Rick Blount took over as chief executive of Antoine’s Restaurant in March 2005 with big plans. First he would modernize the accounting methods; then he would install a computer network. Only after that would he introduce new ways to get younger people through the doors to experience the cuisine the French Quarter institution has made famous around the world: oysters Rockefeller, escargots a la bourguignonne, souffleed potatoes, baked Alaska and more.
But fate had other plans. Five months after he took charge, Blount says, “the world came to an end.” Hurricane Katrina hit, covering 80 percent of the city in water and disrupting hundreds of thousands of lives. At Antoine’s, the storm felled a dining room ceiling, toppled walls and collapsed floors. Total cost of the damage there: $16 million.
“I thought for sure we had to tear the building down,” he says.
Blount is more than Antoine’s CEO. He is also a fifth-generation representative of one of New Orleans’s most revered institutions, which in 2015 is sharing an anniversary year with Katrina. Antoine’s, which calls itself the oldest family-run restaurant in America in continuous operation, is 175. The past decade has been spent not just emerging from Katrina’s wrath, but moving past it altogether.
“Antoine’s set the standard for every restaurant after them,” says chef John Folse, a Louisiana restaurateur and author. “Even today, 175 years later, it is still touching the culinary hearts of the chefs who really care about the significance of what Creole food is in New Orleans.”
Blount’s role is unlike that of most other restaurant executives: He is responsible for overseeing a dining and kitchen staff of about 155 people and maintaining revenue flow, and he also is a curator of a living museum to which almost every family in New Orleans seems to share a degree of connection. Here on the walls of the sprawling dining rooms are framed photographs reflecting those rooted in Antoine’s legacy: decades of Mardi Gras courts, city and state dignitaries, movie stars, U.S. presidents dating to both Roosevelts, even Pope John Paul II.
In those frames are also local faces, long gone, whom Blount might not recognize, but his clientele does. One night in 2014, after a movie shoot had required one room to be rearranged, he was called to a table where a diner complained that a picture of his grandfather was no longer hanging in the location it had occupied for decades.
“And he was furious about it!” Blount says. “There’s so much personal ownership to what is here and how we do it. I didn’t even know the people in the picture. But he did.”
Blount, 58, was not an expected successor. His mother is Yvonne Alciatore Blount, a fourth-generation descendent of Antoine Alciatore, who as an 18-year-old French immigrant in 1840 opened a small eatery on the first floor of a French Quarter hotel serving local noblesse. When Blount was growing up, his family was largely detached from the restaurant and dined there about once a year. His father was a marine surveyor and they lived in Lakeview, an outer-ring neighborhood closer to Lake Pontchartrain than to the Mississippi River.
It wasn’t until Blount was 13 that he took a job at the restaurant; it didn’t last long.
“Like a bull in a china shop,” he says with a husky laugh. He left and, after a professional life in real estate and insurance, returned in 2005, elected by shareholders eager for a new chief executive who could connect the restaurant to a new generation.
“My purpose was to ask, ‘How do you have this grand old historic dinosaur that I inherited and make it relevant to millennials who, for the most part, are not interested in its history at all?’” he says. “You have to be very careful about what you change.”
Especially in New Orleans, where traditions are legion, and habits cemented in the past can take generations to loosen. Poppy Tooker, a local radio host and author who specializes in teaching Louisiana cuisine, says Antoine’s is among a small handful of restaurants in the city where local families have forged a deeply personal connection, going so far as to carry the cellphone number of their favorite waiter, who might be the nephew, son or grandson of the server who served earlier generations in their family. Personal service, an anachronistic fantasy elsewhere, is not just embedded into the culture of these restaurants; it is the very foundation that made them survivors.
“They are places that are regarded as extensions of people’s homes, so the waiters are like extensions of their families,” she says. “Rick is a great businessman in that he’s been really creative in how he has carefully restructured things while marinating the 175 years of tradition.”
When he took charge of Antoine’s, Blount says, he was shocked to see that the restaurant lacked automated bookkeeping and was relying on “a shoebox” system of paying bills. “How do you know who got paid? Who didn’t get paid? How do you know what food cost? How do you know anything? The answer pretty much was, ‘we don’t,’ ” he says.
Besides reorganizing the back office, Blount started restructuring the restaurant’s public face with the basics: an inaugural Web site, followed by the hiring of a social media manger to launch and maintain a strong online presence, including partnering with OpenTable to encourage online reservations.
Then came the decision to finally relax the dress code — a jacket is no longer required for men — which has not yet attracted the shorts-and-sandals set (a real possibility because Antoine’s is a half-block from Bourbon Street) but instead helped the restaurant feel more accessible to anyone who might be curious about the cuisine but doesn’t have proper formalwear.
Around the corner from the restaurant, Blount opened Antoine’s Annex, a European-style cafe and pastry shop. But the biggest addition to the restaurant is its first-ever cocktail bar: Hermes, next door, is perfect for the mixology crowd, encouraged to order small plates of Antoine’s classics that might eventually persuade them to return for the whole experience. The idea, Blount says, is to extend the brand equity to reach younger people who are more likely to have little to no interest in traditions dating to before their birth.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the crowd at Antoine’s could well represent the slice of life passing through nearby Jackson Square: There are two older couples dressed neatly in suits and dresses, a 20-something couple in hoodies and tattoos, a group of college men in matching athletic jackets, and a middle-aged man and woman talking in hushed tones. The front door opens and Chris Owens, Bourbon Street’s notorious burlesque performer and club owner, suddenly appears, trailing an entourage and seeking a late lunch.
At any time, diners can leave their table to roam the restaurant’s 14 dining rooms, including one for banquets and another that holds a single table for six. Artifacts from the past are evident throughout: a secret door from Prohibition days, a 165-foot-long wine cellar holding 25,000 bottles (including a sealed bottle of 1890 cognac), a large collection of old rums, liqueurs, absinthe and whiskey behind glass. Visitors can travel through annexes, up to the second-floor balcony, through the former slave quarters, even into the kitchen where executive chef Michael Regua has worked for 43 years.
Regua says the previous generation of owners would not let him stray from the classic dishes, but Blount encouraged him to experiment.“He took that noose off my neck, and we started doing specials,” he says. “I have to keep true to the restaurant and then true to the city. Now when we create, we have more specials now than we ever had.”
Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, which is hosting an exhibit on Antoine’s, says that because of its age, Antoine’s serves as “its own food museum.”
“Because you have layer upon layer of changes, with each generation reflecting the changes of the time, and because it has been uninterrupted for 175 years, you not only have a reflection of the city of New Orleans, but also you have a reflection of the entire country,” she says. “That makes it even more important.”
The “living” component of the museum experience is embodied in the wait staff, some of whom are required to bus tables for up to 10 years before “making waiter.” Katrina forced an employee exodus from New Orleans, but Blount never left, setting up equipment on the street where he and his returning kitchen staff cooked for first responders and construction workers. He sprang into action, not just to rebuild Antoine’s, but also to make sure his own workers continued to receive their health benefits when living far outside the city. He started rebuilding as soon as he could, primarily because he wanted to hire back some members of the dining and kitchen staff as laborers as a way to keep their cash and benefits flowing.
“It kept them close. So when I reopened, I had my cooks, I had my waiters, I had my managers, I had everybody, because we figured a way to keep them where we needed them,” he says.
That loyalty is what made Charles Carter return. At age 32, Carter has served Antoine’s diners for more than half of his life, becoming the second-youngest waiter in the restaurant’s history at age 18. Before him, his father, brothers, cousins and four great-uncles all had the same job. Like them, Carter is able to make a robust living as a server, supporting his wife and two young children, by memorizing the tastes of the “hundreds” of clients he inherited from his older relatives and those he earned through word of mouth.
“I was trained by some of the best,” he says. “This is it for the rest of my life.”
Antoine’s reopened Dec. 31, 2005, about four months after Katrina emptied it out. Except for the 2008 recession year, the steady changes over the past 10 years helped grow revenues back to pre-storm levels. On April 2, the restaurant will host a celebratory six-course dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.
But back in the early days, when he admits he was just “winging it,” Blount says consultants he hired warned against running a business where nepotism became an inevitability, with some of the strongest bonds in the kitchen and on the dining room floor going back a century.
“I’m just thrilled I didn’t follow their advice,” he says. “I figured out that the roots of this place is that this is a family business, and if we couldn’t act like family, we didn’t have a right to act like anything else. And what we needed to do most: We needed to take care of the families that work here. Because Antoine’s is its own personality. It just needed to come alive again.”
Mark Guarino is a freelance journalist who writes about national news and culture out of Chicago.