Feeding the Fest in Overtime

Apr 25, 2013

New Orleans, La. –
The procedure for ordering at Jazz Fest food booths is pretty straightforward: you name your dish and fork over cash. At some booths, however, it's common for festival-goers to try to make dinner reservations too.

Among the 60-odd food vendors who provide the rightfully famous food at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival each year, a handful of the vendors you see out at the Fair Grounds also run standalone eateries. These range from the vintage Angelo Brocato ice cream parlor in Mid-City and Vucinovich's Restaurant, that plate lunch classic in New Orleans East, to the mini Mexican chain of Taqueria Corona locations and the West African restaurant Bennachin.

For them Jazz Fest time is an inevitably exhausting, potentially rewarding juggling act between their dining rooms and the Fair Grounds. It can mean logging 16- to 18-hour workdays and recruiting second crews of employees, family members and volunteers as booth staff. It means prepping the components of dishes for weeks ahead of time and securing enough chilled storage space for massive amounts of food.

But as the occasional over-the-counter reservation request attests, these berths at the Fair Grounds can be as valuable for small restaurants as Jazz Fest gigs are for bands performing on stage. Sure, a good day serving festival crowds can be lucrative, but these restaurateurs have also found that the seven-day event is a marketing opportunity like no other, one that can put them on the mental meal maps for diners and one that potentially pays dividends year-round.

For the hungry public, this dual role means some of the dishes closely associated with Jazz Fest are available those other 50 weeks of the year, or even during Jazz Fest time itself if a trip to the Fair Grounds isn't in the cards.

For a few vendors, Jazz Fest exposure was the impetus for opening their restaurants in the first place. Wanda and Skip Walker had to buy specialized equipment when they took over the cochon de lait sandwich concession at the Fair Grounds in 2001, and soon they decided to start a restaurant to put that investment to use year-round. By 2004 they opened Walker's Southern Style BBQ. This tiny joint is in a relatively remote lakefront location in New Orleans East, but the renown of that Cajun-style roast pork topped with coleslaw and packed into a po-boy loaf draws the cochon cognoscenti all year.

For another example, consider Vicky and Dennis Patania. They started serving fried seafood po-boys at Jazz Fest back in 1977. Flash forward 14 years - and 14 Jazz Fests - and they parlayed the reputation they built on soft shell crabs and catfish out at the Fair Grounds into their own restaurant, Galley Seafood in Old Metairie.

Yes, keeping up with a restaurant and a Jazz Fest booth can be a serious challenge. But veterans of this double duty have evolved some strategies to keep their heads in the game. For instance, Jamila and Moncef Sbaa, owners of the Uptown Tunisian restaurant Jamila's, always take a little time between shifts to psyche themselves up, like athletes preparing for the final stretch. So if you see the Jamila's crew ladling their crawfish zucchini bisque at the Fair Grounds this year, be sure to wish them luck for the fourth quarter ahead.

For a complete list of Jazz Fest food vendors, click here.

Angelo Brocato's Ice Cream
214 North Carrollton Ave., New Orleans, 504-486-1465

1212 Royal St., New Orleans, 504-522-1230

Galley Seafood
2535 Metairie Road, Metaiire, 504-832-0955

Jamila's Mediterranean Cuisine
7808 Maple St., New Orleans, 504-866-4366

Taqueria Corona
Multiple locations

Vucinovich's Restaurant
4510 Michoud Blvd., New Orleans, 504-254-5246

Walker's Southern Style BBQ
10828 Hayne Blvd., New Orleans, 504-241-8227