Shannon White, the manager of Chef John Besh's piping hot CBD restaurant Domenica, can't seem to get away from New Orleans. Originally from New York, White has been here for so long that she says that she could almost be considered a native, and has a fondness for the sauntering pace of New Orleans life that even a four-year stint at an Italian steakhouse in Long Island couldn't erase from her memory. Still, White has brought her Yankee hustle to Domenica, going so far sometimes as to grab bread pudding from outside the restaurant to satisfy the cravings of pregnant patrons. Eater talked to her this week about her drive to please customers, the growing legend of Domenica's happy hour, and the restaurant's burgeoning pizza delivery route, which may soon be coming to a bike rack near you.
Are you from here originally?
No, I could definitely be considered from here, but originally I'm from New York. I moved back to New York for about four years and I just came back here two years ago.
That's a pretty big pace-of-life adjustment.
Oh yeah. You have to find yourself walking a little slower. I'm like, "Just slow down."
And you worked in the restaurant industry up there?
Yes, I did. I worked in Long Beach at an Italian-style restaurant, like an Italian chophouse, which fit perfectly when I decided to come here.
Was it strictly a business that brought you to New Orleans?
New York was a lot. My commute was ridiculous and a lot of my family was still here. I just feel like you can't ever really get away from New Orleans.
How hard would it be for a walk-in to get a table during the Friday, Saturday dinner rush?
It definitely depends. I like to try and get everybody seated. I'm always like, alright, we may quote you 45 minutes, but I'm going to try and make this happen in 20. So on a Friday or Saturday, I think you're honestly looking anywhere from between 30 minutes up to an hour and half.
How many people can you seat?
The restaurant is made so that we can move tables around easily. Everything is always revolving, but I would say about 140 seats.
Have you noticed if it's becoming a destination for out-of-town visitors, like celebrities or film crews down here on a shoot?
I think it is becoming more popular as far as out-of-town people knowing about it, hearing about it, and coming here. I guess it's maybe a destination, but we have a ton of locals and a great happy hour, so I think it kind of goes both ways.
On especially busy nights, do you give your staff special instructions? Is there anything you tell them to be particularly mindful of?
I thrive on [busy] nights. I just tell everyone, "Alright, let's go." The guests are a priority and we have back-up staff that will help support the other waiters. Basically, it's prepping?stock, get ready, you're about to be really busy.
I tell our waitstaff that if you don't care about what you're doing, it's not the right position for you. I just really want our staff to honestly care about the customers and to give them a great evening, and not just stand there and take their order. That's the worst for me. I just always tell them to be genuine and to go out of their way to make people feel comfortable and make them remember the restaurant. I get emails all the time from customers saying, you know, that was just an amazing experience, our server was so wonderful?he helped us plan the rest of our trip.
When you're looking for waitstaff, are you looking for a particular sort of person, like someone who's really genial and outgoing?
Yeah, I definitely think that's a huge factor. It is the most important thing. I feel like if you don't have a good staff and your staff doesn't care about the restaurant or care about the customers, then I just feel like they shouldn't be there because everyone feels that?your customers feel that, I'll notice it and it just kind of makes it not as enjoyable of an experience. So yeah, it's definitely something. Our servers will come up to us and say, "Shannon, this customer really wants raw oysters. I think we should go get some raw oysters." I'm like, "Alright, fine." They go out of their way.
So do you get a lot of odd requests from people who show up to a New Orleans restaurant and expect to eat traditional New Orleans food?
Sometimes. Recently, we had this pregnant woman who really wanted bread pudding and I was like, well, of course, she needs it, obviously. We definitely try and do everything we can to help with odd requests. A lot of people are looking for and curious about classic New Orleans dishes, and since we have other restaurants in the area, I'll just send somebody, or I'll go myself. So I'll have food runners just running down the street on a Saturday night with bread pudding.
You're at this great, historic location in the Roosevelt. With your happy hour getting so popular, do you have any competition on the cocktail front with the Sazerac?
I would say that we have a really extensive wines-by-the-glass list and we also do half-off wines for happy hour, so we get a lot of wine people, but our cocktail program is pretty amazing. Jason Lee is in charge of it now, and he's just doing some really fun things and we have access to really amazing, fresh produce. Our pastry chef will also make syrups and extractions, just all kinds of stuff that I'm still learning. So I would say at nighttime, it kind of switches to wine, but we sell a lot of cocktails.
But, no, I think we're totally different [than the Sazerac]. We'll send people over there when they're looking for something a little different. I'm like, "Go next door to the Sazerac," and I'll walk them over there if that's more to their style. That's also a very traditional place, and we use a lot of interesting Italian liquors that wouldn't necessarily be used at the Sazerac. So I don't necessarily think it's competition; it's complementary.
When you go out for drinks, where do you go?
I'm kind of boring. One of my friends just started working at the Carousel Bar, which is one of my favorite bars, and he makes amazing cocktails, so I've been meaning to go over there and see him at that location. A lot of times, though, I'll just call Jason [Lee] from home and be like, "How do I make this from grocery store stuff?"
When you get a chance to enjoy Domenica's food for yourself, what do you eat?
It's so hard. I tell people all the time that they have to have a game plan. Sometimes I want pizza. I can never get enough pizza, which is really bad. Sometimes I want to do pasta. Lately, I've been really into Calabrese pizza, and I add goat cheese to it and it's delicious. Sometimes I add roasted red peppers. That's my fixation right now.
Jeff Baron, from Crescent Pie and Sausage and Pizzicare, has given high marks to your pizza. Is that a focal point of the restaurant right now?
Oh, that's great, I love that! I think it is. Chef would be better about that one, but just watching all the work that goes into the dough and making sure the dough is right changed my perspective. It's very serious. I'm like, "It's just pizza! You throw it in the air." It's not and you don't?it's really about getting the perfect char and consistency so it's not like glass but it still has that crunch. A lot goes into it and the specific ways that they do it. I would say that it's probably a focal point. Our happy hour is getting big, so I think people find out about us when they come in for pizza. Then they find out that we have other really delicious items on the menu.
Anything to add?
We are delivering pizzas now. We have this enormous bike that holds up to 20 pizzas.
A huge pizza bike? That sounds delicious.
We have a big box on the front and we can fit like 20 pizzas in this thing. It's out of control. My staff rides it down the street. So that's fairly new for us. That's been fun.
What's the delivery radius?
We started it saying that we would be in the CBD, but it hasn't really stayed that way. If somebody calls from out of the CBD, then we usually get it to them. I've delivered from the Convention Center all the way down to the boundaries of the Warehouse District or the Tulane Hospital area.
Not too many far flung adventures for the pizza cyclist?
It doesn't go too far?the French Quarter's a fun place to go to. I try not to have it pass beyond there, but if it's a big order and it's late, I'll give the delivery person my car.