Jacques “Jack” Leonardi, owner of the exceedingly popular Jacques-Imo's on Oak Street and Crabby Jack's on Jefferson Highway, shares his life and lessons about thriving in New Orleans's highly competitive restaurant industry.
Drive by the corner of Cambronne and Oak Streets during dinnertime, and you will inevitably see a long line of hungry people waiting to get into Jacques-Imo's. The shabby yet brightly colored two-story shotgun-turned-restaurant touts “warm beer, lousy food, and poor service,” yet local denizens and ravenous tourists are not to be deterred. As the evening progresses, more cars fill the neighborhood parking spots, people pour from the streetcar on South Carrollton Avenue, and taxi cabs hover mid-block, ejecting carfuls of eager patrons seeking to eat “real Nawlins food.”
At a time when restaurants are popping up like rain lilies after a deluge, it's a wonder that Jacques-Imo's is still jumping. There's also been a slew of recent restaurant closures, often blamed on intense competition. With our population at a little less than 400,000, one wonders how it's done. How does one restaurateur retain such immense popularity in the face of such odds? Jacques-Imo's owner, Jacques “Jack” Leonardi, seems to have the recipe for success tucked in his pocket.
At the age of 10, Leonardi's parents purchased an old Revolutionary War plot in Weedsport, New York, a small farming town with approximately one thousand residents. They lived in a small farmhouse with a coal stove and a cistern; raised cows, pigs, and chickens; and also kept a large garden. “I had to work in the garden. That's why I do not like gardening anymore,” Leonardi says with a chuckle. “I see all these chefs running to pick their herbs, and I know they just do it for photos.”
As is certainly apparent in his name, Leonardi comes from a French and Italian background. “My mother was a fantastic French cook,” says Leonardi. On the farm, his mother would make stews in the winter, can fresh fruits and vegetables, and make a fabulous ratatouille, a dish that took Leonardi years to really appreciate. “As a kid, we'd always have ratatouille with all the fresh eggplant in the summer. I used to hate it,” Leonardi says, laughing. “I love it now, but I hated it back then.” In addition to his mother's culinary influence, the family would visit their relatives in France every other year. “I grew up with a somewhat real French background in cooking,” he says. Leonardi's Italian grandmother on his father's side was an incredible cook who would create large meals for the family on Sundays. “My aunt jotted down all of her recipes and put them in a book,” says Leonardi. “I just grew up with really good food.”
After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, Leonardi served on a ship near Governor's Island in New York Harbor as an officer, overseeing everything from drug busts to the recovery of wreckage from the Challenger space shuttle. “I had 75 guys underneath me when I was 25 years old and a budget of over a million dollars,” says Leonardi, “That was a good management experience.”
During his final year with the Coast Guard, Leonardi was stationed in New Orleans to help clean pollution spills in the Gulf. He was considering his future employment options while spending nights working on an MBA from Tulane University. One possibility was his uncle's restaurant in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “I thought I should learn more about cooking to see if I really liked it,” says Leonardi. “So one day, I went in my uniform and asked Paul Prudhomme for a job.” Though Leonardi worked at K-Paul's under one of the country's greatest chefs, after three years he was fired. “I say ‘fired,’ but it was more like, ‘Here, I'll give you a recommendation to go work somewhere else,’” says Leonardi. “Kitchens were rougher than they are today, and here you've got this guy with an MBA from Tulane wanting to cook. They felt I didn't mesh.”
One day, while running through City Park, Leonardi met someone he had served with in the Coast Guard, who asked him to become a partner in his business. He was opening a little place under the I-10 overpass called the Warehouse Café, a spot that would later become Eleven 79 (an Italian restaurant) and is currently the Bakery Bar. “I learned a lot about licensing and opening up a bar,” says Leonardi. During this time, he moonlighted at restaurants like Café Degas in Mid-City and Vaqueros on Prytania Street, Uptown. He also spent a lot of time at Kelsey's, a restaurant opened by Chef Randy Barlow, who worked with Leonardi at K-Paul's. “They [Kelsey's] taught me the front of the house,” says Leonardi. “I learned most of my cooking from Randy Barlow.”
In 1996, Leonardi and his partner sold the Warehouse Café, though he was still managing the front of the house at Kelsey's. During this relative lull, he was considering opening a coffee shop or a bar when someone mentioned a space that was becoming available next to the Maple Leaf Bar. For two weeks, Leonardi sought out Hank Staples (one of the bar's co-owners) to express his interest in leasing the empty space. “He didn't want to rent to me because he thought I was going to open up a nightclub right next to him,” says Leonardi, laughing. “I'd go to the bar every day and wait for Hank. One day, he was even sitting next to me and still didn't tell me who he was, even though I was looking for him.” Finally, one time there was leftover food from a party at Kelsey's, and Leonardi left some for Staples at the Maple Leaf as a sort of bribe in the hopes of speaking with him. “I got a call the next morning,” Leonardi exclaimed. “I think he was still eating it while we were on the phone!” Leonardi and his wife Amelia opened Jacques-Imo's that same year.
One incident that likely launched the restaurant almost immediately into stardom was the hiring of the already-famous Creole chef Austin Leslie. “I had put an ad in the Picayune looking for a Creole/Cajun chef. I was planning on doing the front of the house and maybe being a part of the kitchen,” says Leonardi. “Austin Leslie responded to the ad, and I said, 'Look, I don't have much to pay you,' but he said ‘Yeah, I'll take it.’” Little did Leonardi know, that Leslie was planning to leave in three months to work in Denmark. Around Jazz Fest of that year, Leonardi ran an ad in OffBeat, with Chef Leslie featured prominently, because he was famous for his stellar fried chicken. “He was there for one weekend [of Jazz Fest] and left before the next,” says Leonardi. Chef Leslie did return three years later and worked at Jacques-Imo's from 1999 until the levee failures in 2005.
The Oak Street restaurant has grown from serving approximately 15,000 customers per year to over 100,000. So how does he do it? How has Jacques-Imo's (as well as his po-boy spot Crabby Jack's, on Jefferson Highway) survived the recent onslaught in New Orleans's ever-growing restaurant industry? “I'm constantly evolving,” says Leonardi. “I'm always looking to push the envelope.” There are so many factors involved in running a successful restaurant business in what some believe to be a saturated market. “How do you get the customer in the door? What attracts them? Is it the food or the atmosphere or both? Is it the prices?” says Leonardi. “You answer these questions and then have your people execute your vision.”
Leonardi also prides himself on keeping his head down. “I never look at the competition,” he says. “I just concentrate on what we do.” More than anything else, Leonardi attributes his great success to his hardworking staff. “The most important thing is the people who are working for you,” says Leonardi. “I am constantly seeking the best people for my restaurant and then trying to create a good workplace for them.”
Surely, the Shrimp and Alligator Sausage Cheesecake doesn't hurt business either.
Jacques-Imo’s Café, 8324 Oak St., (504) 861-0886, jacques-imos.com. Open Monday thru Thursday, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, from 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sundays.
Photos by Romney Caruso