Determined to find the Sweet Spot
As Brennan’s restaurant celebrates its 75th year, the family’s fourth generation have begun to make their mark.
“We’ve always tried to work together, and our supplier community is an important part of that group. I think we know that we are stronger together than we are apart.”
— Ralph Brennan
The Brennan family is as much a part of New Orleans’ culinary scene as crawfish and etouffee.
It all started when a man named Owen Edward Brennan decided to open a French restaurant on Bourbon Street in 1946 called Brennan’s, and continued when members of the Brennan family opened one successful fine dining venture after another, including Commander’s Palace, which served as the training ground for world-famous chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.
Ralph Brennan, member of the family’s third generation, is currently the owner of five restaurants in New Orleans (Red Fish Grill, Ralph’s on the Park, café NOMA, Napoleon House and Brennan’s), and co-owner of two more with family members (Mr. B’s Bistro and Commander’s Palace). His company, Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, also includes Ralph Brennan Catering & Events and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen, located inside the Downtown Disney district in Florida.
Brennan has also continuously served in leadership roles in the industry he loves, including as past president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and past president of the National Restaurant Association. Last November, he became president of the Culinary Institute of America, whose campuses in New York, Napa Valley, San Antonio and Singapore train over 3,000 students training for roles in the culinary and hospitality industries.
Of all his restaurants, however, Brennan’s has always held a special place in his heart. It was at that restaurant where Brennan would play as a child, and where he worked in high school. Just as he was graduating with an MBA from Tulane University, however, the Brennan family had a split, and Brennan’s cousins ended up taking over the restaurant while his father and aunts and uncles moved to Commander’s Palace.
That break changed the trajectory of Brennan’s life.
“The opportunity wasn’t [at Commander’s Palace] for me, so I became a certified public accountant. I went to work for a company called Pricewaterhouse in their New Orleans office. I did that for almost six years, and then my aunt offered me an opportunity to get back into the [family] business.”
The loss of Brennan’s had hit him hard, so when the opportunity to purchase it came in 2013, he moved quickly. Since that point, two of his three children — Patrick Brennan and Kathryn Brennan McLeod — have followed him into the family business.
Now, as New Orleans, and the world, approaches a year spent in the throes of a global pandemic that has had devastating effects on two of the city’s strongest economic drivers — tourism and hospitality — Biz New Orleans sat down with these three Brennans to talk about how this part of the fourth generation of Brennan’s is trying to move their family’s first restaurant — which celebrates 75 years in 2021 — forward, while still preserving the past.
Oh, and all of this in the middle of possibly the toughest time our region’s restaurants have ever faced.
Kathryn and Patrick, Brennan’s meant a lot to your dad growing up, but what does it mean to you? What was it like walking into the restaurant after your dad became the owner?
Kathryn – I remember the first day we walked through the building and Dad had so many stories that I’d never heard before, because we’d never been in there. And hearing all these stories of his childhood and teens was really, really fun.
Patrick – We had pretty much the whole family, including Ella, who has since passed away — she was fired from there in 1973 — and she came in and we all sat. We were all in the King’s Room together. There’s a picture of us with the newspaper hanging on the wall there now. And she was telling us what it was like to open the place when her older brother passed away a few months before renovation was finished and they had to scramble, and the banks pulled all the loans. They had to scramble and figure out how to get money. I mean, it was incredible to hear the stories that we never really heard because no one really talked about Brennan’s. It was kind of a sore spot in the family. It’s been very nice to have that sore spot start to heal.
Ralph, did you encourage your kids to join the family business?
Ralph – Like I did, they both grew up with a lot of exposure to the business, working summers in and around the business. Patrick started when he was about, what? Eight years old, Patrick, when you worked with Pam?
Patrick – Probably there.
Ralph – [Pam was] a pastry chef at Red Fish Grill and he befriended her during the pre-opening period, and he spent two weeks with her in the summer and he got the bug and then Kathryn worked at Red Fish, I know, for a while. We have another daughter who really is not interested, so it’s kind of the way it worked out in my family. We were all exposed to the business growing up and I got involved, obviously, and my two sisters, Riley’s at Commander’s and Cindy’s at Mr. B’s, and then I have a brother who’s not interested and he’s at Merrill Lynch. So, it was just sort of a natural thing.
Kathryn – But we had to go work somewhere else, too.
Ralph – Yeah, you did. You had to go and that was important. What I learned at Pricewaterhouse, working with other people, I think was very important to a family business. I think you have to go out and do something elsewhere before you come back into the business.
“We are still getting tons of calls from people who want to schedule weddings and big events. What I think will take a little longer to come back is corporate events.”
— Kathryn Brennan McLeod
Patrick, let’s start with you. What attracted you to the family business?
Patrick – Well, honestly, I got attracted to the kitchen side of things. As my dad told you, I started at… I was 8 or 9 years old working with the pastry chef and I just fell in love with it. I mean, it’s a wild, crazy business with something new every day. It’s fun because every day you get to see people enjoy the fruits of your labor. You literally make food, you bring it to someone, you get to see them eat it and enjoy themselves. So just that rush of watching somebody enjoy themselves is what’s always attracted me to this business.
What was your path into the industry like?
Patrick – I started as a kid and once I got to high school, I was working at Ralph’s on the Park. I was bouncing around different stations learning there, went off to college and then after college, spent a year cooking in Colorado, then I was at the Culinary Institute of America, the one in Napa Valley — great town. After graduation, I was planning on moving out of San Francisco and finding a restaurant to work at when I got a call from my dad that, he’d had the opportunity to buy Brennan’s. He hired me as a line cook and then after we opened, we lost a few of our sous chefs and about nine months to a year after we opened, I was promoted to sous chef and started off running our private event kitchen, doing all the groups we get in the private dining rooms upstairs.. After that, I’ve had a whole bunch of other titles, like beverage director. I’ve been front of house manager and I’m now working at our bakery, kind of running the show.
Ralph – You wear too many hats to have one title.
What are some of the changes you’ve helped bring in?
Patrick – After we took over Brennan’s, one of the things we wanted to change was the coffee service, the most important part of breakfast. As of about four years ago, instead of the big pot in the back of the kitchen that’s been sitting there all day, we do individual French presses for each person. Brennan’s is all about respecting the tradition, but also one step in the past, one step in the future. We’re using a local roastery, Congregation Coffee, they do a more modern blend, a lighter roast, and then we have French Market, which has made us our own chicory blend. I’m happy we can offer something more modern and more traditional.
About the same time, you also added a cheese program?
Patrick – Yes, with the Bubbles at Brennan’s, that we do at the courtyard happy hour. We just did a pairing of cheeses to go with the champagne.
Kathryn, what was your journey into the family business like?
Kathryn – Well, similar to Patrick, I used to go spend the day with my dad when I was little at the restaurants on Saturdays. And I just always loved being in the front of the house. And I guess the first time I really worked in the restaurant I must’ve been 13 or 14. I was a hostess at Red Fish Grill and I just enjoyed seeing people celebrate and enjoy themselves. I also kind of love the front of house aspect and seating and playing the game of how to have as many people enjoy themselves at the restaurant as we can.
Through high school I worked a lot with our sales department and our marketing department, and then I went away to college and I moved to New York. I did private parties and sales up there for three years. And then I got cold and I moved home, and I started working with my dad at Ralph’s on the Park and was a floor manager there. I’ve worked, I think, in almost all the restaurants. I’ve been a manager at Red Fish Grill, at Brennan’s, Ralph’s on the Park. I did about a year in our off-site catering program. I’ve been all over the place.
Let’s talk about what’s been going on since last March. How has Brennan’s been carrying on with all of this?
Ralph – Well, let me just say we’ve been very fortunate because it’s more than just Brennan’s, and it’s been good because we’ve been able to draw resources from all of the restaurants to help us get through. I think the most successful restaurant that we’ve had so far has been Ralph’s on the Park because of its location in Mid-City and the backbone of the customer base there is local. Red Fish Grill, Brennan’s and Napoleon House are all in the French Quarter and it’s been much more of a challenge there because so many of our guests there are visitors.
So many restaurants turned to takeout? Did you do that?
Kathryn – We did do it at Ralph’s on the Park, but not at Brennan’s. Brennan’s has done some smaller takeout things — like for New Year’s we did champagne and caviar takeout — and then we’ve done some different charity events where we’ve catered it via takeout, but we don’t have a full takeout menu at Brennan’s right now.
Patrick We did curbside at Napoleon House and Ralph’s on the Park. We tried it everywhere, but those are the two that really made it. It’s been a little crazy trying to figure all that out, like what travels and what doesn’t. It’s a totally different style of preparing food than we are used to.
Have you had been able to extend into outdoor space?
Ralph – We have worked within the locations that we have, but Ralph’s On the Park has a gallery that wraps around the second floor and that’s been very popular. Brennan’s has a beautiful French Quarter courtyard, and I was actually talking with the general manager about it yesterday, trying to figure out a way to more permanently tent it so that we have it available year-round. We’ve applied for a couple of parklet permits at Napoleon House and at Brennan’s for some dining outside. It’s in process, but it’s taken a long time, but if you can pick up a few extra tables, that’s very important.
Within the industry as a whole, have you seen a banding together during this time?
Patrick – For sure, my family going back three generations has been very active in the Louisiana Restaurant Association and they have done a great job of trying to get everybody on the same page, and really communicating about the constantly changing restrictions. We’ve also been trying to help our suppliers as much as we can. We’re buying everything we can as local as we can, trying to help everyone out to make sure we’re all there on the other side of this.
Ralph – Let me just say — as I’ve obviously been around a little bit longer than the kids — our community, our restaurant community, our hospitality community is very close in New Orleans. We do compete, obviously, on a daily basis, but we also work together. Our goal was always to grow the market for New Orleans, and we’ve always worked together, and that’s paid off for [our restaurant community] numerous times over the last 15 or 20 years with events like Hurricane Katrina and then the pandemic and others, oil spills and things like that. We’ve always tried to work together, and our supplier community is an important part of that group. I think we know that we are stronger together than we are apart.
“We’re buying everything we can as local as we can, trying to help everyone out to make sure we’re all there on the other side of this.”
— Patrick Brennan
What have you done to support your own staff during this difficult time?
Patrick – Well, we paid for everyone’s health insurance for the first three months and we are still paying the employer portion for anybody who wants to stay on health insurance. We’ve also been doing staff meals that feed four out of Red Fish Grill twice a week. We’re doing about 100 to 120 a day, and then we’ve done all the big holidays. Really, we’re just tried to keep as many people employed as we can.
Let’s talk king cakes! This is your 75th year in business but the first time doing king cakes? What’s that about? Why now?
Patrick – A couple of reasons, first we had the opportunity to buy a bakery in Gert Town with almost all the equipment in it. We bought it to support the restaurants — we make all the bread for the muffulettas there, most of the bread we sell in the restaurants, and run our dessert program out of there. We added king cakes this year because we finally had the time and the opportunity to. We’ve done them for years for private events for our staff, and this year we were able to roll it out full-time. We’re staffing the whole program with people looking for hours in the company. One of our general managers popped in today and helped decorate cakes for a while. We’ve had cooks, we’ve had servers and bartenders. It’s been fun and a little hectic.
Ralph: We’ve never really done it as a family in any of our family restaurants, my company, and [in] the Commander’s group or Mr. B’s or whatever, no one’s ever done king cakes before like this. We’ve done individual king cakes usually for groups that request them, but that’s it. And sometimes we put them on the regular dessert menu too, but never this kind of volume and [with] this kind of retail marketing. It’s been a whole new market for us.
Your 75th year is coming in a very difficult time but are there any plans to note this occasion?
Kathryn – I think we’re coming up with some creative ideas, but we make sure we prioritize the health and safety of everybody first. So we’re probably waiting until hopefully the summer, depending on how the pandemic turns out, to do any sort of big celebrations.
What do you all see going forward for the industry as a whole and for our region?
Ralph – That’s a great question, because I think it will be different. I’m not sure exactly how different yet. Restaurants are really gathering places where people can get together with their friends and share good times, and I think you’re going to still see that. I think we are going to need, at least for the near future, to be more cautious in what we do. But I think overall restaurants are going to still be those gathering places. I also think it’s going to provide some more interesting opportunities because I think people are getting accustomed to dining curbside to go, meals you can take home and consume at home and get that high quality restaurant experience at home. I think that’s one of the benefits that’s going to come out of this for the industry, that people are adjusting to a new style of eating.
What about on the event side? Do you think this will change the way people gather and celebrate even after the pandemic?
Kathryn – We are still getting tons of calls from people who want to schedule weddings and big events. What I think will take a little bit longer to come back is the corporate events. New Orleans used to be such a hub for conventions and I’m just not sure how long it’s going to take for that market to come back.
Patrick – We’re going to have so many weddings. So many people have postponed their weddings. We’re going to have about a million weddings by the end of this year. We’re going to be seeing Monday night weddings.
Ralph If you look at our private party bookings, is you’re seeing strength in the second half of 2021 and into 2022; there’s a lot of pent-up demand, and I think these vaccines that are coming out are critical and crucial to our guests’ comfort level as we go forward. If they believe that they’re safe, then I think it’s good for us.
So, is there a fifth generation of Brennans coming?
Kathryn – There are seven children… oh, six about to be seven. Right?
Patrick – I’ve got No. 7 on the way in a couple of months. Well, my wife does, not me. The oldest member of that generation is four.
Will you be encouraging them to get into the restaurant business?
Patrick – Just like my dad did with us, we’re going to make sure they get their education, they get out, they see the world before making any commitments. We don’t want them to feel like they have to do this because it’s not an industry for everyone. It’s crazy, we work all the time — we’re out working when you’re out partying. We’re not going to force it on any of them, but they will be welcome to join us if they want to.