralph’s on the Park we put an elevator in and that’s the best thing we did. I really think it’s important to have one these days. And we also had to move the restrooms to comply with ADA. Of course when we started doing that, it gave us an opportunity to really rework the downstairs.
Biz: One of the most noted changes you made was to create a new dining room.
RB: When my family built the restaurant in 1955 and 56 they put the kitchen along the front of the restaurant. They were trying to get more seats around the courtyard. Apparently the kitchen in the previous restaurant, Patio Royal, was on that side, on the service wing of the building, so they moved the kitchen up front.
Well we figured out the thing to do was to turn the kitchen 90 degrees. By doing that, we opened up a room for the dining room to overlook Royal Street.
One of Brennan’s additions to the restaurant was the Queen’s Room, a private dining room upstairs that celebrates Mardi Gras queens past and present.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
Biz: The bar is also a lot larger.
RB: These days bars are very important. We took the area that was formerly the very small main dining room and made it into the bar. It was Kathleen and Terry (White)’s idea to have the bar overlooking the courtyard, and I think it was a great one.
Biz: Speaking of the courtyard, it looks incredible.
RB: It really is special. I think it’s one of the most unique courtyards in the Quarter because it’s so big. I wanted it to be a focal point for the restaurant but we had to do a lot to it first. We had to redo all the drainage, for example, and take two large planters out to open it up. That also gave us the ability to put tents up if requested.
Biz: In the green dining room, the Chanteclair Room, are those Mardi Gras paintings?
RB: (laughing) That’s a funny story actually. They’re prints, done by an Englishman years ago. When I saw them, it was the seashell float one that actually caught my attention. I kept looking at it thinking, “Wait a minute, this has to be…”
So I was in Henri Schindler’s apartment one day — he’s a big expert on Mardi Gras — and he was giving me some advice about the king and queen’s rooms upstairs. I decided to show him some of the prints. He laughed and told me to turn around. There on his wall was the parade bulletin from Proteus of 1895, and there were the pictures. These are all Proteus floats.
Biz: Back past that dining room there’s some construction going on, what’s back there?
RB: That’s the wine cellar. While some of my favorite memories are definitely watching the Mardi Gras parades from the balcony upstairs, I’d have to say a close second would be the memories I have of playing in the wine cellar. I was fascinated by the bottles and the labels.
Biz: What are you doing with that space?
RB: It’s actually going to be my take on a chef’s table. We’ve never had a chef’s table in this restaurant, like a lot of places do, because when you look at the kitchen, the width, we just couldn’t do it. So that’s what this is going to be — a place where people will be able to order some special menus if they’d like and the chef can prepare some special items.
We’ve put in this huge table, made from an old cypress tree. The table is so big we had to put it in before we finished the room. I think this room is going to be my favorite.
What was formerly the wine cellar at Brennan’s is being transformed into a unique and intimate dining experience.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
Biz: When will it open?
RB: We should be open by the end of May — that’s what we’ve been promised. I think we’ll probably really start selling it for the fall. I believe we’ll be able to seat about 18.
Biz: This was a really extensive renovation. Is there anything, any area, that you didn’t touch?
RB: We touched everything. Probably the only thing that’s the same downstairs is the carriageway.
Biz: With all the changes, how do you balance that sense of history and preservation with progress?
RB: You just have to be careful. What we tried to do here is we wanted to honor the traditions, which is why you still see dishes like Bananas Foster and Strawberry Crepes Fitzgerald.
Slade (Slade Rushing, chef) actually has a picture of Brennan’s original chef in the kitchen – Paul Blangé. He was the chef here when I was young and he helped create Brennan’s and breakfast at Brennan’s. You have to honor the tradition, but at the same time, you have to recognize the times that you’re in. You can’t be stagnant.
Biz: Speaking of moving ahead, as of April 30, you are the new owner of the Napoleon House, a restaurant the Impastato family has run for 101 years. That’s another place with a lot of history. With Brennan’s you could come in and really make some changes, put your stamp on it. But with the Napoleon House, you’ve stated clearly that you’re not going to do that. What attracted you to it then?
RB: History and tradition. I wanted to maintain it. I’ve loved the building. I love going there. I’m not a Pimm’s Cup drinker but I am a Sazerac drinker and they make a pretty good one. My office is two blocks away, so every once in a while I’d go in there. I was first flattered and honored that they called me. I’m going to go in there and spend a lot of time before we touch anything.
Renovations included expanding the bar area, which now overlooks the courtyard.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber
Biz: You do have some changes in mind though?
RB: With regard to the menu, I’m not going to change a thing. But one of the things I am looking at is possibly putting in an elevator. There’s this beautiful private dining room upstairs and there’s no way to get up there except the stairs. I’ve been talking to Sal (Impastato). His sisters were telling me that’s been a big challenge for them. I have an idea. It might be a two-step process, but we might be able to work something out.
Biz: You’ve spent essentially your entire life in and around the restaurant industry. How have you seen it change?
RB: There are a lot more restaurants now, and I think it’s exciting. There are so many talented people out there opening new restaurants that it’s hard to keep up. I try to go eat in all the new ones and my list only gets longer. I can’t knock enough off. I think it bodes well for the city. Food and beverage have always been an important part of the city.
Biz: You’ve had a lot of success in an industry that has a high rate of failure. What advice would you give budding restaurateurs?
RB: Two things: One, it’s a business and you have to run it like a business. And two, it’s hard. What makes it hard is executing every day. That’s what I tell all of our people. You have to do it everyday, every meal period, every customer. It’s all the little things that make a difference.
It’s pretty easy, operationally, to get most of it right but it’s the little things that differentiate you and you have to work hard at that.
Biz: What is the state of the family now? Is there still a rift?
RB: Well…we’re family… I’ll just leave it at that.
Biz: What does the future look like for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group?
RB: (laughing) I don’t know where we’re headed. I hate to say that, but I mean, what’s happened to us in the past four years — with Brennan’s sort of falling in our lap and now Napoleon House — they were not in any sort of strategic plan that I had, but it happened and they’re great opportunities.
Packed with history, the Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street) was acquired by Ralph Brennan on April 30. Brennan purchased the property from the Impastato family, who ran the business for 101 years.
Photo by Greg Miles
Biz: You seem to be very personally involved in all the “little things” at your restaurants. Does that mean you’re going to hit a ceiling in terms of expansion?
RB: That’s a great question, because I may be reaching that point. We’re a little stressed right now and we need to hire a few people. I am actually thinking about reorganizing my senior group a little bit. We have really key people but we have a lot on our plate right now, so that is definitely high on my agenda.
Biz: What is the biggest day-to-day challenge in business for you?
RB: The biggest challenge is staffing the restaurants — all of the restaurants. Managers, service personnel, kitchen, utility staff, we’re short everywhere, and I don’t think we’re the only ones. Brennan’s magnifies that a little bit because it’s new and so much bigger, but I’ve talked to all my cousins and they say the same.
I had dinner with some of my peers in the industry the other night when we were up in Washington together with the Louisiana Restaurant Association and we were talking about it over dinner. Everybody is looking for good people.
Biz: Is the industry doing anything to address this need?
RB: My cousins are working on a project called NOCHI (the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute). They took over the old arts building on Howard and Carondelet and they’re trying to put a culinary and hospitality program in there. That will be a real plus when it happens (slated to open in Fall 2016), but right now I think most of the training and development really happens internally to the restaurant. We were actually talking early today about promoting some people from within.
Most of our managers come from within because once they’ve been with you a long time they understand what’s important and what your core values are and how you think. When we do bring some managers in from the outside — which we did here with Brennan’s — we try to indoctrinate them as fast as we can into what we’re looking for.
Biz: And what are you looking for? Is there a “Brennan’s Way” of doing things?
RB: I guess our motto is to always make people happy and enjoy the thrill of doing so. That’s what we try to do everyday and you need people who want to do that, you need people who are genuinely interested in service and making sure every guest leaves happy. But it’s not just front of house staff. Your culinary team needs to be focused on the customer. For instance, if a customer has a special request, we need to honor it. The more customers you can get to leave smiling and happy — that’s how you build your reputation.
Take it from a man who knows how it’s done.
Mary Matalin and James Carville enjoy a meal in the new Chanteclair dining room amidst prints of Mardi Gras floats from the Krewe of Proteus in 1895.
Photo by Cheryl Gerber