Since Lois Thomas returned home to New Orleans from an extended post-Katrina stretch in Houston and Lafayette, word began to circulate among her fans that her gumbo and baked macaroni were again in rotation. Then one day last year her smiling portrait appeared on the wall outside Melba’s, the Eighth Ward eatery where she is head cook, and the trickle of well-wishers turned into a constant stream.
“People say they noticed the pictures, then they’ll make the block and stop in,” said Thomas, who earned her following during a 25-year run cooking for the delis at the pre-Katrina grocery chain Wagner’s Meat. “They come in saying, ‘Look, she’s back.’”
Hers isn’t the only familiar face at this lively and rapidly expanding spot.
Melba’s is the latest venture for Scott Wolfe Sr., the grocer who made Wagner’s Meat into a household name in New Orleans, even for those who never shopped at his stores, thanks to its potentially blush-inducing slogan: “You Can’t Beat Wagner’s Meat.”
Wolfe and his family also created the Chicken Box (slogans: “Tastes Like Mama’s” or, at some locations, “Tastes Like Ya Mama’s”), a related chain of takeout joints that had a short but colorful run in the years before Hurricane Katrina. This was the company that once offered to put on weddings for couples who bought its 1,000-piece chicken package to cater their receptions.
After shifting to real estate development in the years after the storm, Wolfe quietly returned to the retail game in 2012. That’s when he first opened Melba’s, turning a vacant drycleaners on Elysian Fields Avenue into a 24-hour combination po-boy shop, daiquiri shop and washateria.
More recently, the menu has expanded with a steam table selection of New Orleans comfort food, boiled seafood and, as he’s resurrected the Chicken Box brand, fried chicken (the 1,000-piece package is available, though the wedding offer is not). More is on the way, including urban gardens Wolfe plans to develop on adjacent lots, an outdoor event venue and some 500 birdhouses he wants to distribute around the city bearing a Melba’s sales pitch.
As more pieces have come together, more of the outgoing style that Wolfe brought to Wagner’s Meat and Chicken Box is manifesting at Melba’s, too, in a mix of serious business savvy and a streak of the mischievous.
“I’ve never met anyone more dogged and focused on business than Scott, but there’s also this glint in the eye, like that little boy saying ‘Let’s see what I can do,’” said Mark Jaunet, a longtime friend who once worked for Wolfe in the construction business. “He finds out what the rules are, how big the envelope is, and then he pushes it to the limit. When he gets going it’s a real hayride.”
A “sleeping giant”
Scott and his wife Jane Wolfe are Chalmette natives who married as teenagers. His family worked in construction, hers ran a grocery store. In 1982, when he was 20 and she was 18 and pregnant, they borrowed $10,000 from family members to buy a bankrupt grocery called Wagner’s, located in one of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods near what was then the Desire public housing complex.
“It was the only opportunity I could afford and it turned out it was a sleeping giant,” Scott Wolfe said. “We had our backs against the wall. We had to make it work or it was back to minimum wage.”
Dispensing with the standard grocery store circulars, they decided to focus all their marketing on their meat department. This led to their famous slogan with its none-too-subtle double entendre, which Jane said was inspired by a compliment they overheard one customer tell another at their store.
“A lady said, ‘Oh, you can’t beat their meat,’ and that got us thinking, ‘You can’t beat Wagner’s Meat,” said Jane. “You have to listen to what your customers are telling you.”
Scott said they knew it would be risqué, but that was the point. “It offends some people, others love it,” he said. “That’s why it works.
The Wolfes built Wagner’s into 10 stores over the years, and they also acquired other existing neighborhood markets. Before Katrina, they had sold these businesses to other operators, retaining the real estate. When the levees failed, Wolfe found himself with a large but imperiled portfolio of flood-damaged real estate.
“I was diversified, but diversified all in New Orleans,” Wolfe said. “All the stores were gone, all the tenants were gone, all the customers were gone.”
He turned his attention to Wolfman Construction, a firm he had formed a few years prior, and eventually redeveloped his properties, leasing them to other commercial tenants. But Katrina spelled the end of Chicken Box and Wagner’s Meat as the Wolfes had developed it (A store called Wagner’s Meat at 3200 St. Claude Ave. is run by a different operator under a licensing agreement to use the Wagner’s name).
Along the way, Wolfe acquired a commercial site on Elysian Fields Avenue. He planned to lease it, but when no takers emerged he decided to develop his own concept, Melba’s. The neighborhoods around it are rundown, and panhandlers are a constant at the nearby intersection, but Wolfe said he was more interested in the traffic flow than the curb appeal.
“It’s not the French Quarter or the CBD or the convention center corridor, it’s not where the city is concentrating on. But it’s what we concentrated on, and we’re improving on it,” he said.
In the meantime, Jane stepped away from the business to continue her education, recently earning a master’s degree from Harvard Divinity School. She’s not surprised that her husband, who is now 52, wanted to start a new business, describing him as “a serial entrepreneur.”
“I have come to the conclusion that Scott works best in times of havoc,” she said. “Getting a new business off the ground is food for his soul.”
This gusto for brand promotion got Wolfe into trouble last year after he effectively turned a few shotgun houses in the neighborhood into ground-level billboards, painting their exteriors in navy blue with his latest slogan, “Eat at Melba’s,” spelled out in tall white lettering. The city soon ordered him to paint over the ads and fined him $2,500. But now he’s onto a different marketing ploy: birdhouses, with blue roofs painted with the Melba’s slogan.
He has 500 of these on order, and dozens of them are currently stockpiled by the daiquiri machines at Melba’s. He plans to hang them from publicly visible perches on private property around the city.
“It’s about creating some buzz, generating some curiosity,” he said.
Art and expansion
There does seem to be a buzz at Melba’s these days. The door swings open ceaselessly as people arrive to do their laundry, get a plate lunch or an after-hours po-boy or pick up a half-gallon daiquiri. A Motown soundtrack plays in the background, and it’s common to see customers shuffle into dance moves while waiting for their orders.
Business seems to be booming, and gradually Wolfe has worked a profit center into practically every corner of Melba’s, from a small video poker corral to advertisements for local lawyers stuck to dryer doors in the washateria.
At the same time he’s also developed the shop into a neighborhood art gallery, as work by nearby residents has progressively covered more and more wall space.
“We want it to be an experience. The visuals, the comfort, the music playing, the feeling of safety and security that comes with having a lot going on,” said Wolfe. “The food has to be very good, obviously, but we want it to be a bigger experience.”
This has proven to be a draw beyond the surrounding neighborhood. Melba’s now routinely attracts busloads of visitors headed to the Lower Ninth Ward on tours or as part of volunteer rebuilding missions.
“This isn’t that new New Orleans stuff, this is old school New Orleans, and that’s what people want to find,” Wolfe said.
Meanwhile, Wolfe has acquired adjacent lots to expand Melba’s footprint. Inspired by the outdoor seating at the Mid-City po-boy shop Parkway Bakery & Tavern, he plans to add a tented area behind his restaurant for regular service and private events. He plans to develop a small tomato farm on a vacant house lot, which he’s already dubbed Melba’s Creole Tomatoes, and a chicken coop, each to partially supply Melba’s kitchen with produce and eggs and serve as a conversation piece for visitors.
Wolfe said he doesn’t intend to add more Melba’s around town, preferring instead to develop this location, where he now spends much of his workday.
“The plan was to develop this and sell it and move on,” Wolfe said of Melba’s. “But with the cultural diversity here and the fun we’re having, we’re rooted now. I’ll move on eventually, but there’s more I want to do here.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.