Even as a child, Ralph Brennan knew he was destined for the restaurant industry. After decades in the business — first as a prep cook in his teens and now as the owner and operator of some of New Orleans’ finest restaurants — he will be honored as the third recipient of the VIBE Visionary Award during the VIBE Conference March 13-14 in Las Vegas. Brennan is president and CEO of the New Orleans-based Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group and oversees restaurants such as Red Fish Grill, Ralph’s on the Park, café NOMA, Heritage Grille, café b and Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen. See more of Brennan's profile here.
Today, Brennan celebrates one of his favorite days of the year: the culmination of New Orleans’ acclaimed Mardi Gras festival. Before he cruised the city in two parade appearances, VIBE caught up with Brennan to discuss his career, his commitment to service and, of course, his favorite cocktails.
Promo Power (PP): You're from a family of restaurateurs: Did you always know you wanted to join the family business?
Ralph Brennan: I did. I grew up in the business. When I was in high school, I started working in the original Brennan’s, which my cousins now own. I started as a prep cook and then I went to college [at Tulane University in New Orleans]. After graduation, I worked as a CPA at PricewaterhouseCoopers. I had a great opportunity with them, but when my aunt called and said it was time to come back, I came back.
PP: What makes your restaurants stand out among others in New Orleans?
Brennan: That’s a tough question, because there are so many great restaurants in this city. It’s a combination of things — the food is very good and consistent, and we have very talented people in the kitchen. Also, our commitment to service is key. We focus on the local customers, and then the visitors usually follow. We want to make our restaurants a local favorite. There are many, many components to [standing out in New Orleans], but for me it’s a combination of food and service.
PP: What do you think is the key to a successful restaurant business?
Brennan: I think the key is to understand that it’s a 24/7 business, that you need to be on top of it every day and every meal period, and that you need great people. You can’t be everywhere all the time. It takes a huge commitment to really be successful in this business, and it takes exceptional people to execute for you and with you.
PP: Obviously, you're a lover of New Orleans. What is it you love most about the city?
Brennan: It’s home, so that’s important. I think it’s just an exciting city. Food is so important to the lifestyle of New Orleans. You see that in the numbers. Post-[Hurricane] Katrina we have a couple hundred more restaurants than before, but the population is down. Food is obviously very important, and it’s exciting to be involved in that. It’s a fun city, too. It’s different.
PP: How important is a strong alcohol beverage program to a full-service restaurant's success?
Brennan: It’s very important. As you may know, people enjoy a drink every once in a while here in New Orleans. It’s rumored that the first cocktail was served here in New Orleans a long time ago, so it’s very important. People enjoy a lot of New Orleans-style drinks, and, of course, a good glass of wine.
PP: Do you offer beverage alcohol training for your staff?
Brennan: Oh, yes. First, employees need to be certified through the Louisiana Restaurant Association. Then, we have a beverage staff, who are responsible for operating and maintaining bars. They’re the ones responsible for creating the trainings. It’s a continuous, ongoing training with local beverage providers, distillers, etc., and it’s part of our pre-shift every day. My daughter is actually one of the beverage managers at Ralph’s on the Park.
PP: Do your other children have an interest in being involved with the family business?
Brennan: I have a son who’s at the [Culinary Institute of America] in Napa Valley; he just started a two-year training program out there. I talked to him yesterday, and he said how excited he is. He thought he knew a lot about the industry before he started, but now he’s like, “Dad, I am just learning so much more.”
PP: Of course they're all important, but do any of your restaurants hold a special sense of pride for you?
Brennan: No, they’re all special. Each one is different and unique, and it’s done for a reason. I’ve never really duplicated a restaurant — some things have carried over from restaurant to restaurant, but as far as concept, they’re all new.
BACCO, though, was the first restaurant I opened myself, and it closed a year ago now. There is a lot of sentimental value in that restaurant, and I hated to see it go and close, but the time was right to do it. The market had changed in the [French] Quarter.
It was an Italian restaurant, and Italians — mostly Sicilians — played a very important role in the development of cuisine here in the late 1800s. I like the idea of keeping that going. We may reopen it in a new location.
PP: Are there any other future business plans you'd like to share?
Brennan: I am looking at a couple of different projects. I had a very busy year last year where we opened two new restaurants, re-concepted another one and started a catering business. So I’m wrapping my arms around it all, but we are looking into some other projects.
PP: What's your proudest moment, professionally?
Brennan: We’ve been lucky to be honored as an Employer of Choice by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation, and a publication here called City Business does an annual study, and most years we get recognized as an employer of choice. To me, that’s the most important because our business is our people. That kind of recognition is what I’m proud of because we’re doing the right thing if our employees are happy. … It’s just all about the people.
PP: If you weren't in the restaurant business, what do you think you'd be doing today?
Brennan: I would probably be in some sort of service business. I’d love to own a golf course — to own and operate a golf club or country club. I’ve often thought I should have pursued that instead of PwC. I’ve always been impressed by what they do.
PP: I know Mardi Gras is happening. What's it like at your restaurants during that time?
Brennan: Up until the final weekend, it’s pretty normal. The final weekend before Mardi Gras, especially downtown in the Quarter, it gets crazy. You get a lot of people visiting, a lot of people in the streets. It’s all about people celebrating and having fun. As the parades roll all day, you get waves of business. When the parades end, there’s a rush into the restaurants, and then there’s a break between business while parades happen. Business-wise it puts a little pressure on, but everyone’s having a great time, and that’s what it’s all about here.
PP: What's your favorite thing about Mardi Gras?
Brennan: Clearly, I like parades. I like to be in them, and I like to watch them. I’m in two this year — I’ll ride on Monday night and Tuesday morning. It makes for a very short night, but it’s a lot of fun. My wife rides in a parade on Saturday, so I’ll watch her. I’ll be up and down the street, visiting friends and maybe having a couple of beers.
PP: What's your favorite cocktail?
Brennan: Well it depends on the time of day. In the morning, I love a Brandy Milk Punch. Tuesday morning — Mardi Gras morning — I ride on a float with my friends and we drink those. In the evening, it’s a Sazerac. I got hooked on them about 15 years ago. We have a restaurant in Anaheim, Calif. [Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen] in Downtown Disney, and we flew a bartender out there [from New Orleans] so he could train the bartenders on New Orleans-style cocktails. I started tasting Sazeracs made by the bartenders training, and I got hooked on them again. … It’s a great drink. What I love about it is it’s one where you just sip on it.