Protecting heritage and preserving history, post-Katrina
During the lunch hour on any given day, it’s common to see Popeyes or KFC lobbies packed with customers looking to enjoy the secret herbs and spices that make the chain chicken restaurants super successful. Around lunch time, tucked away in a New Orleans neighborhood, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, you’ll find a line outside and all tables full at a famous fried chicken restaurant. “I’ve been coming here for just about 30 years,” says Allison Randolph, a New Orleans native.
Keeping customers like Randolph is not easy for any restaurant in New Orleans. In the Big Easy, residents are as serious about great food, as New Yorkers are about fashion trends. Randolph eats at Willie Mae’s Scotch House at least four times a month and brings his son along. “I like the chicken. It’s the best I ever tasted,” says Jordan Randolph.
Natives aren’t the only ones in love with the fried chicken at the Treme neighborhood restaurant on Saint Ann Street. Minutes before the doors open at the lunch-only restaurant, customers, mostly tourists, line up outside to get a seat. The small frame house comfortably seats 40 customers at most. San Antonio businessman Jim Ramsey considers himself a “chicken fanatic”. “I’m looking for the chicken to be crunchy, have the right amount of heat, spices and everything you’re used to having in chicken with a New Orleans flare,” says Ramsey. Ironically, he says his family opened a KFC in Oklahoma years ago but the secret recipe at Willie Mae’s beats out the Colonel.
So, what makes the fried chicken so award-winning and special? “I tell my staff to treat everybody like a food critic,” says Kerry Seaton, who operates the restaurant, in place of her 92-year-old great-grandmother and restaurant founder, Willie Mae Seaton. Her great-grandmother recently retired. Kerry Seaton, however, won’t tell you her family’s secret recipe.
In early 2005, Willie Mae’s was honored with several prestigious awards for serving up the most delicious chicken in the country. The restaurant even received the industry’s coveted and distinct James Beard award. The joy experienced was short-lived. Hurricane Katrina’s unforgiving winds and flood waters destroyed the business. Rebuilding meant literally starting from scratch, since everything was gone and the restaurant was uninsured. “It was like the rug was pulled from under us,” says Seaton. “You think you’re going away for the weekend and you come back months later and see all of your hard work just gone.”
When word got out that the neighborhood landmark took a devastating blow from Katrina, help arrived. Family members, friends, volunteers and a host of non-profit organizations, like the Southern Foodways Alliance, donated nearly two years of hard work and raised $200,000 needed to re-open Willie Mae’s doors.
Seaton says getting back in business brought immense joy to her great-grandmother’s heart. “She was so intent on getting back to this neighborhood and just thought it was beautiful to see everyone pitch in to help out. Without the volunteers, I don’t know how we would have been able to come back,” says Seaton.
These days, it’s almost like Katrina never happened. The chicken still comes out of the small kitchen, with the perfect amount of secret seasoning, fried to a golden-crisp and is as tender as you can imagine. While the recipe for that hasn’t changed, there is a twist to the menu. “We no longer use pork products in our beans and we have a few vegetarian entrees available for customers,” says Seaton.
Photos on the wall tell the story of Willie Mae’s Scotch House from its early beginnings in 1957, in a small room. “It was a bar at first, but she (Willie Mae Seaton) didn’t have a license to sell beer, so regulators came through one day and took all of her beer,” says Seaton, of her great-grandmother’s early start. “The next day, customers ran an ad in a local paper encouraging residents to come to the “Scotch House” and the name stuck.”
Certificates and awards that line the wall validate a proclamation Seaton gives rather emphatically about the food and the satisfaction customers can expect when they visit. “I’m seeking perfection and we’re trying our best to be the best. I want to be the best everyday with every plate,” says Seaton.
Seaton knows she’s stepping into a legacy and reputation carefully crafted by her great-grandmother’s work ethic and commitment. It’s a challenge she gracefully accepts. “If she did it for 50 years, then I want to do it for 50 more.”