Jazzing Up New Orleans
Ralph Brennan personifies fine food and New Orleans charm, easily qualifying him as the perfect ambassador for The Big Easy. As one of America’s leading restaurateurs, Brennan heads The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group, which boasts such well-received New Orleans concepts as Red Fish Grill, Ralph’s on the Park, Heritage Grill, café b, Café NOMA, and Ralph Brennan Catering & Events. In Southern California, he owns Jazz Kitchen at Downtown Disney. Brennan, who has won virtually every industry award, including the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association’s Gold Plate Award, and has been inducted into the National Restaurant Association’s College of Diplomates, is also a former chairman of the NRA and president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association and the New Orleans Restaurant Association. He entered the family business in the early 1980s, after a successful stint as a certified public accountant with Price Waterhouse & Co., and is one of eight third-generation cousins actively involved in today’s restaurant industry.
How has the industry changed over the course of your career?
I think the most significant changes are on the culinary side, the food side, and the chef side. Celebrity chefs have become very popular, and nowadays everything is food-centric. There is a real attachment to the kitchen and the chefs because people cook at home. I have often wondered how to duplicate that connection to the front of the house, where the excitement hasn’t risen to the level it has for the kitchen and the chef.
What characteristics do you think make the best restaurateurs?
The best characteristics are commitment to staff and commitment to the customer. It is so important to go above and beyond for the customer, and to do the same thing for each employee. My background is accounting, but I don’t run anything by the numbers. I try to lead by example.
How is business, and what is your take on the economy?
Our business has been pretty good, and it is up everywhere over last year, which is especially encouraging given the number of restaurants that are opening in this city. I am worried about the long term because I see a softening of travel and tourism, and unemployment remains high. We’ve seen Southern California go up and down, but right now it is tracking pretty good because Disney has really kept up with its business. In New Orleans things have been good because of sporting events. For instance, this year we had the BCS National Championship game and the NCAA Final Four. Next year we get the ladies’ Final Four and the Super Bowl. All of these things are good, and the publicity we get is great.
What is the most difficult thing about being a full-service restaurateur?
To me it is execution and consistency. The one lesson we can learn from the multi-unit operator is consistency, and great execution on the food and service side. We have 500 employees in our restaurants, and they are all wonderful people, but once in a while they have an off day.
What advice do you have for struggling full-service restaurateurs?
I would say make the tough decisions that you need to make. If you are struggling, some of your assumptions are wrong. It could be in many different areas, but you have to adjust, adjust, and adjust until you get it right, and don’t be afraid to make changes. Sometimes it is tough for a single-unit operator to hold out until things click, but in our case we have resources from our other restaurants that can help us.
You have received the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Employer of Choice Award. What does your company do for its employees that other restaurant companies may not?
It is all about our people and their success. Our staff becomes family. One of our core values is honesty and integrity. It’s our golden rule. Another core value is personal and professional growth. And that means a year from now they have to be better than they are now, and I have to improve as well. Certainly tables and chairs are important, but people are our most important asset, and I think that is one thing that sets us apart from other restaurant companies.
Rumor has it you’re a regular at the gym, and in keeping with your company’s core value for Personal Growth, you recently launched the “Get Fit with Ralph” campaign for your employees. Tell us about it.
We’ve partnered with New Orleans Touro Hospital in a 90-day weight loss and healthy-living competition that kicked off September 5th. Eighty-eight staff are signed up for the program, and when it concludes next month we will award prizes to employees who achieved the most success in percent of weight lost, body-fat reduction, most steps logged, best sport, and overall improvements. And what’s just as exciting, we brought the same commitment to healthy lifestyles to all our RBRG restaurants with the introduction of “Spa Plates,” which feature healthy and delicious indulgences.
What are the advantages and disadvantages about having multiple brands as opposed to expanding one concept?
I really like the challenge of having different concepts, although in a lot of ways they are very similar. It keeps me excited and energized. You have to tweak each concept until you get it right. Along the way you make a lot of assumptions, and some of those are right and some are wrong. I just don’t see that, if you are duplicating a concept. I think I would get bored if I was doing only one concept.
“Nola bred. Nola fed.” How did that campaign work for you, and when do you think it is important to advertise?
I actually think it is important to advertise all the time, especially for new restaurants. Advertising gets the name out there, and it lets customers know what kind of restaurant it is and what the restaurateur is trying to accomplish. You have to do everything you can to get the word out during the early stages. We typically do it once we get everything down and things are running smoothly. The [challenge] right now is that you have two markets, the older demographics, which respond to more traditional media, and the younger group, who use [digital media].
You are currently running a special “Cocktail for a Cause” promotion with 20 percent of your proceeds benefiting displaced Times-Picayune employees. Why did you get involved with that cause?
I think everyone is upset with the paper going to only three times a week, and a lot of good people have been affected. I didn’t think about it very long, but my instincts told me that a city with a population of 1.2 million should have a daily newspaper. We will be the only city of that size without a daily newspaper, and about 30 percent of the population here doesn’t have access to the Internet.
You have given a lot of your time by getting involved with the NRA, the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and the New Orleans Restaurant Association, as well as the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Convention Center. How is that beneficial to your business?
I believe strongly in giving back to the community. We do it from food and beverage donations, outright cash donations, and serving on boards. I can’t tell you how it comes back to you, but it does come back to you. Certainly my work at the convention center helped grow the market, and we get our share of that business. We have an obligation to help our community, and that’s what we do.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the restaurant industry?
That it is not a good place to work. There is a great opportunity for people who need shorter-term employment, students or actors, but I also see the opportunity for long-term growth. We have many employees who have been with us for 10 or 20 years. We don’t get credit for that. Across the whole hospitality industry there are so many ways that you can grow your career, and I think restaurants offer a great way to start.
If you could meet anyone, who would it be?
I would love to sit with the president because I can’t think of a tougher job to do. Over the years I have been to the White House, but you never get to spend any time with them. I don’t know if you noticed, but Obama has started to gray, and it happened to Bush and Clinton before him. I often wonder if it is accelerated by the job and I can’t imagine the stress of the job.
But you have dealt with a lot of crisis situations, including the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. What have you learned from these life-changing events?
We didn’t have a good crisis-management plan in place, because we never dreamed of the flooding. The frustrating thing was we couldn’t get in touch with our staff, and we couldn’t get money to them. So we learned it is imperative to have a good crisis-management plan in place and to trust your judgment. Also, I thought it was very important to get our restaurants open as soon as possible—so we opened without potable water, and we even opened Bacco without gas. We had a wood-burning pizza oven, and it was a primitive menu, but it worked because people understood.
How did your restaurants fare through the most recent hurricane, Isaac?
The restaurants made it through Isaac with few problems. All maintained power except Ralph’s on the Park, where power was not restored until Saturday evening. As a result, we lost much of the food in the coolers. We also lost a week of sales. Ralph’s was closed Tuesday through Labor Day. We closed the other restaurants (Red Fish Grill, cafe b and Heritage Grill) on Tuesday and reopened on Thursday for dinner. Also, cafe NOMA in the New Orleans Museum of Art was closed for two weeks, because of flooding in the basement that prevented the museum from opening. Across the area, power was out from two to six days and many of our staff lost power at their homes. We gave each staff member a $50 gift card to a grocery to help refill their home refrigerators.
Your personal ties run deep in New Orleans, don’t they?
Yes they do—New Orleans is my hometown, I got my MBA at Tulane University, and opened my first restaurant, Mr. B’s, in 1985. And of course, the Saints are my favorite team.
What is on your bucket list?
Well, I just turned 60, and my bucket list is not too long. I just want to spend time with my wife, Susan, and to travel more than we have in the past, since our kids are out of college now.