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: You were named the 2011 Thad and Alice Eure Ambassador of Hospitality by the NRAEF. What did that mean to you?
Ralph Brennan: It means a lot to me. Hospitality is what we are about in this industry. It is more than just food. It is more than just service. Hospitality is about the experience the customer has. That’s what my family taught me. And our company is all about making customers happy and enjoying the thrill of doing so.
FE&S: You are known for generously donating your time on behalf of the restaurant industry, serving as an ambassador for the community. I know you’re busy enough running your business, so why take on the extra role?
Ralph Brennan: We have been very lucky as a family. This industry has done a lot for my father’s generation and my generation. So it is important to give back and you get a lot more when you do that. In the early days, we did not have a lot of money to give so we gave our time. This industry has given us a lot and we have to give back to it.
FE&S: When developing a new concept, what drives your inspiration?
Ralph Brennan: I have never duplicated a restaurant concept and don’t know if I ever will. I like variety and if things don’t change I get bored real fast. When developing a new concept I get together with Charlee Williamson, our executive vice president, and Haley Bittermann, our director of operations and corporate executive chef. We look at the market and try to come up with different ideas to fill in any holes that may exist from any number of perspectives such as service, price point or menu. We have begun a move into catering and have found that to be a niche for our company. We are also opening two restaurants this spring. One will be a lunch only restaurant because it is in an office building. We will also get to run a catering kitchen out of that space. And we are opening our first restaurant in a residential area. It will be more like a casual café where people can come to dinner on a Monday or Tuesday evening.
FE&S: What makes you most optimistic about the future of the restaurant industry?
Ralph Brennan: The industry will only continue to grow because people will continue to dine out. But dining out is more than just eating. The entertainment and social aspects are what set us apart as an industry and they are why I believe we have a bright future ahead of us.
FE&S: What worries you most?
Ralph Brennan: People — specifically our ability to get enough good, quality staff. For example, we are looking for a few good sous chefs and are having trouble finding them from our usual sources. I don’t know if that’s a problem we have only in New Orleans or if it exists in other markets.
FE&S: Does the general public have a negative perception of careers in the restaurant industry?
Ralph Brennan: I think they do. They have a perception that it is a very difficult industry with long hours. As my dad used to say, “You work when other people play.” I do think it has a negative perception on the culinary side of the business. But thanks to the FoodNetwork and other forms of exposure, chefs now have a little more glamorous standing. I am not sure the front of the house has made that leap.
FE&S: What do you look for in a supplier or organization that will be a business partner?
Ralph Brennan: Straight up honesty and integrity. I don’t want to play games. Don’t make false promises. Tell me the way it is. I am also looking for new ideas and products to keep the restaurant fresh.