When Clinton Haughton went into business for himself in 2011 he had a folding table, a kettle grill and a handful of recipes from his native Jamaica. Soon he also had the late-night bar crowd around Frenchmen Street coming back for more. In 2013 he upgraded with a food truck, dubbed Johnny’s Jamaican Grill, and he has bigger plans too.
“I started very small, but I want to see this grow with restaurants here and outside New Orleans too,” Haughton said. “My attitude is, the sky’s the limit. But you need to take it by steps and my next step is in the food court.”
That would be Roux Carre: The Food Port of New Orleans, a project designed to be that next step for aspiring entrepreneurs developing businesses in the fast-changing New Orleans dining world.
The local nonprofit Good Work Network is now building the food court next to its headquarters on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, the long-tattered Central City commercial corridor now seeing a wave of reinvestment.
Roux Carre will be an outdoor food court comprised of six walk-up booths sharing a commercial kitchen, a covered seating area and a stage for performances. It’s slated to open Oct. 15, pending the results of an online fundraising campaign now underway at indiegogo.com.
Different flavors, new phases
Dozens of prospective vendors answered Good Work Network’s call for proposals late last year, and six were chosen by a panel of local restaurant professionals.
Each has a different background and will serve a different type of food. And for each, a slot at Roux Carre represents a different step in their business progression.
For Miriam Rodiguez, it’s a chance to build a business around the Latin American flavors she previously prepared at other people’s restaurants. For longtime Westwego restaurant owner Estralita Soniat it’s an expansion into a more promising market. For Jennifer Serrod and Brandon Blackwell, it’s a new outlet for their modern pop-up concept Splendid Pig.
For Johnny’s Jamaican Grill, it’s a leap from food truck to fixed address. For Linda Green, the parade and festival vendor known as Miss Linda the Yakamein Lady, it’s an outlet where her legions of fans can count on finding her cooking.
And for the Youth Empowerment Project, a Central City-based nonprofit, Roux Carre means connecting the young people it serves with the growing revitalization of O.C. Haley Boulevard (see more on each below).
For Good Work Network itself, the project is a continuation of its mission along a new path.
Phyllis Cassidy, an accountant, formed Good Work Network in 2001 to help women and minorities develop their own businesses. The goal is to build a more inclusive economy, she said, and the nonprofit has worked with more than 700 local businesses, ranging from childcare centers to contactors. Her group doesn’t have much experience in food service but “that’s an area where we hear a lot of interest and see a lot of local talent,” she said.
The Roux Carre vendors get business development counseling and other support through Good Work Network’s programs. The intent is to help them outgrow the space, and as each departs their stand will open to a new vendor.
Though Good Work Network initially envisioned a food truck lot, planners decided a food court would be more accessible.
“A food truck itself is a significant capital investment,” said Cassidy. “We wanted to make sure this was a good fit for the demographic we serve, and we wanted to make sure it was approachable for people in the neighborhood here.”
The decision called for more construction and boosted Roux Carre’s projected cost to $1.2 million. But Good Work Network has been able to draw on a number of sources. A federal grant covers about a third of the budget, while Good Work Network secured mortgages for roughly another third. For the remainder, the nonprofit has invested its own money and received private foundation funding. The group is trying to raise $50,000 from the public through its indiegogo.com campaign to close a final funding gap, said Kim Thompson Bauer, the group’s marketing director.
Roux Carre entails more than just walk-up stalls. There’s a stage for performances, and Cassidy said the group would use this as a venue for up-and-coming musicians it also coaches through its business development courses.
Good Work Network will seek a license to sell beer and wine here, and these sales would support the program. Vendors will contribute through their leases, though in the first year Cassidy said those leases would be subsidized, calling for about 10 percent of each vendor’s sales.
“That’s so if we don’t make it work, they don’t suffer,” she said. “We bear the burden of promoting this and making it successful. After the first year, if this does work, we can reassess the leases. But the idea isn’t for this to be a huge moneymaker for Good Work Network. We want it to be self-sustaining, but our whole goal in life here is to help people build businesses that create a decent return for the families that run them.”
Meet the Roux Carre’s inaugural vendors
Miss Linda the Yakamein Lady – From local renown as a street vendor for yakamein vendor, Linda Green has racked up appearances on TV food shows and scored an annual food booth at Jazz Fest. People know who she is, but they don’t necessarily know where to find her. That’s why she’s most excited about the Roux Carre project.
“I know how to do this, and I’ve built a team of people who have been with me now and know what to do,” Green said.
Look for: yakamein, mac and cheese, shrimp and crabmeat rolls
Splendid Pig - Brandon Blackwell and Jennifer Sherrod didn’t have a lot of money to start their own restaurant. But between them, this married couple has a wealth of restaurant experience. She was a manager at Martinique Bistro for 15 years; he was a sous chef at Upperline and later a butcher at Cleaver & Co.
In 2013, they started their Splendid Pig pop-up at the Uptown bar Carrollton Station. Earlier this year they opened a seafood stand in St. Roch Market called Elysian Seafood, which they plan to maintain while taking on the new Roux Carre project.
They plan to serve “inexpensive, restaurant quality dishes drawing on our culinary experience,” said Blackwell, and they’re keeping an open mind about future business prospects.
“In the beginning we would talk about opening our own restaurant, but the landscape is changing so fast now, it might turn into a concept we can’t yet foresee,” he said.
Look for: market salads, crab cakes with andouille, pork debris sandwich with charred mozzarella, roasted corn soup.
Johnny’s Jamaican Grill - Clinton Haughton moved from Jamaica to New Orleans in 2004 and worked in local restaurants before starting his own venture in a most grassroots way – cooking up jerk chicken on the street. He knows people like his food.
“They’re always calling me up now, saying ‘hey where you at, where can we find you,’” he said. “The food court takes care of that. The next step will be my own restaurant and we go from there.”
Look for: jerk chicken, curry shrimp and chicken, fried plantains
The Pupusa Lady – For many years, Miriam Rodriguez prepared the ceviche at chef Adolfo Garcia’s restaurant RioMar. Though it’s now closed, she still fields ceviche requests from some of RioMar’s former regulars. At Roux Carre, however, she hopes to make her own identity.
“People will start to know me not as the ‘ceviche lady from RioMar’ but now as the Pupusa Lady,” she wrote in an email interview translated by her family.
Rodriguez once ran her own restaurant in her native Honduras, though devastation there from Hurricane Mitch in 1998 impelled her move to the U.S. She credits Garcia both with building her skills in the kitchen and encouraging her to pursue her own business.
“I want to create jobs as chef Adolfo has been doing,” she wrote. “New Orleans gave me an opportunity to start back my life not only once but twice after Hurricane Katrina. Now it’s my turn to pay the city back.”
Look for: pupusas, ceviche Honduran fried chicken and rice bowls
Estralita’s Café and Carryout – New Orleans native Estralita Soniat has worked in restaurants all her adult life, and opened her own restaurant in 1991 in Westwego. Though she’s proud of her café’s longevity, she thinks the future is elsewhere.
“I have a lot of good memories there, but I can’t see myself going anywhere from here,” she said.
Her goal is to open a catering business and events hall, and she believes getting a foothold in the city through Roux Carre will help her achieve it.
“I feel the energy there, people have told me how much they like my cooking, so I think I can do something there,” she said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s one I’m excited to undertake.”
Look for: seafood gumbo, po-boys, red beans and rice, sweet potato pie
Youth Empowerment Project – This Central City-based nonprofit runs a job-readiness program called Trafigura Work and Learn Center, which takes the form of a bike repair shop just down the boulevard from Roux Carre. At the food court, the program will expand with a youth-run juice and sno-ball stand.
Program director Brice White thinks these young people will benefit from being around the entrepreneurial energy of other early-stage businesses, and also being part of a food destination with different access points, from down-home cooking to more modern cuisine.
“We think it could be a great intersection of different parts of New Orleans, the new-New Orleans and people who have lived here all their lives,” he said.
Look for: juices, sno-balls, ice pops
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.