"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."
Will $400 be enough for the re-election campaign of LPSB's Hunter Beasley to overcome two years of holding our school system hostage and hurting the education of our children all because of a personal dislike of the superintendent?
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said Friday he expects his playing status in Detroit to be decided by coach Sean Payton on Sunday, shortly before the game.
Lawmakers have sidestepped a decision on whether they accept claims from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration that the state closed last year's books with a nearly $179 million surplus.
Coming off the high of a fourth quarter comeback against Tampa Bay and a helpful bye week, linebacker Junior Galette sees a real turnaround coming for New Orleans' struggling defense.
Former President Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party's most popular surrogate this fall, is heading to Louisiana early next week for a campaign rally with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Time and again you hear people say DA Mike Harson is unbeatable because he's doled out political favors over the past 20 years. But a new lawsuit could end that speculation.
Cat 4 storm heads for Bermuda; travel ban called counter-productive; comet approaches Mars and more national and international news for Friday, October 17, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
After the season's signature win (so far), here are some helpful tips for Cajun Nation during the conference stretch.
Did the state close last year's books with a surplus or a deficit?
Practicing without limitations on Wednesday, running back Mark Ingram looked ready to return to a New Orleans offense that once again ranks among the NFL's best when the Saints play at Detroit on Sunday.
It’s been decided: Superintendents of Louisiana’s public school system will retain the controversial powers granted by Act 1 of the 2012 session.
Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy has a bone to pick with the Jindal administration, which recently — surprise! — announced that the state ended the most recent budget year with a $178.5 million dollar surplus.
The messaging battle, however, isn't tied to individual campaign accounts. Third-party groups have poured millions of dollars into advertising.
With her political future in jeopardy, Sen. Mary Landrieu is turning to a natural constituent base in her re-election bid.
Terrance Broadway threw for a touchdown and rushed for 113 yards to lead Louisiana-Lafayette to a 34-10 victory over Texas State on Tuesday night.
Aligned with the party of an unpopular president, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu sought to keep her distance from the Obama administration, against claims from her chief Republican challenger Bill Cassidy that a vote to re-elect the Democratic incumbent was a vote for Barack Obama.
Seven people in Louisiana and two others in Mississippi have been arrested in connection with an international online sales scam.
Despite the hype and potential misinformation to have spread in the wake of Mark Cockerham’s recent departure from the LPSB, his candidacy for reelection is still on — now with the backing of the Chamber's Empower PAC.
No, seriously, the state says today cops nabbed seven people suspected of being “members and affiliates of Romanian organized crime.” In Lafayette.
LSU’s all-time leading rusher and three-time Super Bowl champion Kevin Faulk, UL Lafayette great and Super Bowl quarterback Jake Delhomme and coaching legend Yvette Girouard will be enshrined next summer.
Severe storms that moved across Louisiana caused widespread damage and power outages.
A dispute over the Common Core education standards won't sideline Louisiana's application for up to $15 million in federal grant money for pre-kindergarten programs, Gov. Bobby Jindal decided Monday.
The three main contenders in Louisiana's U.S. Senate race are squaring off in a TV debate for the first time, with only three weeks to go until Election Day.
A state judge signed an order Monday temporarily blocking ash from the incineration of a Texas Ebola victim's belongings to be disposed of at a southwest Louisiana site.