Riegel: Bayou Café owner Frank Brown is making a difference in north Baton Rouge
Recently, I wrote a Daily Report story about a new social enterprise being launched by Frank Brown, the longtime owner and executive chef of Bayou Café and Catering in north Baton Rouge.
Brown is retiring after more than 30 years in business, and turning over the keys of his popular neighborhood eatery on Airline Highway to a nonprofit organization that will train at-risk young people in the restaurant business and give them an opportunity at a brighter future.
The nonprofit restaurant will be renamed Bayou Kitchen and will be modeled after the highly successful Liberty’s Kitchen in New Orleans, where thousands of young people over the past decade have learned valuable life skills while also learning how to cook, serve and run a restaurant.
“We don’t want to make them chefs, per se, but use culinary to teach them how to dress, how to communicate, how to show up for work on time,” Brown says.
Unlike so many stories I write, which elicit a snarky if not downright visceral response from readers, this one struck a pleasantly positive chord, especially with people who know Brown personally.
One wrote that he is a well-respected community leader. Another said his restaurant is one of the best-kept secrets in north Baton Rouge.
I wanted to know more about this man and his vision for doing what so many government programs and nonprofit organizations have been unable to, so I went to the Bayou Café. I’m glad I did.
Brown is inherently likable and strikes you as completely sincere. He is friendly, down to earth and insightful about the problems and issues facing his city and, particularly, the north Baton Rouge community where he has spent his life.
“Blaming doesn’t accomplish anything. We have to bring everyone to the table now, lay out what needs to happen and then go about getting those things done.”
—FRANK BROWN, owner, Bayou Café
At nearly 70, he isn’t out to make a name for himself or to launch a political career. He’s already had a career and his kids are grown. Rather, he’s creating Bayou Kitchen because he sees the need around him and wants to leverage what resources he has to make a difference.
“You have kids out here in Glen Oaks, Brookstown, Zion City, Scotlandville—just like my kids—but they don’t have parents to really push them,” he says. “No one is reaching back and trying to pull them out of this. They have the capability, but they’re not given the opportunity.”
Though born in Woodville, Mississippi, Brown came to Baton Rouge as a young child and grew up here, graduating from Scotlandville High School in 1965. He attended Southern University, but his college career was interrupted when he was drafted to serve in Vietnam.
After returning from the war, he finished his degree and found his way into the restaurant business, starting with a small chicken wing shop just outside the gates of his alma mater.
“We used to have a community of small, locally owned businesses in north Baton Rouge,” he says. “Now, they’re gone and our young people don’t have any choice but to leave.”
Those conditions were among the reasons Brown decided to open Bayou Café in 2000. At the time, the building was vacant and dilapidated. Brown renovated it himself and slowly built his wings shop into a full-service restaurant and catering business.
“I looked around and there was not a decent place in north Baton Rouge at the time that could seat 50 people,” he says. “No meeting place. Nothing of this nature. I saw an opportunity and decided to step forward.”
Today Bayou Café is that meeting place. It’s the kind of place politicians regularly stop in to take the pulse of the neighborhood. The kind of place that hosts meeting of the nascent Baton Rouge North Economic Development District.
It has also become something of a progressive force for change. Last summer, Brown cleared a one-acre plot behind the restaurant and planted a community garden with mustard and collard greens. Once the vegetables were ready to be harvested, Brown encouraged his customers to help themselves to the bounty and take what they wanted, free of charge.
“I wanted to show them that if we organized a community garden … we could eventually build a farmers market in the middle of a food desert,” he says.
Brown started working on the idea for Bayou Kitchen about a year ago. He hopes to get it going sometime later this year, when he will retire and lease the restaurant, its furniture, fixtures and equipment to the nonprofit organization he formed to run the new venture.
He’s created a board of directors, and counts among its members well-known community leaders including Girard Melancon, executive director for workforce education at Baton Rouge Community College, and Boo Thomas, executive director of the Center for Planning Excellence. He plans next to hire an executive director and a couple of staffers.
First, though, he needs to raise about $300,000 to get Bayou Kitchen off the ground.
So far, Brown says response to his plans have been positive and he’s optimistic it won’t be hard to come up with the funds. But then, he’s the kind of person that looks for the good and works to make things better.
“There’s no point in going back and pointing the finger,” he says. “Blaming doesn’t accomplish anything. We have to bring everyone to the table now, lay out what needs to happen and then go about getting those things done.”
It’s rare and refreshing to see such a take-charge attitude, and you have to think that if anyone can get it done, Brown will. Here’s hoping the Bayou Kitchen will be a recipe for much-needed change in north Baton Rouge.