When Bayou Road neighborhood bar Pirogues closed early on in the pandemic, it was the kind of loss that stirred up a sense of doom; a feeling that it was a sure sign of more to come. The new incarnation of the simple corner space, Velveteen Lounge and Restaurant, invokes the reverse — a sense of hope for new, sustainable opportunities in New Orleans’s restaurant landscape that also honor tradition and legacy.
“Pirogues was my regular, local establishment,” says Brendan Gordon, one of the trio opening Velveteen Lounge. “It felt like such a community crossroads, a place with a real mix of customers. When it closed, I was worried it might flip into something with an unaffordable menu, or a fancy coffee spot... I could not see a space like this becoming something that wasn’t inviting,” he says.
Though Pirogues opened in 2015, the address has been home to a number of similar establishments over the decades, including a place that sold horse racing forms (it’s not far from the Fairgrounds racetrack). Gordon says he met a lot of the customers who had been going there for 40 years. “It’s been a community space for that long.”
Not long after Pirogues closed in 2020, Gordon connected with Amber Rowley, who was working at the bar prior to the pandemic, and Mina Seck, a chef who was running her successful three-year old catering business, BeetsNthyme, about creating a worker cooperative in the space.
The idea was on its way to dying on the vine until July 2021, when the building’s landlord reached out to see if they were still interested in renting. Two weeks after they signed the lease, Hurricane Ida hit Southeast Louisiana and tore a hole in the roof in the unit above the restaurant. “It was a six-month mess,” says Gordon.
Now, after a few dry runs during Jazz Fest weekends, the 100 percent worker-owned Velveteen Lounge officially opens Saturday, May 28. Seck’s simple menu of items like jerk chicken and vegan tacos, a market salad, empanadas, and a burger is built around fair and affordable food prices; “a place like this shouldn’t sell $15 sandwiches,” says Seck. The pricing is also designed in the hopes of inspiring customers to “pay it forward” — an option for those who can afford to support the restaurant’s efforts to feed others for free, a practice that’s popped up at a number of local restaurants like Turkey and the Wolf in the LGD.
On the bar side, there will be some house cocktails but Rowley notes they’re not trying to be a cocktail destination: They’ll be able to make classic cocktails, but depending on the drink, maybe with a small spirit brand customers have never seen before. There are no beers on draft (they all come in a can or bottle), and while some are local or regional craft brews, brands like Bud Light are on offer in a nod to Pirogues customers. Well cocktails go for $4, tall boys for $3, and a few specialty cocktails will be just $5.
There are some unexpected wines thanks to Seck, who notes, “You can’t really go to a neighborhood bar here and order a decent wine for the most part,” says Seck. “You have to go sit at a restaurant or upscale bar. We wanted to make sure it was an option,” she says. The team is working on a zero proof program, but not just zero, Gordon says — “Zero proof, low proof, mid proof, and high proof. We want to have options for them all,” he says. They’ll also serve non-alcoholic wine and beer, in addition to stocking a few non-alcoholic spirits.
The trio has lofty goals beyond being a neighborhood bar and restaurant. The idea, Gordon says, is to eventually transition into a multi-stakeholder cooperative that includes consumer owners, investor owners, and worker owners (for now it’s not backed by any outside funding). Ultimately, he says, “we want to be able to have some of the capital that we’ve raised through profits go through a community investment fund... there’s been a lot of community organizing in New Orleans but it’s often missing a key component — [sustainable] capital. Linking the goal of equity with a generator of profit allows us to actually have impact.”
With their small corner community space, he says, there’s a lot of opportunity. To feature and sell artists’ work (with all proceeds going to the artist, who is currently Ariana Marisol); to become zoned to host public markets; and more. “Where can we go from here?” says Gordon.
For the grand opening of Velveteen Lounge on Saturday, May 28, musician Jelani Bauman will play from 7 to 9 p.m. From there, the restaurant will be open Thursday through Monday from 3 p.m. to midnight.
And what about the name? “Velvet is a luxury material,” Gordon says. “Velveteen is a knockoff material. Because everyone should be able to have nice things in a nice space.”