"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."
Despite sweeping changes enacted by Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, the health insurance program for state workers and public school employees will have to use $88 million from its reserve fund to cover its costs this year.
The LPSB races are sure to get heated between now and Nov. 4, and with only 9 available seats, this year's field of 20 candidates will surely be wanting to set themselves apart from the crowd early; they'll get their chance next week, starting Tuesday with the kick-off of a three-day series of candidate forums.
Lawmakers say they've received complaints that waits have spiked, with people being forced to wait in line for more than an hour — and sometimes three hours — to handle routine tasks.
The campaign announced that Rep. Stuart Bishop of District 43 and Nancy Landry, District 31, have thrown their support behind the Naval Academy graduate and entrepreneur in his bid to unseat current Hunter Beasley in District 8.
A Lafayette man with an alleged taste for child porn was busted Thursday evening during a cyber crime sting launched by the Attorney General’s Office.
U.S. Rep. Vance McAllister says his chief of staff is on temporary leave after being booked with drunken driving.
It was a rare moment in Congress this week as Republicans briefly put aside partisanship in support of President Barack Obama's request to train and arm Syrian rebels, and while a number of Democrats opposed the measure, Louisiana's Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu found herself on the same side of the issue as her Republican challenger Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Home Depot breach bigger than Target; Alibaba IPO could be big; Rivers' last project and more national and international news for Friday, September 19, 2014.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
City-Parish President Joey Durel is asking the council to sign off on a resolution approving a pair of deals that would lead to razing the seedy Lesspay Motel at Four Corners to build a new police substation as well as transforming nearly a block Downtown where the old federal courthouse building now molders into a mixed-use development.
In 2013, the IRS — already the least popular governmental agency in the country — became the target of intense investigations after it was revealed that they had specifically and improperly scrutinized applications for tax-exempt status from organizations associated with the nascent Tea Party movement.
Improving the running game was "a point of emphasis" during the offseason and the results have manifested themselves in the form of substantially greater production.
Louisiana's health department said Wednesday that its evaluation of the state's Medicaid privatization was on target, despite criticism from the legislative auditor that it lacked key data and contained inconsistencies.
The feds converge on your office, seizing records on several employees as part of a pay-for-plea investigation. WWYD? If you’re Mike Harson, you give yourself a $12k raise.
It’s football season and after back-to-back winless weekends for the Saints and the Cajuns many citizens are finding it difficult to be civil much less happy. Well, chew on this.
Considering his repeated stays in the local penal system, David Narcisse Jr. should have known that having a semiautomatic shotgun, even one given to him by a friend, wasn’t the brightest of ideas.
A state district judge on Tuesday threw out a last-minute retirement hike lawmakers gave to the state police superintendent, ending a political firestorm over a pension boost passed without public scrutiny on the last day of the legislative session.
The House has passed a bill to increase oversight of veterans' hospitals under construction, following a report that some medical centers take three years longer to complete than estimated and cost an extra $366 million per project.
An obvious follow-up question for any Republican politician who accuses Democrats of being science deniers is one about science, to which Jindal bobbed and weaved like a welterweight champ.
The Lafayette City-Parish Council is expected to decide tonight (Tuesday) whether to go along with a proposal City-Parish President Joey Durel made in February’s State of the Parish Address and consolidate taxes for mosquito control and the parish health units into a broader tax program that would also cover animal control.
U.S. District Judge Richard Haik has dismissed Greg Davis’ lawsuit against the LPSB, yet in his ruling, the federal judge doesn’t bite his tongue in pointing out the "threat" being posed by certain board members.
Of all the political offices being contested throughout Lafayette Parish, the race for Broussard’s top police post has literally become one of the most heated.
A state district judge is deciding whether to issue an injunction against the enforcement of a last-minute retirement hike that lawmakers gave to the state police superintendent.
A new website is up for Louisiana's state government employees and retirees to choose their health insurance plans for next year, a choice they must make by October.
That fact that New Orleans led both games in the final 10 seconds of regulation, and lost each by a field goal or less, is of little solace.