"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."
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.
"I feel like I'm under siege," an attorney said recently over drinks at Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge. "We all do. Every time I turn around somebody wants a check. District attorney races. The judges. They're killing us."
As a requirement for running for Congress in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards has filed his financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House showing his income in 2013 totaling $242,787.
Unlike those swindled by Bernie Madoff, the victims of Texas businessman Robert Allen Stanford’s Ponzi scheme won’t be getting any relief from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.’s emergency fund after a recent appellate court ruling.
Tuesday's Blogs from the Bog!
Prince George turns 1 today; crash victims' bodies headed home; homeless attacked in New Mexico and more national and international news for Tuesday, July 22, 2014.
The legal challenge is part of a continuing struggle over Common Core, which has become controversial since the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the standards in 2010.
The lone Democrat to announce he's running for governor, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, criticized Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal's budgeting tactics as "running the state like a big Ponzi scheme."
State police have arrested a 42-year-old Kaplan man in the July 7 hit and run fatality crash that killed a bicyclist on Louisiana Highway 92 near Milton.
Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy has picked up support for his U.S. Senate campaign from a former GOP competitor.
Lisa Hargis Smith lived a mysterious life as seen with her death earlier this month and its impact on the community of those who knew her, whether as a star student in Lafayette High’s class of ‘69, or later as a woman struggling with homelessness and mental illness.
Attorney Valerie Gotch Garrett will announce on Tuesday that she plans to run for the Division E seat of the 15th Judicial District Court.
Back in 2012, three Baton Rouge attorneys came to the aid of several disgruntled police officers with a high-profile lawsuit against the Lafayette Police chief and a number of higher-ups in city-parish government, but in a federal courtroom Thursday, their claims of conspiracy coupled with a lack of evidence backfired and the case was dismissed.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration intends to rework how it pays the private managed care networks that provide health services to two-thirds of Louisiana's Medicaid patients.
Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration is raising health insurance rates and cutting benefits for state employees and retirees, to keep their insurance program solvent.
Local, state and federal law enforcement officials spent much of Thursday reviewing their reaction to this week’s bomb threat, which led to the closure and evacuation of UL Lafayette and Girard Park, and a massive search Wednesday for two alleged explosive devices.
"We're not in a better place from the policy perspective than we were two weeks ago," says Education Superintendent John White, commenting on Thursday's face-to-face meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal to discuss their dispute over Common Core.
Gov. Bobby Jindal appears to remain unmoved by offers of a compromise on procuring testing materials tied to the Common Core based on a terse statement his office released following a meeting Thursday with Superintendent John White.
Wednesday's Senate vote on contraception legislation is the latest example of Democrats' win-by-losing strategy, which forces Republicans to vote on sensitive matters that might rile women this fall.
A benefit will be held tonight at Romacelli Bistro in Youngsville to raise money for the family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas.
After weeks of public disagreement, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Education Superintendent John White are sitting down to talk about standardized testing for the upcoming school year.
Two members of the Lafayette Parish law enforcement community who also serve on the Lafayette Parish Communications District will not be allowed to apply for the paid position of director of the agency.
After determining that the two reported bomb-like devices at Girard Park and UL Lafayette this morning were non-explosive, authorities have lifted the barricades, and an investigation into who was responsible is now under way.