Robin Marshall seriously thought about not rebuilding when the Magnolia Cafe burned in 2003.

Thirteen days later, she abandoned any such thoughts as customers started calling. She and her staff went to work in the coffee shop behind the burned cafe on Commerce Street in St. Francisville. Soon, they were serving up the cafe's Famous Turkey Special sandwiches.

Marshall knew the community loved The Mag, and she quickly found out locals weren't going to let it die.

A visit to the Magnolia Cafe in St. Francisville. Staff video by Robin Miller

The Mag was more than just a place to eat their favorite sandwiches and pizzas; it felt like home.

Six months later, Marshall had a plan. She owns the property that includes the coffee shop, run by her sister, Lynn Wood, and 3V Tourist Courts, small cottages located at the rear of the property.

She added a kitchen to the coffee shop and made that The Mag's new permanent operation. The coffee shop, now Birdman Coffee & Books, moved into a small adjacent building.

"The building had once been a part of the 3V Tourist Courts," Marshall said. "We just started working in here full time."

There's a nostalgic feel to the quaint buildings, where you can grab a meal, book a cabin and occasionally catch some live music in the evening.

But the food is what draws people in day after day.

The Mag opened its doors in a former gas station/auto repair shop as a health food store, under another owner, and gradually became a full restaurant when Marshall bought it in 1982.

The turkey sandwich has been on the menu since day one. It is served on po-boy bread or toasted pita and combines in-house roasted and sliced turkey with Swiss cheese, guacamole, sprouts, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and mustard topped by the cafe's special sauce.

"Our pizzas have been on the menu since we first opened, too," Marshall said. "The recipes are still the same, and we make our own dough."

Pizza favorites include the Chicken Pesto & Spinach and the Motherload Pizza, with pepperoni, seasoned beef and ham as its main toppings. If those don't whet your appetite, there are more from which to choose.

Marshall, who was a mom looking for a business where her young children could hang out while she worked, initially did the cooking and made the sandwiches. She hired kitchen help as the cafe grew.

"Our growth was gradual," Marshall said. "I was young and didn't know what I was doing, so the gradual growth was nice. We had pizzas, pita bread sandwiches and juices. And we made our own bread."

The menu and cafe expanded with the staff that came and went. A Jehovah's Witness minister working in the kitchen introduced alligator sauce piquante and shrimp fried rice to the menu. Younger staff members brought up the idea of live music.

The building had an area in the back where, when it was an auto repair shop, school buses were worked on. Marshall raised the metal lift, welded it in place and turned it into a bar.

"It started out as a coffee bar, but then the music was popular, so we made it a regular bar," Marshall said. "It was a restaurant until about 10, when the music started. So it didn't become a bar until 10 at night."

On Dec. 30, 2003, an old electrical panel ignited the fire. All seemed lost at first, but then customers began calling in orders, just as they did when the state shuttered restaurant dining rooms in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic hit Louisiana.

Marshall decided to temporarily close for three months of renovations during the pandemic, but that didn't stop customers from calling.

"They wanted to know when we were going to reopen," she said. "Everybody was very supportive. We make our own salad dressing, and and we sell bottles of it on our shelf here. They came in and bought it while we were closed."

Like lots of other businesses, The Mag is experiencing pandemic-generated staffing problems, so it's only open during the day for now. But the patio area stands ready for live music to return. 

These days, Marshall shares ownership of The Mag with Mary Daniel, who was hired as the restaurant's manager in 2017. That move has allowed Marshall to direct more energy to the tourist courts, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The cabins are pretty unique, because they're close to how they were when they opened in the 1930s," she said.

And she's not planning any additions to either the building or the menu.

"We have daily lunch specials, but if anything, I'd like to simplify the menu," she said. "We just want to be consistent."

The Mag's customers wouldn't expect anything less.


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com