Frozen Daiquiris to Fine Dining
Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts takes New Orleans hospitality to new frontiers.
At 4 a.m., you’re likely to find Marviani Ammari already at his computer, enjoying a cup of coffee and reading emails before his wife and four children get up. As the CEO of Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts, the New Orleans hospitality company with a rapidly growing portfolio of restaurants, bars, event spaces and real estate, Marviani simply can’t wait to get to work every day.
“I love driving Downtown, even on a Sunday morning, to touch the buildings, maybe stop at one of the restaurants for a cup of coffee, see the managers,” he says. “We truly live in the best city in the world. I love what I do.”
Marviani’s brother and company COO Zeid Ammari jokes that along with Richy, the third brother and CFO, they are all “amping up the coffee every morning” to keep pace with a business that can’t sit still. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.
At the time of this writing, Creole Cuisine employs more than 1,000 people and operates 11 full-service restaurants, including Broussard’s, Kingfish, The Bombay Club, Royal House Oyster Bar, Cafe Maspero, The Original Pierre Maspero’s, Bayou Burger & Sports Company, Chartres House, Le Bayou, Pier 424 Seafood Market, Daiquiri Paradise, and all of the Big Easy Daiquiri locations. They also run another daiquiri shop in Chalmette.
Marviani didn’t foresee any of this back in 1989, when he took over his first daiquiri location in St. Bernard Parish. At the time, he was in his second year of college. “I was a kid. I didn’t have a vision of what I wanted to do. I was extremely happy making the money I was making at that time.” Enjoying this early success, Marviani extended to a second location on Read Boulevard in eastern New Orleans.
TOP: Café Maspero occupies the historic Old Slave Exchange building in the heart of the French Quarter. BOTTOM: Another French Quarter favorite, Chartres House is known for its Cajun cuisine.
By 1991, he was ready to break into the French Quarter, landing a prime spot on Bourbon Street, near the Pat O’Brien’s Annex, then growing to an additional location on Decatur. Over the years, more locations followed, brothers Richy and Zeid joined the business, and in 2003, the company opened its first restaurant, the Chartres House. “It had been a restaurant for more than 40 years,” says Marviani. “When the gentleman who had it passed away, I had the opportunity to jump in.”
A path forged by water – and oil
Up until Hurricane Katrina, daiquiris remained the company’s primary focus, but that shifted with the storm. In its immediate wake, Marviani found himself in Houston thinking, “’Oh my God, everything I’ve got is gone.’ We had eight locations at that point — seven daiquiri stores and a restaurant. How do you go back and capture staff who are dealing with the same issues we are? Our family in Houston tried to convince us to put Cajun restaurants there, and I said, ‘I’m not a gambler, but I’m going to put all my money on New Orleans.’”
The Ammaris returned to New Orleans, made contact with most of their managers and employees, and immersed themselves in helping to rebuild the city. This commitment led them to expand their restaurant presence, creating more gathering spots for people to “see and hear others and hear people’s stories,” says Marviani — a vital need at that time.
In 2008, Hurricane Gustav tested what they had learned from the first disaster.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this could be every other year? How can we work with staff, with the city, to put places back in commerce immediately after an evacuation?’” recalls Marviani.
“I’m not a gambler, but I’m going to put all my money on New Orleans.” – Marviani Ammari, CEO of Creole Cuisine Restaurant Concepts
In 2010, the business took another hit with the BP oil spill. “That taught us a lot. We do an aggregate of $50 million in sales, 80 percent of it in restaurants, and most of that is really in seafood, so any little glitch brings you challenges. But we learned. We are going to continue to learn.”
The biggest challenges facing the company today, according to Zeid, are the rising costs of goods and a shortage of manpower. “With six new locations, what we work on every day is to set up a team, from a dishwasher up to a GM, to be ready. You don’t want to just put bodies in — you have to put the best person available. At the end of the day, there is a solution to every problem, and we do our best with it.”
Blending consistency with individuality
For the Ammaris, the holy grail of hospitality is consistency, something Creole Cuisine prides itself on. Marviani cites the daiquiri stores in the French Quarter as an example. “It’s a $7-12 average spend per person,” he says. “You’re looking for a daiquiri or a beer and maybe a slice of pizza. You want someone to give you the best service — have that napkin on the side, have people address you correctly. Clean bathrooms, no boom-boom music where you can’t have a conversation with the bartender. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Doors are open consistently. The staff behind the bars, the host stand, manager, waiter, busboys — all have to be consistent with service. Our business is hard — you have to love your staff. They are your ambassadors, and they send a message out to customers.”
The Ammaris attribute most of the company’s success to their strong team, the hundreds of employees whom they refer to as ‘family.’ “I hire the best,” says Marviani. “You hire smarter people than you and you get out of their way.” Then the goal is to “keep them happy, pay them well — above what the market calls for — and treat them well. Keep them forever.”
A New Orleans take on the neighborhood sports bar, the two-story Bayou Burger & Sports Bar opened on Bourbon Street in 2012.
The brothers also stress that consistency does not mean uniformity. According to Zeid, “We live in a city that is extremely original. New Orleans is one of a kind, not something you can duplicate. So we believe our business should be original also. Out of our 11 restaurants, every one is a separate entity, concept, with a different feel and touch. The goal in our growth is always to pinpoint a concept that works very well for the potential guest we are targeting.”
Growth on the menu
The Ammaris’ confidence in the city’s economic future underpins their aggressive growth model. “The city is growing at an unbelievable speed, and New Orleans is not a completely different city than it was 10 or 20 years ago,” says Zeid. “But what’s different is that we’re evolving from a very small big city into a very good medium-sized big city. The business community is feeling a tremendous growth, and you have to react to that.”
Creole Cuisine has increased its footprint significantly in the French Quarter area, and Marviani sees even further room for expansion. “I’ve heard comments recently that the Quarter is overbuilt with restaurants and bars, and I disagree with anybody that argues that point.” He cites a study he did recently around the intersection of Iberville and Bourbon. “When you add up places like Acme, Felix’s, Mr. B’s, Dickie Brennan’s, Red Fish Grill, Bourbon House — there’s $170 million in revenue a year, just in that section.”
Marviani believes some restaurants in the French Quarter may be “in the wrong hands — either folks that have a diamond in the rough, or a brand that has been going for a long time, with people who want to get out and sell or are getting up in age and want to pass the torch. “Like Ralph [Brennan] with Napoleon House or like Café Maspero with Mr. Charlie [Malachias] giving it to us — it’s something you take and enhance,” he says. “We’ll never say we’re done with the Quarter.”
Creole Cuisine is so bullish on the French Quarter that they are currently building several new restaurants there. The first is Creole House Restaurant & Oyster Bar at 509 Canal St., the site of a former Arby’s. According to Marviani, the two-story restaurant will feature charbroiled and fresh-shucked oysters in the bar and a menu designed to satisfy both locals and “the great visitors we have with all these giant hotels around us.” The company is also about to break ground on a ‘rustic Louisiana’ bistro at 301 Royal, has just signed a deal on a property at the corner of Chartres and Bienville, and is transforming the former Bella Luna/Galvez building on the riverfront into a banquet facility called Marché (market in French).
While the company’s presence is most significant in the French Quarter, they are actively looking to expand outside of it — to the Warehouse District, Metairie, the Northshore, Westbank and beyond. One of the year’s most noteworthy restaurant headlines was the news that Creole Cuisine would be transforming the former Houston’s in Metairie into an American bistro called Boulevard. The new restaurant opened Nov. 23.
“People are extremely happy about Boulevard,” Marviani says. “An American bistro is something that will always do well, whether on the Northshore or in the city. That kind of menu and food — redfish and ribs, steaks, salads, great apps — you can’t go wrong with that.”
“I’ve heard comments recently that the Quarter is overbuilt with restaurants and bars, and I disagree with anybody that argues that point,” says CEO Marviani Ammari. Shown here are three of the company’s French Quarter offerings: TOP LEFT: Broussard’s, TOP RIGHT: Kingfish Kitchen and Cocktails and BOTTOM: The Bombay Club.
Adds Zeid, “We’ve been customers of that building for years. It seemed like a perfect fit when that project was available — it made not only business sense but felt right to do it. We wanted to bring back the right restaurant to the community we live in. The No. 1 feedback we are getting from guests today is thank you for bringing it back, a restaurant that belongs to the community.”
In addition to adding new concepts to its portfolio, Creole Cuisine also hopes to take two of its existing concepts on the road with new locations for Bayou Burger & Sports and Big Easy Café.
Two words: Family Business
So what’s it like to run a business with your brothers? “To us as a family business, it’s family first,” says Zeid. “So there is a tremendous respect that comes first, and the second word in family business is that this is a business, so we understand each other’s job duties and respect them. I wish I could tell you some crazy stories that we throw plates at each other, but we don’t. We work very well together — it’s a little scary how well. Even as kids, we really didn’t fight.”
If there is any disagreement among the brothers, no one hears it apart from the one colleague allowed to join them in what they call the ‘Meeting Box,’ a weekly, three-hour session during which they hash out issues and solve problems. Says Marviani, “When we leave that room, we speak with one voice. What goes on in that three hours can be hot and cold, but once we agree, we are out of that room, and it’s love and respect.”
The brothers also benefit from a distribution of responsibilities that suits their natural talents: “Each one of us handles a different side of the business,” says Marviani. “Richy does real well as CFO, has a great team in the office helping him with HR, accounting, banking. I’m the big picture guy who brings in the deals. And then I give the piece to Zeid. When Creole House opens up, I’ll pass it on when construction is done and the doors are open, then it’s his deal. I just supervise from up top. It’s not about myself and my brothers. It’s about the team — the management and the entire staff who fight every day to make these good things happen.”
“This is a tough business,” adds Zeid, “holidays, weekends, nights. Hospitality never shuts down. I always joke around that we have a sickness, and they have not found a medicine for the sickness. We keep going back. Maybe I’ll walk past a table making sure things are proper on the table, and I turn around and unexpectedly someone will grab me and say the food was tremendous, the service was excellent, thank you so much. And that does something to you — it keeps you going for the entire week, not just the day. We are blessed to be part of this community, and we promote the city any chance we get.”
NEW AND UPCOMING CREOLE CUISINE PROJECTS
• Creole House Restaurant & Oyster Bar at 509 Canal Street — open late December 2015
• A “rustic Louisiana bistro” at 301 Royal (name TBD), opening first quarter of 2016
• Marché (transformation of the former Bella Luna/Galvez building on the riverfront into a banquet facility) – 914 North Peters Street, opening first quarter of 2016
• New locations for Big Easy Café opening on the Westbank first quarter of 2016 and Jefferson Parish in the second quarter of 2016
• New locations for Bayou Burger & Sports opening in 2016