November 25, 2004
In the '50s and '60s, Acme was really the spot," Mike Rodrigue says. "It was a classic funky New Orleans joint. We just revived it." Rodrigue (A&S '75), who lettered on the Green Wave golf team before graduating with a degree in economics, bought Acme Oyster House in 1984. He is a New Orleans native who grew up by Lake Pontchartrain and is the second of three generations of Tulanians in his family. He got started in the seafood industry early, when he used to help his father tend crab nets along the seawall.
During college, he worked as a bartender at Bart's Restaurant, a longtime institution on the lakefront. Even though he quit after a house-clearing bar fight, he always valued his experience there. "The restaurant business teaches life skills," he says. "You learn crisis management and how to deal with people. It's a great experience." Rodrigue went to work as an insurance broker after finishing school, but he was still thinking about restaurants. "I think everybody dreams about owning a restaurant," Rodrigue says.
It's an idea that appeals, if not to everyone, then to social, hospitable, gregarious types--the kind of people who want to have everyone over for dinner. So when Acme became available, he decided this was the opportunity for which he'd been looking. The Acme Cafe opened on Royal Street in the French Quarter in 1910. It was located next to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, for decades a center for local political wheeling and dealing that often spilled over into the restaurant. The original location burned down in 1924, and the restaurant moved around the corner to Iberville Street.
Acme had long been a busy, popular place to eat raw oysters and fried seafood. But business had slowed down by the 1980s. Like a lot of restaurants in the French Quarter, it lost some local patronage when the center of New Orleans business shifted from Canal Street to Poydras. The restaurant closed at 4 p.m. Still, it had history, tradition and plenty of atmosphere with its long tiled bar, narrow front dining room and striking antique light fixtures shaped like clusters of grapes.
"When I first bought the place, we only had one waitress. If she was on, you had wait staff," Rodrigue says. The sign reading "Waitress available sometimes" is still posted above the bar and has become one of the restaurant's slogans. Without making any radical changes, Rodrigue brought new life to the restaurant. "We just woke up a giant," he says.
At first, he ate lunch there everyday. He loved dealing with the day-to-day business and seeing friends, but he had a hard time maintaining control of his time. His insurance business is still his primary job, and Rodrigue estimates that Acme takes about a quarter of his work life. He is no longer involved in most of the day-to-day operations, though he is still a regular presence. These days, the original restaurant in the French Quarter is always busy. The small kitchen produces endless oyster po'boys and bowls of red beans and rice, while a crew of shuckers turns out plates of salty raw oysters. Rodrigue disputes the notion that raw oysters shouldn't be eaten in the summer.
"I had some great ones last week," he says. "They have their cycle and they're plumper at certain times of the year but that doesn't affect the taste. You can tell if we've had a lot of rain, though. It affects the salinity level-- they lose some of their pop." Acme has served Louisiana oysters to everyone from blue-collar workers to U.S. Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft. So many people have eaten their first raw oyster at Acme that you can get a T-shirt proclaiming yourself one of them.
"We want to be a value-driven restaurant where you can get a good meal for a reasonable price," Rodrigue says. The average cost of a full meal at Acme is about $17. The original location is half a block off Bourbon Street, and most of its patrons are tourists-- although a sizable local crowd still shows up for lunch on Friday. And Rodrigue has slowly built an Acme empire.
He opened new branches first in Covington, La., on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, then at the lakefront and now in Sandestin, Fla. The new restaurants have bigger kitchens that allow for an expanded menu. Rodrigue hasn't decided if he will expand further. "I think we've got to stay within a hundred miles of the coast with this concept. If we try to move Louisiana oysters farther than that, it gets too expensive. We want to be able to sell oysters for $7 a dozen, not $12." His current project is renovating the original restaurant. He recently bought the building, which was built as a townhouse in 1814.
The trick is to modernize the facilities without ruining the building's ramshackle charm. It has been newly shored to keep it standing straight. The second floor and balcony are being renovated, and a bigger kitchen is being built. "After that, we'll put in a grill so we can serve charbroiled oysters, which are fantastic." As he shows off the building, his love for Acme is obvious. "It's a great New Orleans tradition," he says. "Sometimes I can't believe it's mine."
Favorite comfort food?
Red beans and rice. That's my favorite thing to eat here. I always have it as a side item.
Emeril Lagasse. He just makes food fun, and I love his restaurants. He loves turning people on to food. He's done a lot for the food industry.
Greatest food fear?
Governmental regulation of oysters. We've always done the warning--you have to do it by law, but we did it when it was just a recommendation. It's frustrating, because we know who we buy our oysters from. We're particular. It's frustrating when California won't let Louisiana oysters be sold in their state.
Who would you like to see in your restaurant?
I don't know, but we do serve John Ashcroft every time he's in town--the FBI shows up first. We've fed the First Lady, too. We boarded Air Force Two with oyster po'boys for the ride.
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