The Power of Parkway
Jay Nix never planned to own the most iconic po’boy shop in the universe.
Back in the early 1990s, Nix, who was working in construction at the time, bought a nice little house on North Hagan Street right off Bayou St. John. He was completely unaware of the nearby commercial establishment.
“I didn’t know anything about Parkway until I moved next door,” Nix recalled.
“Parkway” would be Parkway Bakery and Tavern, purveyors of every New Orleanian’s favorite style of sandwich since 1929. The business originally opened purely as a bakery in 1911, adding po’boys to the mix soon after they were first invented in depression-era New Orleans. Workers at the American Can factory across the bayou were the first customer base, but over time, the legend of the Parkway roast beef po’boy drew patrons from all over the city.
Fast forward a few decades, and after a series of mishaps – including flooded ovens and the closing of American Can – in 1993, Parkway was losing enough money that the owners closed up shop.
The building sat vacant for a couple years, and ultimately, Nix purchased it mostly in self-defense. “I didn’t want some liquor store or all-night convenience store next door to me,” he explained. But at the time, he had no intention of restoring its original use – until he began to understand just what a New Orleans treasure he now owned.
“When people asked how to get to Hagan Street, I would ask if they knew where Mercy Hospital was, and they would say ‘no’,” he remembered. “I’d ask if they knew where the brake tag station was, and they would say ‘no’. But when I would ask about Parkway, they always knew.”
Spurred on by friends and neighbors, Nix eventually decided to redevelop the place. In addition to the sandwiches, the previous owners were also known for keeping the original paint, patina and other fixtures (some even say that the original 1930s batch of roast beef gravy was still simmering on the stove). Bringing Parkway up to current standards was not inexpensive, and ironically, Nix ran out of money and had to sell his house to complete the renovation.
Nix reopened Parkway in 2005. “I went from cutting two-by-fours to cutting French Bread in six months,” he said with a laugh. Long-time customers were thrilled to find their favorite po’boy shop reopened, and a new generation of clientele quickly embraced the updated version. In addition to the legendary roast beef, the menu expanded to a variety of other po’boys, a small bar provided further enticements (and revenue), and life was good.
Then that little Hurricane Katrina thing happened. Parkway flooded badly. Yet Nix, greatly assisted by his nephew Justin Kennedy and other family members, managed to reopen in just two months, initially serving only the inevitable roast beef and bags of Zapp’s potato chips.
One thing the flooding did, for Nix and many other New Orleanians, was increase awareness of flood mitigation measures such as green infrastructure. As Parkway’s popularity grew, Nix needed more parking. He had already bought one small nearby lot, then purchased another, much larger one. Commercial land prices having soared, Nix noted that he “owned a $45,000 building and a million dollars’ worth of parking lots.”
The lots were basic gravel and scrub, and Nix found himself under some pressure to improve them. In the process of exploring his options, he ran across a permeable paving product called Tru-Grid, and became the first commercial property own in New Orleans to install it. As Nix pointed out, not only does the permeability reduce flooding, it prevents any fluids leaking from parked vehicles from running into nearby Bayou St. John.
For this and other contributions to water management, Nix received the Urban Conservancy’s Urban Hero award in 2015.
Parkway’s arc of success continued over the years, with some interesting side benefits, like a visit from President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama. One particular episode occurred when Parkway was one of two finalists, along with a shop in Lafayette, in a contest for best po’boy in Louisiana. Parkway edged out its rival, and in the spirit of friendly competition, the daughter of the owner of the Lafayette shop came over to pay a visit. The upshot of that is that she and Nix’s nephew Kennedy – who mostly runs the day-to-day operations these days – are getting married in January.
Parkway does have a bit of a star-crossed history, however, and COVID-19 has provided the latest challenge. The doors were closed for two months, and even when they reopened, Nix’s health issues left him reluctant to spend much time in the shop. This provided an opportunity to reassess the entire business model.
“Maintaining the hours and the staff had become like dealing with a gorilla always trying to get out of its cage,” Nix said. So he and Kennedy decided to reduce operating hours and days, and cut the staff in half.
“No matter when you close, you get a rush at the last second,” Nix observed. “But now we’re getting that rush at 5:30 instead of late night.”
The cutbacks have been nothing but positive for Parkway; the pressure is reduced and business is still good. “The public doesn’t seem to mind,” reported Nix, “and we are living in a heavenly atmosphere.”
An atmosphere made even more delightful by the omnipresent aroma of the universe’s most renowned roast beef po’boy.
For more on the history of Parkway and po’boys, visit www.parkwaypoorboys.com.