The crime is so commonplace that the evidence is practically part of the urban scenery already. But it was the victim’s unusual reward offer that has garnered attention: a mountain of comfort food as a bounty to bring heat on the perpetrators.
At around 4 a.m. Tuesday, two men on bicycles vandalized a wall at Melba’s, a busy po-boy joint, fried chicken shop and washateria on Elysian Fields Avenue in the 8th Ward. Employees on duty at the 24-hour restaurant ran them off after they’d scrawled a few lines in black spray paint against the exterior.
The deed was captured on surveillance video, and later that day Melba’s owner Scott Wolfe Sr. posted a clip of the encounter on his YouTube page and threw down the gauntlet: 1,000 pieces of fried chicken for anyone who could provide the identities and location of the vandals.
“I was going to offer $500, but then I got to thinking that’s about the same price as our 1,000-piece chicken, and that might get people all over the city looking for these guys,” said Wolfe. “It’s not the vandalism that concerns me. We can paint over that easily. The bigger issue is having two adult males riding bicycles in your backyard at 4 a.m. If they’re not in my backyard, they’re in someone else’s, and that’s a problem.”
If the prospect of a 1,000-piece chicken order sounds familiar, that’s because it was a marketing hook deployed by one of Wolfe’s previous businesses. Before Hurricane Katrina, he had built his Chicken Box chain of take-out fried chicken restaurants into a well-recognized brand around New Orleans. For a Valentine’s Day promotion one year, he famously offered to put on the wedding for any couple who bought the 1,000-piece chicken to cater their nuptials. Wolfe and his family also ran the local grocery chain Wagner’s Meat and came up with its risqué tagline, “You Can’t Beat Wagner’s Meat.”
Katrina spelled the end of both Chicken Box and Wagner’s Meat, though since opening Melba’s in 2012 Wolfe has gradually been bringing back some touchstones of his earlier ventures, from longtime employees to gargantuan fried chicken packages to a folksy approach to marketing and business development.
Part of that effort has been to turn the dining rooms at Melba’s into something of a community art gallery, as Wolfe has encouraged customers and neighbors with an artistic streak to display their work on his walls. One prominent example: Welmon Sharlhorne, a Melba’s regular who also has work in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. Such lofty credentials are not required to show work at Melba’s, though Wolfe underscored that graffiti was definitely not the medium he was out to encourage.
“The thing is, if they had put it on canvas, I’d would have been glad to hang it on the wall,” he said.
Wolfe’s chicken reward has attracted plenty of media attention, with outlets far outside New Orleans picking up the story. But Wolfe said he was surprised that as of Thursday morning the offer had generated no leads. He’s taking them through his Web site www.eatatmelbas.com or at the restaurant.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.