You know you live in a small town when a single restaurant is a leading employer.
Donaldsonville, La. is one such town. It sits just off I-10, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, an hour and fifteen minutes west of New Orleans and about 45 minutes south of Baton Route. Here, you are in bayou country.
Cozy could be one adjective to describe Donaldsonville. According to the most recent Census, 7,605 people cram their homes into Donaldsonville's 2.5 square miles. Impoverished could be another. Median household income is slightly more than $24,000. One-third of the population lives below the poverty line.
But this humble town harbors a proud history. From 1830-31, it served as Louisiana's state capital. The state Legislature held two sessions in Donaldsonville before New Orleans won back the honor. Donaldsonville's capitol [sic] building was demolished, brick by brick. The refuse was used as bayou fill to protect the town against flooding.
Residents and visitors alike will not soon forget Donaldsonville's place in the annals of Louisiana history. The erstwhile capital has been resurrected, albeit in name only, by an ambitious native son.
LEARNING THE BUSINESS
Compared to Donaldsonville, Providence is like New York. Small by most city standards, Rhode Island's state capital is nonetheless New England's second-largest metropolis. On historic Federal Hill, you'll find some of the finest restaurants in the northeast – from cozy, family-owned joints where the portions are large and the prices small, to crowded, cosmopolitan eateries where patrons go as much for the opportunity to be seen as they do for the food.
Providence Prime and the Oyster Bar fall into the latter category. Throughout the year, any number of New England Patriots players frequent the combined establishments owned by local businessman Frank DiBiase. For a while – 15 months, to be precise – the most dedicated regular was defensive lineman Jarvis Green.
"When I had time off, I went there for three or four hours a day," he explained. "During the season, I used to go on Thursday, Friday … I know a lot of people thought I was just hanging out, but I was there learning the ropes on the management side."
DiBiase and his then-general manager allowed Green to shadow them each night, from the tables in front to the kitchen out back. Green asked constant questions, wrote down all their answers and took copious mental notes. He wanted to know everything there is to know about how to run a restaurant.
"All the formulas, what's good and what's not ... and just the know-how. That was the biggest thing," Green said. "I always think about what I really want to do after football. I started kind of early."
Entering his eighth season with the Patriots, the 6-3, 285-pound Green has been with New England his entire pro career. He has built a solid reputation as a talented reserve in sub packages who has also proved to be a reliable performer when called upon to start.
But the Donaldsonville native remains a Louisiana boy at heart. Like many talented athletes, he decided to stay close by when colleges came courting for his football services. From 1998-2001, he starred for the Tigers of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged his home state four summers ago, Green was one of countless volunteers who returned to help clean up and assist victims when the storm subsided. His selfless efforts eventually earned him the Patriots' Ron Burton Community Service Award, given each year to the player who goes above and beyond to help improve the quality of life wherever they live.
A year after Kartina, Green opened his first business venture, an off-campus liquor store that he named Green's Purple and Gold in honor of LSU's colors. Before doing so, though, he did his homework, visiting several other liquor stores to observe how they do business.
However, when Green decided to open his own restaurant, he wanted to do more than simply slap his name on the sign and let others do the dirty work, as many celebrity restaurateurs often do.
Step one: secure financing. It took a number of tries at different banks, but he finally found one willing to take a chance on him.
"Yeah, oh yeah. I did all that on my own," he said. "I walked into the bank by myself. I had my business plan. I had my blueprints."
Asking people for money can be a harrowing experience for some, but Green maintains it was not that difficult for him.
"What I learned in school helped me a lot," said the construction engineering major. "And just listening to people talk, getting advice from people. It wasn't a problem. Just kept trying. It helps that I have this job [to prove the risk is worth it]. But at the same time, you have to walk in there with some good credit. If you can do that, you've got a chance."
His loan secured, Green next set out to find a suitable location. He found the perfect spot, an historic building in Donaldsonville that has served as a horse stable, a bus depot, then a jewelry and antiques store.
"There is a lot of history in this building," Green told the Donaldsonville Chief newspaper in a story last year, "and we want to add to it."
Coming up with a name was the easiest part. He called it The Capital.
In addition to his 15-month internship at Providence Prime, Green did even more research in an effort to choose his menu. He visited several food conventions over the past few years, sampled the cuisine at restaurants across the country and made multiple trips to Sysco, the food service and distribution giant, to taste the selections they offer.
Green also has surrounded himself with experienced people to help manage the day-to-day needs of the restaurant. Because he understands how difficult it is to succeed in the restaurant business, particularly from several states away.
"There's an 80-percent failure rate in the first year," he pointed out.
Cash flow can be one reason, but Green learned quickly that dealing with your own employees is a more common cause of failure.
"They say in the first 4-6 months, you'll fire 50-percent of your staff. That's what everyone in the business has been telling me. It could be for anything. Stealing, coming in late, not coming in at all," Green explained.
"We started out with 37 employees. Going through the process, the paperwork, hiring, firing, keeping an eye on them. I have a camera system set up that I can look at through my computer to see what's going on down there. Some of them think they own the place. They think everything's for them in the kitchen and around the bar. That's been the biggest thing. Since we've been open, we've fired 10 people."
But less than a month after opening last year, Green was almost forced out of business due to factors beyond his control.
WEATHERING THE STORM
Hurricane Gustav was not nearly the menace to the Gulf Coast states that Katrina was, but residents weren't going to take the chance. Emergency management and government officials efficiently evacuated their populations in time for the storm's arrival on Labor Day weekend 2008. The result was relatively low damage amounts and loss of life, compared to the Katrina disaster.
The Capital was among the casualties.
"On that Friday [before the storm], I called the GM and telling him, 'Hey, you better take off for a few days,'" Green recalled. "The sheriffs came in and told us we had to close because everyone had to evacuate. So, we closed at 9 o'clock instead of 2 a.m. that night."
Without a generator, the building couldn't keep its food freshly refrigerated when Donaldsonville lost power. Thankfully, that was the bulk of the damage The Capital sustained.
"On Monday morning, the managers went there to clean the refrigerators out," Green continued. "Then, the insurance guy came in, had to get all the numbers of what we lost … I thought about just starting over. We had some wind damage upstairs. Talking about 10 to 15 grand in total losses."
Green reopen soon thereafter, however.
"There's a lot of downtime, but it helps out at the same time," he observed. "Everybody can get their thoughts together and kind of get a little rest, be with their families. It was better than Katrina, I tell you that."
Despite the rough start, Green is enjoying his new business venture.
"It's been pretty good … better than good," he said. "It's a sports bar, with live music. We also have nightlife. We haven't really started that yet because we want to get the restaurant part down first, managing it, getting with the customers, making sure the food is right. It's been great.
"People are always asking if we have Cajun food like crawfish or jumbalaya or stuff like that. Well, you've got your crabcakes, your po'boys, you've got your shrimp, fried crawfish with the po'boys. It's the burgers, the bouillon burgers. Cold cuts, ham, turkey, roast beef sandwiches. We have a big slew of appetizers ... Loaded cheese fries, Jalapeno poppers, potato skins. A lot of things, but it's more a common sports bar. We've got about 12, 13 TVs total, some 50-inch plasmas, pool tables, arcades, bar games."
Green admits he loves the challenge of owning his own restaurant.
"It's fun, man. You make people happy. Customers keep coming back and you see a smile on their face. They're enjoying the food, the ambience, the customer service. That's very important. Especially when you see the same crew coming in all the time, you know you're doing something right."