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One Man’s Treasure

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Sidney Torres IV takes pride in taking out the trash

Hauling smelly garbage is not a job normally associated with prestige or celebrity, but if anyone can turn this necessary and noble yet often stigmatized trade into something glamorous, that would be the telegenic Sidney Torres IV. Case in point: Cable network TLC recruited Torres, the president and CEO of SDT Waste and Debris Services, to star in his own reality show, Trashmen.

A camera crew followed Torres and SDT employees during the last VooDoo Fest and other Halloween events. “The show is about what it takes to clean up a city where there’s always a party and large crowds,” Torres says, but he points out that New Orleans is also a star of the show. “The city has soul. It’s a great canvas for telling a story, and there are so many interesting characters here.” The pilot aired in February to good ratings, and Torres is waiting to hear if TLC will make it a series.

In the meantime, he’s got work to do. When Torres wakes up every morning at 4:30 in his Chalmette home, the first thing he does is go to his “War Room.” It contains an enormous monitor divided into 150 screens broadcasting video from every corner of SDT’s offices and garages. Another monitor pinpoints his trucks via GPS.

“I know their locations, how fast they’re going, what’s been picked up and what hasn’t,” he says. “I’m very involved in the day-to-day operations. I can drive every piece of equipment I buy. I run behind the trucks, too. I don’t ask my guys to do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Torres has learned to take pride in his work. “Before when I met people, I used to say I’m a real estate developer,” he says. “Now, I’m a trashman.”

His start in this business actually came though his real estate holdings—various hotels and condos in the French Quarter and the Marigny. After Hurricane Katrina’s wreckage, Torres’ properties needed commercial garbage services. He made calls to local waste companies, but because of high demand and lessened competition, they were charging shockingly inflated prices. Angered by what he considered cashing in on the disaster, Torres saw an opportunity.

“I went out and rented a garbage truck. My standard was to offer the same pricing as before the storm,” he says. “It all started with helping out. That turned into a business.”

Torres landed contracts for waste removal from FEMA camps and later for hauling debris from Superdome reconstruction. Learning that competitors were abandoning long-term contracts in St. Bernard Parish, Torres swooped in and quickly built garbage routes that normally take years to reach a cost-effective size. And when he discovered another company was overcharging the St. Bernard Parish government, he convinced the president to put the contract up for bid and won it. An Orleans Parish contract for servicing the French Quarter opened up, and SDT got that one, too. Now the word around town is that the French Quarter has never looked so clean.

“The biggest thing is I care about what I do,” Torres says. Although the French Quarter contract calls for an inexpensive pressure washer, he had his mechanics create a more powerful one. He also hired a chemist to develop a disinfectant that leaves a pleasant scent. “The city doesn’t pay me extra for these things, but I care if the city’s clean.”

For the Saints NFC game, fans partied outside and littered the streets before they went into bars. “I brought in extra employees to clean once the game started. I knew the national media would be on Bourbon Street, and I wanted it to look spotless,” he says. “That’s what makes SDT different. Other companies wouldn’t care.”

A scion of a prominent family in St. Bernard, Torres has deep roots in the area. He spent his childhood here, but he moved to Connecticut for boarding school while his parents dealt with a difficult divorce. It was there he met rock star Lenny Kravitz, Torres’ best friend who made an appearance in Trashmen.

During Kravitz’s ascent to superstar status, Torres traveled with him on tour, having fun but feeling aimless. “I didn’t know where I wanted to go with work,” he recalls. “I was looking into the music business, but I got into a party lifestyle.”

After a concert date in New Orleans, Kravitz told Torres he was no longer welcome on tour. “Lenny said to me, ‘You need to take time to figure out what you want to do, and you can’t do that on the road.’ He left without me. I got upset, but now I thank him. He forced me to figure things out. That’s when I got into real estate.”

In addition to Kravitz, Torres is known for his friendship with another famous musician, Kid Rock (a.k.a. “Bob”) who appears with him in SDT commercials. Torres clearly has an uncanny ability to strike a balance between two worlds, with one foot on the red carpet and one foot on a trash pile.

“I had a customer call me the other day, saying he needed to talk to me,” says Torres, who at first wondered if the call was about a service complaint. “Apparently, he told his son that if he didn’t do his homework, he’d end up being a garbage man. But his son turned to him and said, ‘Dad, I want to be the garbage man.’”