Sean Meenan's plan to turn what he generously describes as a "Hopper-esque" former gas station on the corner of Esplanade and N. Rampart into a spacious Cuban restaurant has been greeted with a fair degree of neighborhood hostility. Ever since Meenan, a New York native who operates similar Cuban restaurants in California and New York, introduced his plans for Habana Outpost last year, his proposal has been criticized by vocal French Quarter residents, and trapped in the Vieux Carre Commission's Architectural Review Committee holding pattern.
Meenan is scheduled to go before the commission for a final vote on his project tomorrow, Sept. 4, but he recently made his case to Eater about how he doesn't intend for Habana Outpost to be a 24-hour frat fiesta, and insisted that he isn't just some opportunistic outsider hoping to co-opt New Orleans culture with a shiny, new chain restaurant because, for starters, Habana Outpost isn't exactly a chain.
What are you eager for people, in the French Quarter and beyond, to know about Habana Outpost ahead of the Sept. 4 meeting?
I want people to be aware of that the meeting is happening so they can attend if they want to, because I believe in that process and I want people to be heard. I think a lot of the people who are feeling maybe not overly-enthusiastic about Habana Outpost coming to that corner, and there are some, aren't against Habana Outpost for what I envision it to be in New Orleans, or what it is in Brooklyn. I think a lot of people are just scared about what they hear. A 24-hour biker bar? They'd have every reason to be upset about something like that. A venue with live music? I can understand how that would be disconcerting. The restaurant isn't going to be either of those things. Some people are worried about parking, but I don't think they realize that there's a parking lot a block away that holds 30-plus cars, which I've negotiated use for once the restaurant opens. So the things that I think worry some people are things that aren't even part of the project.
It's kind of like telephone?one person starts talking about the restaurant, then, by the time you get to the end of the chain, you hear things like, "Oh, there are going to be dancing girls and crystal meth!" It's craziness. At some point?good, bad, indifferent, however you feel?I just want people to like the project or not like the project based on its own merits.
Especially since the proposed location is currently empty...
Except for drug paraphernalia on the site and some other unsavory remnants from different activities, but yeah, there's nothing there. There were six leaking toxic gas tanks, but I removed those and now it's a site that's ready for something to happen. What's crazy to me is that this corner [on Esplanade and N. Rampart] is the gateway to the French Quarter. It's one of the four corners. I actually think the site is beautiful. It has this real Hopper-esque vibe. I think the people at the Vieux Carre Commission are pleased that the gas station is going to remain the essence of what it used to look like, because that was an iconic image. When you think of the French Quarter and what's historic, you think of something grand like Latrobe's, but these little gas stations were also part of what the French Quarter was.
For me, personally, I like that it will still look like a gas station, but we're trying to do the most environmentally-friendly building we can do. It's going to be a community center, insofar as it's a spot for everybody. It's not just for the rich or poor?it's a spot where everyone's going to feel like they're getting good value. We have a few things that are distinctive and that I think will lend a bit to the culinary landscape of New Orleans.
The solar panels seemed to be a big sticking point earlier in this process. Why were they removed from the plans?
At this time, before the building is actually completed, you can't guarantee without question that the solar panels aren't visible from a neighboring window or a neighboring rooftop. Since we coudn't 100 percent guarantee that you couldn't see those panels, the panels were taken out. Everyone has a right to their opinion as to what should or shouldn't have happened, but it's hard because I fully support all the neighborhood groups. Some are for [the project], some are against it, but everyone has an opinion.
I have to definitely point out on the record that the Vieux Carre Commission has actually helped make this project a better project, and I'm thankful especially for the Architectural Review Committee, because that's the group I've been meeting with now for a while. Each new iteration of the plan has been much better, and the neighborhood groups that are concerned now&151;it's that kind of caring and concern that allow people to go about their daily lives and not worry about the landscape of the city changing suddenly. If there weren't people there on guard, making sure the French Quarter stayed the architectural gem that it is, it would look completely different by now, and I'm sure it wouldn't attract a lot of people like me who really want to be a part of it and live there and raise a family there.
Do you think there's been a lot of pushback against this project because Habana Outpost is perceived as a chain?
I think when people try to label it as a chain, they're trying to equate it with a McDonald's or Starbucks, but I don't think that's a fair description of Habana, and actually this iteration of Habana, Habana Outpost, is different from what's in Malibu or Dubai or the Barclay Center. Habana Outpost is very much combined with a 501c3 called Habana Works, and Habana Works and Habana Outpost are inextricably linked; you can't have one without the other. As far as being a responsible corporate citizen and being civic-minded, one of the reasons I wanted to open the restaurant was that I wanted to understand the city better and also offer something new and special to the city. I do think it's a middlebrow restaurant with something for everyone. I do think, because it's in a place where essentially three major thoroughfares and neighborhoods abut each other, it'll bring a lot of people together, which is what it does in Brooklyn.
The spot in Brooklyn is distinct from the spot in Manhattan, and those are both Cafe Habana, while this project is Habana Outpost. This is only the second Habana Outpost under the Habana brand. I think when people hear the word "chain," especially a "chain" from New York, they get a little nervous. Before I ever thought of opening a restaurant, though, I moved here, and I came here for the lifestyle and because I love this city. I wanted to raise my child here, and having a child is a game-changer because you start thinking about things in a different way. You start asking, "Where do I want my kid to grow up, if my kid could grow up anywhere?" At this point, having traveled a fair amount over the course of my life, New Orleans was at the top of list for places I wanted to raise my son.
I moved here first, then I fell in love with that gas station. It's not like I just "happened" upon a place like Latrobe's?this is a shitty old gas station that's falling apart, and people would like at me sideways when I'd rhapsodize about how great it could be, but I really believe it. It's a gateway to the French Quarter, and I take that location very seriously. It's special, and it's because I found this place that I decided to do business in New Orleans. I didn't come here scouting locations or anything. I'm not trying to make money off of New Orleans and take it back to Brooklyn.
Someone said in one of the early August meetings that they'd be in favor of a smaller Cuban restaurant, but not a place as big as Habana Outpost. How do you change the mind of someone with such a firm opinion, which seems just fundamentally opposed to your project?
A lot of concerns, not even that one in particular, have to do with people being afraid of what that place could become. There are operators who've come in, made some quick cash, and skipped town, so I get that there's a lot of mistrust. One of the things that makes the city so great is that New Orleanians have a lot of pride in their history and culture. They take all that really seriously. Once you get to a certain point, though, that pride can seem kind of flawed because it can make you paranoid and xenophobic. I think some of the issues that certain people have with the restaurant aren't substantive issues that I can even deal with in some creative way. Some of these issues are things that, until I'm up and operating, I can't address. I have to show people how I'm going to be a responsible operator.
I'm not trying to say that people who have those fears are infantile or anything, just that there's a general fear of the unknown that cannot be palliated until you sort of open the closet door and show everyone that there really aren't any monsters inside. I have to get open, show people I'm responsible, and show people that having a well-run restaurant on that corner will ultimately make the neighborhood safer. I guarantee that certain people who are thinking this is not a good idea right now will be enjoying Habana Outpost once it opens.
The proposal for Habana Outpost will go before the Vieux Carre Commission for a final vote on Wednesday, Sept. 4 at 1:30 pm in the City Council Chambers at 1300 Perdido St.