It never was a cinch being a Jazz Fest food vendor, but they always made it look easy because they had it down to a science. This Jazz Fest, however, that well-practiced science -- along with the rosters of staff, the equipment and the business stability that supported it -- can be chalked up as yet another casualty of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures.
To be at Jazz Fest this year -- and participate in what many vendors call the most lucrative sales days on their calendars -- is requiring improvisation and juggling feats. At the same time, some vendors who were hardest-hit after the storm are now being aided by others in a spirit of cooperation as a deeply wounded community rebuilds.
That's the case for the Vaucresson Sausage Co., which has been a part of Jazz Fest since the festival's inception in 1970 and will be there once again this year selling its hot sausage and crawfish-sausage po-boys.
Vaucresson's production facility in the Seventh Ward was ruined by about 8 feet of floodwater after the levees failed. The plant remains shuttered, the company's employees are scattered, and earlier this month the woman who had been the company's main organizer for its Jazz Fest operation died. Despite all this, Vaucresson's unparalleled 36-year streak at Jazz Fest remains unbroken thanks to the kindness of strangers -- specifically Jerry Hanford, who has allowed Vaucresson to make sausage in his facilities at Crescent City Meat Co. in Metairie.
"I didn't even know this gentleman, but he reached out and said if there was any way to help he would because he knows that as a community, we need to get more businesses back up and running," says Vance Vaucresson, who now owns the company his late father Robert "Sonny" Vaucresson started. "It's not about competition, it's about being human and helping each other out."
Jazz Fest has been a profitable venue for Vaucresson, but being part of the event this year also signifies the survival of a family and community tradition in defiance of great difficulties. In the early 1960s, Sonny Vaucresson started Vaucresson's Caf Creole on Bourbon Street in a building that is now part of Pat O'Brien's. Vance Vaucresson came to know the restaurant as a community gathering spot through his father's stories. In the first few years of the festival, when it was held in the Treme neighborhood's Congo Square, Sonny Vaucresson would make Creole sausage po-boys at his restaurant, wrap them in foil and trot them over to his festival booth.
"I just couldn't see us not being part of the festival," says Vance Vaucresson. "We can't just roll over."
Patton's Caterers has been serving its famous fried crawfish sacks, savory crawfish beignets and oyster patties at Jazz Fest for 20 years, but its owners thought this year they might not be able to pull it off. The company's commissary in Chalmette was flooded beneath 21 feet of water after the storm and Patton's has since been operating out of a smaller restaurant kitchen in Slidell. Patton's also caters the PGA's Zurich Classic golf tournament on the West Bank, which coincides with the first weekend of Jazz Fest. Faced with diminished capacity and the acute staffing shortages that plague many local businesses now, Patton's owners decided they could only fulfill the Zurich contract that first weekend.
"Jazz Fest is so huge for us, we've been breaking our sales records every year, but take away all our equipment and most of our staff and what do we have left to work with?" says Tim Patton, who helps run the business his father started in 1954.
Patton knew food vendors are always expected to be there for all festival days to provide a consistent menu of offerings to the crowds. He assumed that by bowing out for the first weekend he was sinking his Jazz Fest opportunity this year altogether. But to his surprise, festival organizers made an exception and are allowing Patton's to work only the second weekend.
"It was a very tough call to make, I can tell you," says Patton. "But their response is indicative of what needs to be done here. It's cooperation, it's understanding, it's compassion."
Mona's Caf, the food vendor that proves a salvation to vegetarians at Jazz Fest with its falafel, hummus, tabouli and Greek salads, will also be back this year even as the small local chain of Middle Eastern restaurants contends with vexing logistical problems. The levee failures swamped three of the company's six New Orleans restaurants and its 6,500-square-foot pita bakery.
Pita bread is the foundation of Mona's menu -- including its Jazz Fest offerings -- and before the storm the bakery produced 42,000 pitas per week for the cafes alone, plus many thousands more to supply other restaurants and groceries in the region. Since its first locations began reopening in October, Mona's has been buying pita bread from a supplier in California -- a much more expensive proposition than baking its own fresh product down the street. Despite frenzied efforts to restore the bakery, the operation is on hold while specialty baking equipment manufactured in Lebanon undergoes a lengthy customs inspection.
So Mona's will buy its pita bread for Jazz Fest, rather than making its own, and likely will close one of its restaurants while employees are deployed to staff its Fair Grounds booth. But Mona's co-owner Karim Taha says all the effort is worthwhile, crediting the incomparable exposure his restaurant received after its first appearance at Jazz Fest in 1993.
"Business went up 30 percent because of all the locals who tried us out and wanted to come back," to the restaurant, he says. "It's been very good to us."
- Cheryl Gerber
- Restaurateurs clear massive hurdles including a lack of staff and losses of equipment to bring varied cuisine to Jazz Fest patrons.