Seventh Ward Homecoming

From a meat market to a café to a sausage-processing facility — and back to a café — the Vaucresson culinary legacy is a lesson in the value of tenacity.
Poppy
Illustration by Paddy Mills

Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.


Seventh Ward family roots are a point of great pride for Vance and Julie Vaucresson at Vaucresson’s Creole Café. Vance’s great-grandfather, Lovinsky Vaucresson, migrated to New Orleans in 1899 from Alsace, France. His son, Robert Lovinsky Vaucresson, initiated the family’s Seventh Ward presence with a butcher’s stall in the St. Bernard Market, eventually amassing enough capital to open his own meat market nearby on the corner of North Johnson Street and St. Bernard Avenue.

Third generation Sonny Vaucresson was tapped to take over his father’s meat market when Robert passed away, but Sonny dreamed big. He expanded into the liquor business, had a cigarette machine company and invested in real estate. In 1965, handsome, gregarious Sonny opened Vaucresson’s Creole Café on Bourbon Street, the first business owned by a person of color there since Reconstruction. Over gumbo and poor-boys, Larry Borenstein and Alan Jaffe brainstormed the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at Sonny’s café, inviting him to sell food at the fest, a tradition that continues over 50 years later.

When the café closed in 1974, Sonny’s attention was laser focused on his sausage business. In 1970, he purchased a building on the corner on North Roman Street and St. Bernard Avenue. Sonny was determined to build his own sausage-processing facility there despite having to overcome the adverse racial politics rampant then in Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture.

The USDA-approved processing facility finally opened in 1983 with the capacity to service lucrative grocery store accounts like Schwegmann’s. With the ink barely dry on a major contract to supply Orleans Parish Schools, Sonny died suddenly of a heart attack in 1998. Vance stepped into his father’s shoes, successfully growing the family business until Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters almost ended their legacy.

Looking back over the 17 years it took to make Vaucresson’s Creole Café a reality, Vance credits his mother’s spirit.

“I don’t know what stop or quit means,” he reflected. “When doctors told her three times her cancer was terminal, mom refused to believe it and lived.”
Built in 1925 as a typical corner grocery with living quarters above, by creating two affordable housing units over the café, the building’s economic outlook changed dramatically.

“We were finally able to qualify for long-term, low-interest loans from Louisiana’s Office of Community Development and New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. Our covenant’s commitment to affordable housing in perpetuity gave us access to funding from the City of New Orleans as well,” Vance said. “We hope more small nonprofits can use our model to help other small commercial property owners put their building back into commerce without going to a bank, something that’s hard without traditional assets.”

This spring, National Urban League President Marc Morial used Vaucresson’s as a backdrop to announce the Black Restaurant Accelerator Program, an economic incubator combining grant dollars with entrepreneurial assistance funded with $10 million from Pepsi Co. Vaucresson’s was one of the first restaurants in the country awarded the funding.

Today, Vaucresson’s Creole Café is a bustling community hub “where you can come in, see some of your people, meet new ones and immerse yourself in the neighborhood’s history,” Vance smiled. Guests can dine in or take out poor-boys, gumbo, classic New Orleans plate lunches and fresh sausage products as well.

While Vance works to expand food service and grocery business, a new product line is coming this fall, including Vaucresson’s Creole mustard, mango mustard, Louisiana pecan mustard and more. Julie Vaucresson, the company’s culinary ambassador, utilizes her New Iberia country Creole upbringing into what she calls “Creole Made Easy.” There is a cookbook in progress with recipes combining “our sausage, with ingredients already in your kitchen,” she said. “We bring most of the flavor to the dish, so it’s easy!”

Considering the 17 years it took to get back to the Seventh Ward, that upbeat “easy” attitude may be the true secret to the Vaucressons’ success.

 

Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.