"He sold her the menu top to bottom," Blanchard says. "I said, 'Michael, you've got to slow down,'" the chef recalls. "I'm telling you, he can sell."
It's the crux of a business relationship that has since blossomed between iMonelli's Blanchard and a la carte's Doumit. But there's much more than a shared passion for food and catering that brought these two together. For some time, Doumit had been struggling to get a handle on a la carte's escalating debt, and last fall he turned to Blanchard to bail him out.
For the past few months, Blanchard's been hanging out at the Oil Center eatery, slowly making the kind of changes that have returned the popular restaurant and catering business to profitability. He's retained only about 20 percent of the staff, and a few weeks ago paid the Internal Revenue Service to relieve a tax lien on the operation's equipment, the final step in his takeover. "You could say I cleaned up the place a lot," Blanchard says. "Michael knew what needed to be done, but he was battle weary, and when he quit fighting, things just got worse."
Blanchard formed a new corporation that purchased the a la carte name and assets ' and he's been helping Doumit pay off the enormous debt. "Michael is responsible for all the debt a la carte Inc. had, but the two of us are making great strides in making good on all that," Blanchard says ' with the exception of back taxes that Doumit must pay personally. "[The debt] was at least six figures. It changes all the time. To say exactly how much, I don't know," Blanchard adds. "Basically, what I'm doing is what you hire a manager to do, but I own the business."
In the meantime, Blanchard, 41, says he's been the student learning from the 67-year-old's decades of catering experienceÂ. The chef, who also owns a scaled down version of iMonelli in Morgan City called CafÃ© JoJo's, expanded his off-site catering operation out of iMonelli a couple of years ago. The successful venture caught the attention of Doumit, who viewed his new competitor as a good fit for a la carte because of similarities in the way the two run their catering operations. Says Doumit, who began his catering career in New Iberia in 1963, "His concept was the same as mine: one staffer for every 20 guests, good food, the best ingredients, no substitutions. If we say lump crabmeat, it is. If we say Louisiana crawfish, it is. Absolutely no fooling the customer."
Blanchard isn't quite sure what would have become of the 20-year-old Oil Center business if Doumit had not come calling. "They were on a slippery slope," he says, "so I don't know what the future would have held for a la carte." Doumit, however, insists he would never have shut the business down. "I had a mess, but I would have continued."
Blanchard believes Doumit got in financial trouble in part because he was unable to refuse people or stand up to employees. "I think Michael's biggest flaw is he's just too nice, and he makes really poor decisions when it comes to personnel because he doesn't realize you're not going to be the most popular fellow all the time." Blanchard also says any time a nonprofit or civic organization came calling, Doumit felt obligated to make a donation ' pressure Blanchard himself understands all too well. "It's hard sometimes," the chef says, "but you have got to say, 'no.' If you give a $100 donation, you have to do $1,000 in sales to recoup it."
Blanchard believes there's a big misconception about the success of local restaurants, which he insists average only a 10 percent profit margin. He says new competition and finding good, honest help are two critical issues facing independent restaurant owners in Lafayette. "People think they're going to make a ton of money in the restaurant business, and it just doesn't happen," the restaurateur asserts. "Every couple of weeks you've got a new restaurant opening. Most people only see when you're busy because that's when they're [at the restaurant]. They see you walking around the restaurant and think, 'Wow, this is one big party.' But I work a minimum of 70 hours a week. They just don't understand the cost of doing business.
"What Michael wanted was not having to worry about the staff, people stealing, and food costs. The fight was daunting, non-stop. That's all the things I'm good at," Blanchard says, "so it was a perfect fit."
"I think Michael's doing as good a job as he's ever done," Blanchard continues. "Now it's like he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. He's revived and he's happier. And let me tell you, it's infectious. He's very good at selling a la carte and taking care of customers; he's there all day, and he's booking his functions, but now he has a stronger staff behind him."
One big change at a la carte was the return of "Lebanese Wednesdays" to the lunch buffet line. Blanchard quickly realized the talents of Joseph Johnson, a cook who worked for the former Oil Center Lebanese eatery Essie's for 12 years and has all of the recipes, including the secret ingredients for Essie's popular lemon chicken. Blanchard put Johnson in charge of the Wednesday menu. Johnson is also cooking cabbage rolls, grape leaves, tabouli, hummus and moussaka. As part of the restructuring of a la carte, the new owner promoted Larry Valentino, a New Orleans caterer displaced by Hurricane Katrina, to catering manager, and brought a former iMonelli employee, Lucy Cook, to manage the front of the restaurant.
For his part, Doumit is quick to point out his own shortcomings, acknowledging he's not as versatile a businessman as his new boss ' nor does he want to be. "I don't cook, and I don't know how to cook," Doumit declares. "I sell it, and now they have to make it happen, and it's wonderful," he adds. "I'm scared I'm going to wake up, and it's a dream."
The Acadiana Center for the Arts and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority have announced a new artist stipend program, ArtSpark, designed to offer financial aid to local artists.
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
I was interested to hear what Lessig would say to an almost exclusively conservative audience of successful businessmen and businesswomen in the heart of what is now a deeply red area of the country.
Three bedroom traditional or two bedroom Victorian cottage
Snuggle worthy wear
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Authorities are investigating a report that a student there warned the principal of impending violence similar to that depicted in the movie "The Purge."
Saints cornerback Champ Bailey has played for more than a handful of playoff teams during a career that has seen him selected to 12 Pro Bowls.
Louisiana's Republican governor has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, accusing it of illegally using federal grant money and regulations to force states to adopt the Common Core education standards.
Police say a 56-year-old Lafayette man walking behind a dump truck died when the truck hit him as it was backing up.
Wednesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Fifa under fire for fake turf plans; freed journalist back home; corporate conversions rising and more national and international news for Wednesday, August 27, 2014.
Newly established honor recognizes outstanding local attorneys; Neuner and McGoffin win President's Award; and Blanchard named Outstanding Young Lawyer.
Daily paper constructing new digs near production plant on Rieger Road at Siegen Lane, near I-10.
Investigation finds Arnaud’s Furniture, Carroll Building Specialties and Crazy Charlie’s Shoes running misleading going-out-of-business sales.
Critics say workers and retirees are being held responsible for the Jindal administration's mismanagement of their program.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is a proud papa of new baby girl.
The books on Louisiana's last budget year have been closed, but it took a bit of borrowing from this year to make the numbers work.
"This is yet another example of the failed leadership and lack of focus that Hunter Beasley has exhibited. He’s shown zero regard for kids, teachers or even passing a budget for the school year that’s already started."
Five bedroom Acadian style home or four bedroom traditional home
Cutting edge if you dare
The Iberia Parish Coroner responded Monday to the attention surrounding the questionable shooting of Victor White III, a black man from New Iberia who died April 2 while in the custody of local law enforcement.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Two months after lawmakers agreed to create a $40 million higher education incentive fund, no decisions have been made about how to divide the money.
With Drew Brees back healthy, the New Orleans Saints are free to work on the little things that can make the difference between a Super Bowl run and something less.
"Just as the devil does not deserve equal time with God, and a lie does not deserve equal time with the truth, the remarks of William Donahue have no place in any respectable journal seriously dealing with a serious story and pursuing truth."
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and her lead GOP challenger Congressman Bill Cassidy are running close when it comes to money. Landrieu has $5.5 million to Cassidy’s $5.6 million in the bank.
With expectations mounting that Gov. Bobby Jindal will soon announce his campaign for president, attention is turning to not only who he will bring along with him but also what will transpire politically back home during the transition.