Earlier this year my wife and I decided that, since we didn’t already have enough problems, we should open yet another bakery. But, unlike our other locations, this one would have a secret ingredient to boost the bottom line — booze! We lucked into a prime location in the Garden District on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. Being the only writer on the Food & Dining staff not actually based in Louisville, some context might be helpful. Down here we have this thing called Mardi Gras, which is sort of like our version of the Derby. And as the Derby has its buildup of events like Thunder Over Louisville, Pegasus Parade, etc., Mardi Gras builds to a similar crescendo over the three-week period leading up to Fat Tuesday.
Why, you might ask, is this relevant? Because our new bakery location happens to be smack-dab on the parade route, where giant papier-maché heads wobble by just 20 feet from our plate glass windows. Imagine the chaos of opening a new restaurant in the middle of the Derby buildup, and you will get a sense of what it was like opening up here. What follows is a hazy remembrance of our first Carnival. No learning curve — just extended hours and the sort of hallucinatory-running-on-fumes more akin to bars than to bakeries. For the first time, Mardi Gras wasn’t about fun. It was about business. And I found that I really, really liked it that way.
Parades roll tonight. It is the first weekend and we don’t expect heavy crowds — perfect for testing our processes. We close briefly during service to transform a 35-seat bakery into a kick-ass liquor and grilled-cheese-slingin’ profit machine. Inside we partition off the dining room with a long bar to keep the drunkards from wandering around and raiding our walk-in beer cooler. Outside the port-a-potties are staged around the side of the building. Visitors to New Orleans, be forewarned — despite the bacchanalian quantities of alcohol consumed, the city somehow neglects to provide port-o-lets for public use. The result is a giant, ticking, wet time bomb that has turned into a cottage industry. It is common to see residents sit on their porches shouting out that bathrooms are available for a $5 fee to random strangers. We are not above such profiteering. We dispatch our largest, meanest dishwasher to be port-o-let bouncer. He sets up shop with a bottle of sanitizer and a red cup full of Fireball.
Our hired gun bartender arrives with two black eyes and face lacerations. As we are mixing 20-gallon batches of rum punch, I can’t help but ask about this. He tells me he hustles as an Uber driver on the side and he totaled his car the night before but “doesn’t remember what happened.” He then asks me how to apply for an open delivery driver position we have advertised. I politely redirect him to our manager and pretend to go look for potato chips.
People need to pee! We unlatch the port-o-lets and start charging away. Our dishwasher Nicky is perfect for the job — people are crazy and all trying to talk their way into a freebie. Nicky can’t be swayed; he is all stone-cold business out there, smoking a Camel and sipping on Fireball while telling pregnant ladies they gotta wait in line like everyone else. He also guards the hand sanitizer, dispensing it by the squirt, as the bottles we put inside the port-o-lets are stolen within 15 minutes.
Crowds throng the bakery and the line spills into the street. We are selling king cake by the slice, red beans and rice by the bowl, and cold beers by the bucket. Policemen show up. We make them coffee and tell them they can use our actual in-house toilet, a very special privilege. Word spreads and our business quickly becomes a police substation. Nicky becomes slightly more discreet about smoking pot — but not much.
Face-painting clowns try to set up on our front steps and I shoo them away.
My seven-year-old daughter arrives and asks me to put her on my shoulders for every float. As I walk out to the route, David the Mangled Rent-a-Bartender offers police free Jameson shots in their already free coffee, which they politely decline. I tell him, “please don’t do that ever again.”
We close at 11, having made basically four times our daily retail sales. Not a bad start. We huddle up, adjust our pars and tweak the back bar layout. This is a piece of cake.
The second week is when things get heavy. Multiple parades take place each night, supplemented with back-to-back day parades on Saturday and Sunday. St. Charles Avenue fills up early with people lining the streets with ladders and folding chairs galore. Sunburnt Cajuns appear with a gooseneck trailer laden with two of their own port-a-potties and plop them opposite us. Ugly stares are exchanged as they try to siphon off our customers. As we load the hot boxes for service, faces press against the plate glass window like zombies hungering for grilled cheese in lieu of brains. We open the doors, and we are crushed for the next four days. Twenty-gallon batches of Bloody Marys are emptied by the ladle, dressed with pickled okra and upsold with extra vodka shots. Rum punch should be dispensed with a firehose, so quickly doth it flow. Face-painting clowns again appear and I run them off. Nicky has by now figured out how to make a little something on the side by selling tickets directly to the port-a-potty folks, but I budgeted for this — we’ve already covered the permit and rental, so everything else is gravy. White wine fades into red and than into Jaeger as the day turns dark. My daughter is put to work slapping cheese on sandwiches between parades, saving us labor costs. She loves it. I buy her a crappy toy from a street cart and our cash box overfloweth. I ride my bike home after close, wads of cash stuffed down my shorts, praying I don’t get hit by a car and cracked opened up like a Tony Montana piñata.
Fat Tuesday dawns bright and clear. Today we’re not doing a bakeoff — instead we are selling all the inventory remaining on hand. In any case, the delivery drivers could never penetrate the throng in the streets. It is like a pastry and liquor clearance sale — everything must go! Fireball and Jameson all around. Many, many friends of ownership and employees both show up and make use of the in-house loo. Everyone is dressed up — we have the Wonderpets standing next to giant Grateful Dead Dancing Bears and a couple of goth Elmos. I am resplendent in my mullet wig and sleeveless denim jacket. I am an owner, and have to look somewhat respectable. Some people think I am Garth from Wayne’s World while others assume Joe Dirt. We set up chairs out front for family and friends, and a play area is carved out behind the back bar where toddlers can climb on unsafe ziggurats of cased beer. The face-painting clowns show up again, and this time I make peace with them — my daughter even has butterflies painted on her cheeks to seal the deal. It is a beautiful morning and the parades roll past – this time on the far side of the avenue, which gives us some breathing room out front. We pass the morning in a blissful haze — as we would for any other Mardi Gras, except for this time we are making money on it. It changes everything and it changes nothing. I’m not quite sure sometimes how I ended up in the restaurant business, but I know now that times like these are a big reason why. Now it is off to Mexico to blow some cash and plan for next year. I can’t wait to do this again. F&D