Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rich with hisotry and flavor -- Tommy Cvitanovich

As a young boy, an eager Tommy Cvitanovich started his well-known restaurant career bussing tables in his aunt’s restaurant in New Orleans. Several years later in 1969, his parents—Drago and Klara—opened their own place in Metairie, aptly named Drago’s.  
Drago's Seafood Restaurant owner Tommy Cvitanovich
receives the Times Picayune Loving Cup Award for his
philanthropy. He also received the National Restaurant
Association's Restaurant Neighbor Award in 2006 for
his community service following Hurricane Katrina.
The young Cvitanovich started out as a “restaurant brat” as most in the restaurant industry—washing dishes, cooking and bartending. Few other than he can say they started out shucking delicious, plump Louisiana oysters.

Now 42 years later, “Tommy C” as he’s referred to by some of his peers, will serve as the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) chair, the top volunteer leadership position. Also, this year, Tommy will begin his term as a board member of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) representing Louisiana, alongside LRA Past Chair Dickie Brennan.

Settling in Southeast Louisiana
Although many Croatians settled in Southeast Louisiana since the early 19th century, the Cvitanovich family came to the area in a round about way. Drago and Klara met in New Orleans after separately fleeing war-torn Yugoslavia, now Croatia.

Klara’s father’s business was burned by the Germans during World War II, but that was only the beginning of her strife. The Communist secret police jailed her father, leaving her mother to raise her three daughters with no income. An aunt who lived in New York assisted the family by sending money and care packages.

To escape Communist rule, Drago fled his homeland following World War II. He settled in Germany and worked with the U.S. Army Labor Department as a civilian employee.
When Klara graduated from high school, she visited her aunt in New York. A cousin, whose family had settled in New Orleans, was also in New York at that time, attending college. On a school break, she took Klara to New Orleans—it was Mardi Gras! There, Klara met Drago, who was also visiting family, and they were married three weeks later.

Drago and Klara Cvitanovich
Drago and his new bride relocated to Canada, where Drago worked in foodservice. It was there that their two sons, Tommy and Gerry, were born. It was Drago’s life-long dream to one day  immigrate to the United States and finally, after four years in Canada, he got his wish—the Cvitanovichs were awarded a U.S. entry visa— and the family headed straight for New Orleans.

Family tree blooms in Louisiana
Upon arrival in New Orleans in the early 1960s, Drago worked in his sister’s restaurant, while Klara took a job with the D.H. Holmes Travel Agency. In 1969, Drago and Klara opened their own restaurant—Drago’s Seafood Restaurant—in Metairie.

“It was tough in the early days,” Tommy recalls. “I remember going to the restaurant after school and doing my homework at the bar, then helping my parents in the restaurant. When Drago’s closed for the night, my brother and I would sleep in the car while my mom and dad were washing the restaurant linens at a nearby laundromat.”

Tommy graduated from Archbishop Rummel High School and attended the University of New Orleans’ School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism, all while working at Drago’s, soaking up as much knowledge as he could. When he was 36, he married Leanne Flick and they have four children: Maddie (14), Josh (12), Carson (10), and Callie (9).

Tommy is very active with his kids’ schools.

“I always wanted to give as much time as I could to my children,” Tommy said. “Growing up, my parents were so busy working to make a better life for me and my brother. Their only day off was Sunday.”

The tests of sustainability
Oysters are big business in Louisiana, and twice in recent years, they have become the subject of much debate and quite frankly, worry.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tommy was instrumental in getting $150 million in federal funding to rehabilitate the 1.6 million acres of public oyster grounds and 400 acres of oyster farmland. He met with Louisiana’s Congressional Delegation and sent his oyster shuckers to numerous press events to raise awareness of the situation.

“What Tommy and his family have done public relations-wise has been a Godsend for the oyster community,” said Mike Voisin, Louisiana’s resident oyster expert. “Oysters are wildly sought after and the love he has for his signature product is admirable, to say the least.”

The federal funding in 2006 made significant strides in the rebounding of the beloved Louisiana oyster industry and by 2008 the industry was on its way to a full recovery.

Last year, another test presented itself not only to Tommy and his business, but restaurateurs in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast. The BP Oil Spill resulted in the closure of oyster areas, off and on for months. Tommy became a widely recognizable and sought-after source on the impact the spill had on his business, the restaurant and oyster industries.

With age, maturity, success

In 2007, Tommy opened a second Drago’s location at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, with the same notable menu and his philosophy at the heart of the operation—everything is about and for the customer.

As the second generation proprietor of Drago’s, Tommy has taken the family-friendly, charbroiled oyster destination to a level his parents never imagined. His vision and marketing acumen has forged a local, national and international reputation that’s resulted in, between the restaurant’s two locations, more than $16 million in annual sales.

Part of his marketing ingenuity is a fire truck he refurbished and outfitted with chargrills on the back of the truck, soft drink and beer taps, a Jagermeister dispenser and flatscreen televisions equipped with Direct TV. The fire truck is sent to fairs, festivals, Saints games and charitable events throughout the year. In December 2010, with help from the New Orleans Fire Department and Drago’s staff, he, his brother and son won a tailgating competition at the Superdome. The win guarantees them a spot in the “ BING Super Bowl of Tailgating” at the Super Bowl in Dallas this February.

An LRA director since 2001 and former Greater New Orleans Chapter President in 2004, he is also a two-term chair of the LRA Self Insurer’s Fund for workers’ compensation. His involvement in the LRA resulted in an Active Member of the Year Award in 2003. Three years later, in 2006, he won the NRA’s Restaurant Neighbor Award for his post-Katrina relief efforts—the only Louisiana restaurant to ever receive this honor.

“Being a part of the LRA has been one of the smartest business decisions I’ve ever made and I really have to thank former LRA President & CEO Jim Funk for that,” Tommy said. “He encouraged me to get involved and it’s the relationships I’ve made through the LRA that have made my businesses so successful.”

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