Why Johnny’s can’t feed
French Quarter po’boy shop struggling without local favorite.
Published: Friday, September 10, 2010
Updated: Friday, September 10, 2010 10:09
NEW ORLEANS — Johnny's Po-Boys is a little restaurant at 511 St. Louis St. in the French Quarter that could easily be missed by a tourist.
Because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this hidden treasure might not be around much longer.
A counter sign offers a clue: "Sorry, we are out of oysters."
Johnny's was one of the first businesses to reopen after Hurricane Katrina sent a storm surge through the city's levees, flooding 80 percent of the city.
The small restaurant has been in the French Quarter about 51 years — except for the two months it closed in 2005 — and is deeply rooted in the city's culture.
It all started in 1950 when Johnny and Betty De Grusha opened a sandwich shop and small grocery store to cater to locals and tourists at 506 Chartres.
Nine years later, as the business grew, the couple bought its current location for $13,500.
For decades, the couple watched the French Quarter grow, staying open 15 hours a day to serve up their famous overstuffed po-boys.
According to their website, Johnny's Po-Boys' french bread comes from a local vendor, Leidenheimer, owned by the Whann family since 1896, and always has.
The De Grusha family still owns and operates the shop and has passed management to the family's third generation.
On Aug. 15, Mike Cancienne, 40, Johnny De Grusha's son-in-law, was busy managing the kitchen and in charge of delivering bad news to visitors requesting oysters.
Among those on the receiving end was a couple visiting from Paris.
Cancienne said the restaurant usually orders anywhere from two to 12 gallons of oysters a day from suppliers, but right now, availability is hit or miss.
He said Johnny's Po-Boys is lucky to get a gallon one day and then won't get any for two or three days.
The inconsistency paired with skyrocketing prices forced the family to look beyond the Louisiana Gulf Coast and settle for a different size and quality of oyster.
Finally, management decided to stop offering the delicacy.
"I hate putting a sign up," he said. "They miss the oysters."
Cancienne said that since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill courtesy of BP, "the prices are through the roof."
The price of shrimp has gone up, he explained. Before the spill, the price for shrimp was $2.98 a pound and now suppliers are asking $4.40 a pound.
Cancienne said he isn't buying media headlines declaring BP has everything cleaned up. "They have permanently damaged the environment," Cancienne said. "It's not fixed.
"It's still coming into the marshlands," he said. "We deal with it firsthand."
He said the restaurant's supplier for decades, P&J Oyster Company, which has been in business since 1876, may close its doors in the next 60 days.
P&J isn't the only business being hit hard by the oil spill, Cancienne said.
There are so many other little businesses around New Orleans threatened by the abrupt closure of fishing sites and a drop in tourism and sales.
"I hope we can keep it going," he said.
Cancienne and his wife and the rest of the De Grusha clan rallied after the city flooded five years ago and kept the business afloat.
Like many other family-owned small businesses today, they face yet another obstacle.
For information on the restaurant, , go to www.johnnyspoboy.com