Solid friendships plus chef experience equals two flourishing restaurant chains
When New Orleanians think of Semolina Restaurant, perhaps they recall a memorable dining experience. Yet another image may arise: the giant red crawfish that used to dwell on the roof of the location at Metairie Road. Myriad visitors and natives have driven by on I-10 and can probably envision it, but this icon is not there anymore.
The company that owns the Semolina and Zea restaurants, Taste Buds Inc., has a relaxed suite of offices on Oak Street in Carrollton. It occupies the building that was once the old Muddy Waters bar and music club. Taste Buds is a trio of friends who all have culinary backgrounds. In fact, they are all chefs: Greg Reggio, Hans Limburg and Gary Darling. The amazing fact is that they do not have the stereotypical personalities (does that mean volatile?) that laypeople associate with chefs. They get along great and have fun working together.
The triumvirate functions thusly: Reggio is president on even weeks; Darling is president on odd weeks; and Limburg is president on alternate weeks. (Readers with MBAs please feel free to analyze that structure!) The truth is, it works and works well. In addition to his business duties, Reggio is president of the New Orleans Chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Here is part of our conversation with Greg Reggio.
NOL: First, we want to know about the giant crawfish that used to be atop the Metairie Road location.
Reggio: The crawfish is safe in the warehouse. He was up for a while last year in crawfish season, but we are not renewing our lease at the Metairie Road location, so he is there for now. He is actually enormous.
Is the crawfish symbolic?
The crawfish is a symbol of when we are serving crawfish in season. But it is not easy moving him around. He is so heavy and huge. The claws alone are 10 feet long. He’s made of steel, and a kind of Styrofoam, with a thick acrylic layer on the outside.
We hope to see him back before long. What about your duties with the restaurant association?
Besides overseeing board meetings and assigning committee chairs, I deal with various issues. We always want to make sure our side is heard. For example, there is the possibility of a new liquor tax coming up—adding 25 cents per drink. Our members do not want that.
Generally, it is not as inexpensive to live here as it used to be, so that objection is expected.
No, and the hospitality industry has increasing expenses of doing business. We are faced with rising costs from the Sewerage and Water Board, where the bulk of the increase is on businesses. Also, there are expected rate increases from Entergy.
And in your business, you use a lot of water, gas and electricity.
TLC Linen, based here in New Orleans is a member. They are completely dependent on all three. So the suppliers are affected, and that directly affects the restaurants and hotels.
Back to your restaurants. Where are the Semolina locations?
We started in Covington. We have restaurants at Clearview, Manhattan Boulevard, Mandeville and the Semolina Bistro Italiano on Magazine Street.
You also own the Zea restaurants. Our local food critic par excellence, Tom Fitzmorris, speaks glowingly about Zea and how kid friendly it is.
We have nine Zea locations: four in New Orleans and one that is under construction in Baton Rouge. Zea is very kid-friendly and has a varied menu. We feel that if you can’t find something on the menu there, you are probably not hungry.
With these restaurants, you must feel the challenges that other members of the association encounter.
Our biggest challenge for all the restaurants in the area is labor. Restaurants are struggling with this issue. They can’t get the people. Some have hired people who may not be well trained. So we are seeing a 20% to 25% staff turnover. There are restaurants that are still not fully staffed. It was tough before [Katrina], but it is tougher now. Affordable housing is an issue. We have a member with a restaurant on the North Shore, in Madisonville. Much of her staff commutes [together] from Hammond, because of gas prices. So if the driver is sick one day, she is going to be missing four workers.
Where do you get your talent for the restaurants?
Our chefs come from all over. But we also have people who move up through the ranks. Cooks want to become chefs and assistant managers want to become managers.
Which of these positions is key?
The dishwasher. It’s the most important job in the restaurant, and it’s a tough job. They have to get clean dishes supplied to the kitchen or else we can’t serve food.
So they are always under pressure to produce in a timely fashion.
And they are not always treated most kindly by the other staff.
What about other sources of culinary talent?
I’ve spoken with Johnson Wales [a culinary school in Rhode Island]. It is difficult for kids getting out of school because of the debt. They are looking to reduce tuition and push grants for students rather than loans. I also work with the Louisiana Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. We work with schools on our Pro-Start Program. I’m a mentor at Grace King School, and what we do is promote our industry as a viable career choice for students.
What are your plans for the company?
We plan to grow the company in a slow, smart pace, and continue to have fun.