Still Hooked

After almost 80 years, Barrow’s Catfish is still fresh

ILLUSTRATION BY TONY HEALEY

A native New Orleanian, 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.


 

At Barrow’s Catfish, a crispy cornmeal crust binds together a legacy of four generations.

This entrepreneurial tale began in 1943, when founder William “Cap” Barrow Sr. and his wife, Mary, opened Barrow’s Shady Inn in the downstairs of their Hollygrove home. Once Cap began selling catfish sandwiches out of the bar’s backdoor for 50 cents, the neighborhood was hooked. The business quickly morphed into a restaurant with a very simple menu: fried catfish — bone in or boneless, potato salad and pie.

That catfish wasn’t just any fish either. Barrow’s was closed on Mondays so Cap could make the trip down to Des Allemands to select the freshest wild catfish, which he would process himself to ensure quality. Mary Barrow’s soul food recipes provided daily specials, and her homemade sweet-but-tart lemonade was a signature drink.

As the restaurant’s popularity grew, Cap installed neon signs bearing the restaurant’s name, along with a whiskered catfish that welcomed crowds. Cap and Mary’s eldest son, William “Billy” Barrow Jr., became an educator but he remained part of the family business, raising his family right next door. When Cap passed away, Barrow Jr. stepped up to continue the family tradition.

By the 1970s, the world had discovered Barrow’s, with clientele hailing from across the globe, including many celebrities. And the restaurant, was all about special treatment — for everyone. Billy Barrow’s motto was, “Everyone is important at Barrow’s.”

“He wanted the Joes in the neighborhood to feel just as important as any celebrity,” said his daughter, Deirdre. “He’d say, ‘If you took the time to come buy my product, you’re the most important person in the house.’”

A chance meeting at a high school dance in the 1980s cemented Barrow’s future when Deirdre Barrow caught the eye of Kenneth Johnson Jr. The pair began dating, and immediately became inseparable.

Following the death of Deirdre’s brother, William Barrow III, in 1987, Johnson approached his girlfriend’s father to offer his help. The college student began working at Barrow’s nights and weekends. Eventually he revealed to his boss, “I would love to marry your daughter.” Johnson remembers Barrow’s laugh as he answered, “I thought you all had eloped already!” The couple married in 1991.

Eight years later, the family business was shaken when Billy Barrow was struck and killed by a vehicle in 1999 while walking near the restaurant. After college, Johnson had pursued a career in banking, but Barrow’s death brought him back to run the family business with Deirdre.

By 2004, the ambitious young couple expanded the brand with a second location on the Westbank, but Hurricane Katrina brought an end to those dreams. The Johnsons evacuated to Atlanta, Georgia, with their children, where they stayed for the next four years, but Barrow’s rebirth was always on their minds.

When a location opened up on Earhart Boulevard — a short distance away from the original Shady Inn — they approached the fourth generation about reviving the family business. Kenneth Johnson III and his sister, Destyn, were working in other fields but enthusiastically agreed to become part of the team.

Barrow’s Catfish reopened its doors on July 6, 2018, and the community’s response was overwhelming.

“People stood in line for two or three hours until we ran out of catfish and had to close briefly,” said Deirdre Johnson. “They stayed and waited in the heat to be part of history.”

The Johnsons said their greatest source of pride is their fourth generation.

“We go through financial statements to show them all aspects of what it takes,” said Kenneth Johnson. “You’re always fighting for that 10 to 15% margin. My son called very upset one day over a $400 bread bill. Once he wrote that check, the things I’ve said, like, ‘Turn off the water,’ or ‘Fill up the garbage bag before taking it out,’ meant more. It fills my heart when he says, ‘Yes Dad, I got it!’ ”

Barrow’s Catfish is a family business in every way.

“We only have two children,” said Deirdre Johnson, “But when you combine our employees and their households, we’ve got a big family.”

 

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.