Two years after nabbing a shiny "Maitre'd of the Year" award in 2010 from New Orleans Magazine for his work at Mid City's Cafe Minh, Larry Nguyen was offered a unique opportunity: move northward a few blocks on Carrollton and help his longtime friends Isaac and Amanda Toups get their meat-centric restaurant started. Six months after opening, Toups' Meatery is quickly becoming a neighborhood enclave of local carnivores who appreciate the fact that all of Nguyen's conscientious staff members can remember what cocktail goes best with a plate of Isaac Toups' already-legendary Cracklins.
What are the major differences between managing Cafe Minh and managing Toups?
Besides the obvious difference in cuisine, I guess there's a difference in clientele as well. I think it's also very different working with friends. I've known Chef Isaac and his wife Amanda for over 10 years now, so it's really interesting and fun to work with people you're already close with. Working at Minh was fun as well. I worked for them for so long...it was really different.
This is a very concept-oriented restaurant...
Do you ever have to manage anyone's expectations when they come in not necessarily knowing what the menu looks like?
Sometimes people actually come in here and expect it to be a butcher's shop. They think they might come in here and buy pounds and pounds of sausage or boudin. It's a restaurant that works really well in this neighborhood. People have been waiting for a restaurant like this in this neighborhood for so long because, for a while, there was not much over here.
For so long, this area had so few high-caliber restaurants?places like Rue 127, Minh around the corner, and Serendipity have just opened. It's sort of exciting. On the other side of Carrollton, you can just throw a stone and hit a restaurant because everything is right there, jammed together.
What's your busiest time?
You know, we really haven't figured that out yet. Right now, we're still a relatively new spot, and so we're still picking up steam. Of course weekends are really busy, and right now, we're trying to push lunch because we're right by lawyers' row on Canal Street. My experience at Minh was...we'd have blockbuster lunches there because it was pretty much a who's who of the lawyers. I think it's really different here because you need about an hour for lunch, unless you're getting a sandwich.
What are some of the challenges that come with shifting from lunch to dinner?
There really isn't that much difference. I think the difference is that it's harder on the kitchen because we have a really small kitchen, and we really do need that time in between lunch and dinner when we're closed so we can prep. Everything at the front of the office is, more or less, seamless.
Are you getting a lot of regulars?
We do have a lot of regulars. It's nice to cultivate that because we are in the neighborhood and I want to have all of our neighbors feel like they can pop in at any time and get good service and a good meal. They can have a great time, bring their family and friends. People come in two or three times a week, which is good because you start to get to know what certain people really like. Really who doesn't like that?
That seems really perfect for a place like Mid City...
Definitely. It's got a great neighborhood feel. This area's changed so much since I've been at Minh. A lot more people are moving into Mid City?a lot more young people. One of the big things for these new arrivals, especially young people, is that they can always walk out of the house and find a place to eat. When you're in Mid City, it used to be so hard because you either have to eat at a certain time or at a certain place.
For this area, for this type of restaurant, are you sensing a lot of excitement?
People are excited. Chef Isaac has taken his family's recipes and elevated a little. Especially in a city like this, it's very casual and you can feel more like you're out at a restaurant with friends. People in this neighborhood really respond to that.
What's your favorite Gatekeeper tool?
I really don't have a chart or anything. All the tables are numbered and I just try to keep everything in my head. I have a list for weekends especially when we're really busy. On the weekends, I try to urge people to come at either 6 or 8, that way we can have two full turns. And if we have walk-ins in the middle at, say, 7 when everyone seems to want to eat, we always have more seating on the patio. We never try to make anyone wait longer than 15 minutes.
What qualities do you look for in wait staff?
I really look for a staff that's really friendly. I always tell my staff, "Have a conversation with your table, but don't overdo it. They came here to eat, let them eat." I always tell my staff that sometimes I could get a little buzzer and put it on the back on your heads so, if you start talking too much, I could just zap, and send you away.
What are the biggest takeaways so far, at 6 months in?
We're still refining everyday. Right now, you know, we're moving into busy season, but we've been busy ever since we've open. The only time we've been slow is summertime, right after the storm. We only have a full-time bartender on the weekends, so everyone on the staff learns how to make all the drinks, learns what's in every cocktail, so when you come in, all the servers know what's in everything. We take the time to learn the drinks and learn the menu.
With such a small restaurant, it helps that each member of the staff can make their own drinks so that they can all make a little more money. They like to stay a little busier, to have that extra money.
It seems like it would cut down on the variables...
On the weekends we do have a separate bartender because we get so crazy. We're just trying to move drinks out to tables efficiently and in a timely manner. One of my biggest pet peeves is if I'm out somewhere and I sit down and my appetizers get to the table before my drink. My second biggest pet peeve is when someone tells you its gonna take ten minutes for them to make you a cocktail. I don't like that?when I'm thirsty, I'm thirsty!
· Toups' Meatery [Official Site]