In its natural habitat of shopping malls and concourses, a food court offers convenience and speed, with a spread of ready options for the impulsive appetite.
Roux Carré fills that niche, too. But this food court, which officially opened Friday in Central City, was conceived with a bigger goal in mind. Created by the local nonprofit Good Work Network, it aims to help diversify the ranks of entrepreneurs in the booming field of New Orleans food.
“You can have good cooks, but what if you can’t afford a space where people can find you?” asked Phyllis Cassidy, executive director of Good Work Network. “You have folks out there with talent and a lot of drive, but they don’t have access to capital or don’t have a wealthy uncle to get them started in the business. This space is meant to overcome that.”
Roux Carré offers vendors their own stands at what Cassidy describes as below-market-rate rents, with initial terms calling for about 10 percent of a vendor’s sales.
A space at Roux Carré also comes with coaching from staffers at the nonprofit, who help chefs hone the business skills they need beyond the stove.
“It’s a place for them to get started and a place to learn how to manage the business,” Cassidy said.
An inclusive approach
Roux Carré debuts this weekend with five vendors serving dishes as varied as seafood gumbo, Jamaican jerk chicken, Honduran ceviche, pork debris sandwiches and fresh-fruit sno-balls. At the same time, the project serves as a demonstration of Good Work Network’s approach to business development, right down to the way the food court was designed and built.
Cassidy, an accountant, created the group in 2001 to help women and minorities develop their own businesses. The overall goal is to build a more inclusive economy, she said, and the nonprofit has worked with more than 700 local businesses, ranging from child care centers to contractors.
Dining is a new realm for its services, but Good Work Network pegged it as a growing field and one where locals show a lot of talent and interest. That inspired the concept for Roux Carré, which occupies a once-vacant lot adjacent to the group’s headquarters at 2000 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
“What we do as an organization is help folks overcome barriers, and one of the biggest barriers for minority-owned businesses is access to markets,” Cassidy said. “In a very concrete way, Roux Carré is an expression of our mission, because we’re actually creating a space here that is its own opportunity. There’s a lot of good food in this town, but with a food court, we think we can create a different kind of experience that people will want to come try out. If we can do that, then we’re creating access to a market for our vendors.”
The food court itself takes the form of a colorful cluster of stands, which resemble parked food trucks with their awnings popped open for walk-up service. They share a large commercial kitchen and face a recessed courtyard, dining area and small stage for live bands. During preview events this fall, Roux Carré had the look and feel of a street party.
That reflects one of the design goals for the project. As Central City’s long-blighted commercial strip has begun to see new investments, Cassidy said it was important for Good Work Network’s own contribution to the redevelopment of Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard to feel welcoming and relevant both to people in the neighborhood and to potential customers from many different backgrounds.
Concordia, an architecture firm based next door to Good Work Network, did the design work, and firm principal Steven Bingler described the job as a collaborative process. It began with six members of his staff and expanded from there as Concordia convened a series of public meetings at the nearby Café Reconcile to get input on the project.
This ultimately directed the type of building materials, the bright polychrome look and even the Roux Carré name.
“We wanted to learn what the community wanted,” Bingler said. “This place already feels like a community center because it came from the community.”
The lead contractor for the work, Gentilly-based Colmex Construction, is a minority-owned firm and previous client of Good Work Network. Many of the subcontractors also were minority-owned.
Good Work Network has paid for the roughly $1.2 million project with a mix of federal grants, mortgages, private foundation funding and its own investments. Beer and wine sales from the Roux Carré beverage stand contribute to the operating costs, as do the vendors’ leases.
No vendor is intended to be a permanent part of Roux Carré. Instead, the hope is that each will build a brand and outgrow the space. As they do, their stands will open up for new entrepreneurs on the way up.
The members of the first class chosen to open Roux Carré have backgrounds as diverse as their food offerings.
There’s Miriam Rodriguez, who worked at the upscale Latin restaurant RioMar for years, overseeing its signature ceviche service. RioMar closed in 2014, and at Roux Carré, Rodriguez has her own business, called the Pupusa Lady, serving flavors of her native Honduras.
“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.
Estralita’s Café & Carryout has flavors from closer to home, namely the seafood gumbo, red beans and po-boys that Estralita Soniat has long served at her original restaurant in Westwego.
Roux Carré represents an east bank expansion and exposure to new customers that she hopes will advance her overall goal of opening a catering business and events hall in the city.
“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.”
Roux Carré is providing a home base for Splendid Pig, a pop-up previously run at a succession of bars by Jennifer Sherrod and Brandon Blackwell. The local restaurant industry veterans are serving chef-designed small plates, starting with market salads, seared crabcakes and pork debris sandwiches.
Roux Carré is also the first fixed address for Johnny’s Jamaican Grill, a business that Clinton Haughton started with a kettle grill on the sidewalk before moving up to a food truck. Here, he serves the same spicy flavors from his native Jamaica that earned him a following in the late-night street food scene.
A fifth stand, the Juice Box, serves sno-balls and juice and also serves as a job-readiness program from the Youth Empowerment Project, another nonprofit based nearby.
Program Director Brice White thinks young people working at the Juice Box will benefit from being around the entrepreneurial energy of other early-stage businesses and also from 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.
Correction: an earlier version of this article misidentified a vendor at Roux Carre. The chef of Splendid Pig is Brandon Blackwell.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.