In 2000, entrepreneur Benny Naghi purchased a warehouse in Faubourg Marigny that formerly was a place to clean tanks used in offshore ventures. His vision for the building was entirely different than its previous purpose, focusing on the festivities of New Orleans. He reopened the building as Mardi Gras Zone (2706 Royal St., 504-947-8787; www.mardigraszone.com), a store where people could purchase beads, costumes, masks, trinkets and accessories associated with New Orleans' most iconic season — any time of the year and around the clock.
After Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures five years later, Naghi expanded his business to include groceries and prepared foods because many local grocery stores remained closed. He describes his store as a "full-scale supermarket and party supply store" with a "lively" atmosphere and a varied inventory. "We have anything you can think of — you name it, we carry it," he says. "We have high-end name brand food and also generic brand food. We also sell booze."
Naghi, who was born in Iran and relocated to New Orleans from Israel in 1981, makes sure his inventory includes a diverse selection of international cuisine and ingredients, including Mexican, Korean, Chinese, halal foods and organic ingredients. Mardi Gras Zone also has a brick oven that constantly cooks fresh pizza sold by the slice (including vegan pizza), as well as a deli that serves homemade pastries, sandwiches and fresh challah bread for Shabbat on Fridays.
The store's customers come from a variety of backgrounds, and the neighborhood is constantly evolving, Naghi says. A few years ago, many of his main customers were French Quarter service industry workers who lived in the neighborhood. Today the store draws more international tourists and short-term rental owners, while also still catering to longtime residents.
"There's nothing like New Orleans," Naghi says. "You're in America, but you're in a very European city. I don't think you'll find any place where people are so friendly. People walk in and tell their whole life story. I like dealing with all the customers. Sometimes it's like the United Nations in here."
Naghi also owns a farm in Larose, where he raises livestock and poultry, primarily cows, ducks, chickens, and turkeys, and grows vegetables and fruits that are sold in the store. His cows are grass-fed, he says, and receive no antibiotics.
"We also have our own free-range eggs, honey and we do a lot of pickling, so the store has a lot fresh ingredients as well, Naghi says. In the next year, he plans to bottle his own artesian water from Kentwood.
Naghi says his store offers "some of the best prices in town" for groceries and party supplies.
"It's not a huge facility and it's not fancy," he says, "but it has a lot of energy. There are a lot of people who put their heart and soul into it, which makes a huge difference."