Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Business of Bourbon Street -- Melvin Rodrigue

From Napoleonville to New Orleans, a pre-med major turns hospitality into his lifelong career and runs one of the most notable, old-line restaurants in the heart of the French Quarter.

Many successful restaurateurs initially had other careers in mind upon entering college. 2012 LRA Chair Melvin Rodrigue was no different. At 19 years old, the Napoleonville native was enrolled at Tulane University, with plans to study medicine. A sister’s suggestion, however, put Rodrigue on the path to where he is today.  In 1991, he found himself working at the newly-opened Palace Café on Canal Street.

“I was driving home every weekend and my sister encouraged me to stay in the city, get a job with her at Palace and the rest is history, really,” Rodrigue says.

Best laid plans…
In a few short months, he was running the kitchen at Palace Café with 30 direct reports.

“I just loved it…the excitement, the responsibility and working with some of the industry greats, like Dickie Brennan and my mentor, Steve Pettus.”

Pettus laughed in an interview, “I’m too young to be a mentor. But, in all seriousness, Melvin is a sponge. He listens, he thinks and he considers all angles before he reacts. That’s the mark of a truly great leader.”

For nearly three years, he honed his skills as a manager with the Brennan family before moving on to become the general manger of Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Seattle. In 1995, Rodrigue returned to New Orleans for a position with the Westin Canal Place Hotel as its food and beverage manager.

Here’s where the story gets good. In 1997, the Galatoire family was conducting what was proving to be an exhaustive nationwide search for a leader of their nearly century-old institution, Galatoire’s Restaurant. The family wanted someone that would bring their beloved eatery into the next millennia.

Rodrigue was just 24 years-old and a few blocks away at the Westin. He was tapped for the position and has served as the Chief Operating Officer of Galatoire’s Restaurant for the past 15 years. Since that time, the restaurant has undergone extensive renovations, re-opening dining rooms that had been closed since World War II. In 2005, the restaurant’s 100th anniversary, Galatoire’s garnered national attention and received the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s San Pellegrino Outstanding Restaurant Award. Also, that year, Rodrigue penned the cookbook, Galatoire’s Cookbook: Recipes and FamilyHistory from the Time-Honored New Orleans Restaurant.

Always in demand
Rodrigue rises early each morning to ready his three of his four daughters— Savanah, Eugenie, and Adelaide—for school. As you could imagine, they command their fair share of attention and Rodrigue wouldn’t have it any other way. He happily chauffeurs them to school and various extracurricular activities. His oldest daughter, Caroline, is a freshman at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. Arriving at his third floor office located above the restaurant on Bourbon Street around 8:30 a.m. each morning, an average day for Rodrigue can be described as one with multiple courses and large portions. Not only is he responsible for all aspects of Galatoire’s operations, he serves on six boards, chairing three of them.

In 2005, former Governor Kathleen Blanco named Rodrigue a commissioner of the Ernest N. Morial New Orleans Exhibition Hall Authority, the body that oversees the operation of the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. When Governor Bobby Jindal was elected two years later, he felt that Rodrigue was the best person to lead the recovery of New Orleans’ convention business following Hurricane Katrina, a national economic crisis—the Great Recession and the BP oil spill. In essence, he leads the group responsible for the mammoth event space—all 3.1 million square feet of it, with an annual operating budget of $40 million, a $650 million asset to the state of Louisiana.

“In comparison to other tourism leaders, Melvin’s age and perspective is refreshing,” said Robert Johnson, general manager of the New Orleans Morial Convention Center. “He is 100 percent engaged in tourism and he will no doubt be a major leader in our industry for decades to come.”

This year, Rodrigue will chair the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) through a strategic transition that will further the restaurant industry’s identity and reputation among political leaders, educators, consumers and most importantly, the members of the association.

“We are fortunate to have someone like Melvin who gives so much of his time to making our industry, state and city better. Melvin's service to our community and others is exemplary,” said LRA President & CEO Stan Harris.

A member of the LRA since he began with Galatoire’s, Rodrigue immediately jumped into a leadership role with both feet. The starting point was the LRA Greater New Orleans Chapter board, where he rose through the ranks of the executive committee to be its Chapter President 2006. He was elected to the State Board of Directors 2002 and has served on the LRA Education Foundation Board of Directors, of which he is a past Chair.

“I’m looking forward to the LRA’s events this year and the positive outlook for our industry,” said Rodrigue. “Things are really looking up on the tourism front and I’m ready for our industry to capitalize on its possibilities.”

Rodrigue has been personally honored by Gambit - New Orleans Weekly as outstanding achiever in the “40 under 40” business category in 2001. New Orleans CityBusiness recognized Rodrigue as a member of the city’s “Power Generation” in 2004.

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