Ralph Brennan’s passion for restaurants and hospitality was ignited as a teenager in the 1960’s with a summer job as a prep cook at the original Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. The hands-on physical work coupled with kitchen camaraderie, smells and flavors inspired a lifelong enthusiasm for all things epicurean. A third-generation restaurateur, Ralph is the owner and operator of a diverse array of restaurant concepts, cuisines, and locations. A foodservice and tourism industry advocate, Ralph has a long history of service to his city and his industry. He served as chairman and president of the National Restaurant Association in 1995-1996 and locally presided over both the Louisiana Restaurant Association and New Orleans Restaurant Associations. While at the helm of the National Restaurant Association, Ralph used his platform to bolster the image of the foodservice industry and position foodservice as an industry of opportunity.
FE&S: What did you learn coming out of your experiences with Hurricane Katrina?
Ralph Brennan: It taught me two things. One: the importance of people. In the days following the storm the biggest challenge we faced was being able to communicate with our people. Cellular service was knocked out and it was difficult to find our staff to help them. As a result, I actually learned how to text. My son taught me that. Texting worked during that time after the storm and I was able to get to communicate with people that way.
Also, the Sunday before the storm was the end of our payroll period. We thought we’d be out two or three days but would be able to pay people when we got back. Unfortunately, we were out a lot longer than that. We have had two subsequent evacuations and in both cases we have written people a check so they have some money.
The second thing we learned is the important role our restaurants play as gathering places. When we returned and opened Red Fish Grill, people were eating off plastic plates and hugging and kissing each other and sharing information. This made us realize how important it was to get our restaurants open. In our country, restaurants are a binding agent for communities. We knew resuming operations would be an important message to send but I did not know how important until we saw people coming back. The country pulled together after the September 11 attacks and the same thing happened in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina: We became a family.
FE&S: What kitchen tool can you not live without?
Ralph Brennan: Wine opener because I love great wine. My wife and I sit down most evenings and share a glass of wine and discuss our days. Also, a Panini press because I love grilled sandwiches.
FE&S: Who was the person that influenced your career most?
Ralph Brennan: I have to answer that with two answers. My parents instilled a lot of values into me and made me go to college. And my Aunt Ella was probably the biggest influence early in my career.
FE&S: What aspect of your career gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment?
Ralph Brennan: It’s the development of our management team. Charlee and Haley have worked with me for more than 20 years. Charlee started with us right out of college as a marketing coordinator and has grown from there. Haley came to us as on an externship from culinary school. I also have a great sense of accomplishment watching dishwahsers become waiters and grow to have families. It is all about the people.
FE&S: If you were not working in foodservice, what would you be doing?
Ralph Brennan: The restaurant industry has been in my blood for a long time. I did work as a CPA for Price Waterhouse and had a great experience with them but learned that I am not a desk person. Other than that little time as a CPA, this industry is all I have thought about.
FE&S: What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
Ralph Brennan: My Aunt Ella told me many things but one that has stuck with me over the years is that opportunity walks in the door every day and you have to be smart enough to take advantage of it. And opportunity can take many forms. Things happen every day that can make you better. Look for that opportunity.
FE&S: If I were just starting out in the foodservice industry, what advice would you give me?
Ralph Brennan: It’s about the little things. I have a theory that it is easy to get 95 percent of it right but it’s that next 10 percent or 15 percent that is tough because you have to give the customer more than 100 percent. We are a business of small transactions and that means you have to perform every day, every meal every customer.
Click here to read part one of the interview with Ralph Brennan.