Now in its third year at Napoleon and St. Charles Avenue, Superior Seafood has definitely grown into a Mardi Gras power player, home to the best seats for parade watching and dining Uptown, as well as a hub for to go food and drink. Manager John Michael Rowland has not only witnessed Superior Seafood's growth since day one, but has organized the restaurant's Carnival festivities since 2010, two years before they actually opened their doors. To prove if he could manage the upcoming restaurant, the Tulane grad and former Superior Grill bartender was given the job of organizing Mardi Gras stands and concessions when the building was "just a shell with dirt floors and no electric." Today, the seafood restaurant is home to a gorgeous wraparound patio area and one of the best oyster bar's in town, and Rowland is still running the show. Here now, he discusses what it takes to make Carnival season a success at this Uptown hotspot.
How does Mardi Gras affect your day to day operation?
You have to alter the way you do daily things. Like limiting the menu. We don't do our oyster happy hour. We wouldn't be able to keep up. We pick it back up on Ash Wednesday. We have plenty of oysters, just not the happy hour.
Staff wise, you staff up. You hire a couple extra people because it happens every year—they're out too late and can't make the shift, or they can't handle the pressure and quit. You have extra people on, and when it comes to ordering, you try to stay organized. You may need 50 lbs more of shrimp last minute. You need a port-a-let, extra silver ware. You basically continue to develop this plan year after year and it gets easier. You start planning in the summer.
How does Mardi Gras affect your menu?
We limit our menu just a touch, just to keep the speed of service as good as possible and have less stress on the staff. You got to be quick. People want to come in and get a quick bite and get back out there. When we're in regular dining service, people are getting pan-seared fish. During Mardi Gras, our po' boy numbers shoot through the roof.
What do you offer to go during Mardi Gras?
On big days, we have a dedicated to go person. So Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday we have one person on the station at the backside of the bar and she takes care of you. She takes care of drinks, frozen drinks, po' boys and all that. We do a lot of business that way.
Another thing we're doing this year is crawfish to go. We're thankful the season is better this year. We're doing $6/lb. This early in the season, I've been pleased with how they look. They're not large, but they're decent sized.
You're home to a cult-favorite, the frozen French 75. Can folks get that to go?
Yes. The frozen French 75 is one of our staples. This year, we realized the French 75 is selling just as well as the frozen Mojito, so we're doing all three of our frozen drinks [they also do a frozen Mimosa] during Carnival. Small are $8 and large are $14, and you get a special styrofoam cup that has the parades listed for each day, so if you're confused about what parade you're watching, just look at your cup.
Are you absolutely slammed all Mardi Gras long?
Pretty much. The biggest day for us is Bacchus Sunday. Saturday, even though Endymion doesn't run here, a lot of people Uptown want to take a break. We're packed with folks who want non-parade action. Also, it's Valentine's Day, which is usually a big day for us.
Can people still make reservations during Mardi Gras?
You can make reservations for lunch any day or just come in starting at 11 a.m. Tuesday evening you can come in for dinner. We're one of the only places open for Mardi Gras dinner.
For dinner, we're taking reservations for Saturday—Valentine's Day— only. We don't take reservations during parades. We do walk in service only. We can't do reservations during parades because it's too difficult for people to get here. We do all walk ins during Carnival. We have 200 seats for walk ins. There's 14 seats around the oyster bar too.
How do you score a coveted table along the windows?
Well, we're all booked this year. 90% of the people who booked them last year returned again this year. My wife and I handled all those reservations personally. Mardi Gras is all about tradition, and we want this to be a place where people want the same spot as last year, where they come in on Mardi Gras Day at 9:30 a.m. year after year.
What we do is a set price for tables along the windows on both St. Charles and Napoleon sides. It's sort of like purchasing real estate. We do $75 a head. We feed you along with any iced tea and sodas. Drinks are added on top. A server is watching your real estate the entire time, taking care of you. You're not in a crowd getting elbowed, but you can walk right outside and do get elbowed if you want, and when you come back, your table is waiting for you. You get a personal space on the route that you don't have to tend to. We have it all for you. You just have to show up. We open the windows and garage doors. It's really fun.
Does stuff get broken?
Occasionally we have some breaks, but mostly you can sit back and relax. The Napoleon side though, with the garage doors open, you have to be paying attention.
How about the balcony? Can you get up there if you don't want a table?
It's a separate deal than the tables. For certain days, we sell wristbands. We have a bar set up there and a couple high tops. It's a great view. We have a lot of private parties, and people who rent it out. We've basically booked out the whole balcony for Thursday through Sunday.
Is the construction along St. Charles and Napoleon messing with the crowds?
It's a big question people are asking. The crowds got displaced. The other side of the street in front of us and Fat Harry's was busier than I've ever seen (in the first weekend). It hasn't brought extra crowd to our side of the street, because I don't think there's room. This first weekend showed a little bit of insight, and the crowds usually double. It's really moved a lot of people to the neutral ground side.
You've overseen Mardi Gras planning here since before the restaurant was even open. Has it become easier for you to plan through the years?
It is a very difficult time to organize. It's difficult to plan. Each year, it's like you're building a lesson plan as a teacher. You go back the next year and you use that plan, and tweak it a little bit with things that work and that didn't.
Each year it seems like we're thrown a new twist. Last year, you know, I guess we snuck thru the cracks and didn't realize we need an ingress/egress for the balcony, and it got shut down on us. We'd actually booked the whole balcony for the whole time. We had to make a bunch of phone calls and disappoint people.
So planning started in July this year.Our goal is for us to become the iconic spot to do Mardi Gras. You've got to improve, make additions, and fix things each year.
Have you ever had to kick people out?
We've had a small number of incidents where I've had to ask somebody to leave. Only two times have I actually had to physically remove somebody. People know when they're crossing the line, and they leave when we ask them. We're lucky. We're in the beginning of the parade route, so they have less time to get inebriated. Further down the street, people have an extra three hours of drinking in them, so it's more rambunctious. Plus, we're smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood, so it's very self-policed.
Now I did work down at Superior Grill for a number of years, and tequila makes people do crazy things. That's a different story.
Do you get Mardi Gras day off?
Oh, absolutely not. We are open on Mardi Gras day. We try to get the bar open as early as we can, around 8 a.m. We pull people in super early. If you have anything like last year, when it's cold and rainy, people are beating on the door.
In 2011, we were under construction. We had sights on being open for it, but you know how construction in this town goes... so that was a challenge. We basically just shut down, and that's the only Mardi Gras in my 14 years here, that I haven't had any work obligations.
Any major changes coming to Superior Seafood after Mardi Gras?
After the James Beard House dinner we did up in New York City, I think that solidified our first three years as a restaurant, and now it's time to really step up and elevate every aspect of our service and ambiance. It's an exciting time for us.
We've really found a young energetic talent in chef Josh Boeckelman. He has a great team in the kitchen. Come March 1, there's going to be some menu changes. We're going to keep our staples, of course. But we're going to do some new seasonal items, and changes to brunch. We're going to be doing a special dinner in March, the same menu we served at the James Beard House in New York City, and a few wine dinners. We're also doing a new bar menu with some fun things. We want to do a play on a charcuterie board with all seafood. We really want to elevate people's perceptions of what we're doing here.
Right after Mardi Gras, we'll also start back up with our live piano music on Wednesdays.
Where do you like to eat and drink in New Orleans?
La Petite Grocery. Cure is my go to for a cocktail. Lilette. Coquette: my wife and I love going there. Dinner and a cocktail and going home to finish work is my 'going out' now.