Sunday, June 8, 2008

Old Town Pralines & Gifts

Yesterday my job gave me the opportunity to visit an extraordinary New Orleans business and meet the fabulous owners!

I visited Old Town Pralines & Gifts to meet with them and help them get their products online. (work still in progress!) My expectations were nothing out of the ordinary. Meet with client for maybe 2 hrs. Train, educate, discuss, etc. But what happened was that I got an education in the New Orleans culture like no other.

Mary Lou and her daughter were my fabulous hostesses for the day. I walked into their little yellow shop that now resides on Veterans Blvd near Bonnebel. My first impression was that this was like a gift shop found down in the quarter. Similar items for sale and of course pralines. I was immediately greeted and told they would be right with me. I identified myself as they were expecting me but have never met me and was warmly welcomed and invited back to the open area where they make the pralines. I took a seat at their computer which was also right there.

It was 1 hr. before they closed on Saturday. I showed up at that time so we would hopefully have few interruptions. However, the flow of people continued and here is where I say I was completely amused in what was going on around me.

It was like something I have only read about or seen in a movie about the south. And here I was witnessing it first hand. (Remember I am a northerner)

First customer: Elderly woman walks in. Owners greet her by name as they know her (and just about everyone else who walks in). She says her daughter says hello and gave her some money to shop there. I watch as she unrolls one $5 bill and three $1 bills.

"Whatcha want, hun?"
"Big or small, hun?"
"I'll take the small."
"It is $10.80 for a dozen."
"I'll take that."

She goes to pay. She starts to count her money. She doesn't have enough. The owner says,"Whatcha got there, hun? Eight dollars is fine. Let's call it square." She takes her money and hands the woman her bag of pralines.

Second customers: Two women walk in. One the owners know. The other ends up being her sister and of course after learning that they all remember each other. They start talking about when they went to school together at the Cathedral in the French Quarter and Jackson Square being their playground. They talk about the nuns. They talk about aquaintances. As they are going to pay, the sister mentions she is living in Tennessee. And then I hear the owner say, "Don't cry hun, cuz I will start crying too. Tennessee is not that far away." She comes around the counter and hugs her. The sister mumbles "I can't come back." I later learn her leaving is a result of Katrina. The pain still lives on.

Second customers: Man walks in and sits on the church-like bench that divides the store from the kitchen area. He starts chatting away with the owners. They of course know him by name. He even addresses me when he talks like he knows me. I guess because I was behind the counter he assumed I was someone they knew or part of their family??? Anyway, he goes on and on about Hillary and Barack. Finally, they say they really need to get to work with me. He bows out. They mention he studies politics and history so much that he is like a genius. He can go on for hours. He has even been banned from all the talk shows because he stumps the hosts and drives them crazy with his rambles and knowledge.

We work for a little while. Then a knock on the door.

Third Customer:It is someone to pick up an order. (Store closed 30 minutes ago) The man is there to pick up a Havarti cheese covered in praline sauce that has hardened. It is for a shower. He and the owners start talking about this unusual recipe and discussing the intricacies of the sauce. I sit and listen silently. The gentleman looks at me and says, "You would think we knew what were talking about huh?" And he laughs.

"How much?"
"No charge."
"Aw. C'mon now."
"Nope. No charge. We have never made that recipe for anyone and we don't know how it will turn out so we aren't charging you. If it turned out right, just let us know and we will make it for you again."

I later learn that a caterer in New Orleans used to make this recipe and is no longer around since Katrina so the customer was trying to find someone to make it.

Back to work we went. However, everytime someone showed up at the door and peered in they opened back up for business and let them shop. They sold pralines, hand towels, chocolates, etc. This went on until 5pm - 3 hrs past closing time.

And the phone rang off the hook after hours. Family members calling both the ladies. Apparently, they take care of a lot of elderly family at home and they all knew the shop should have been closed and were summoning them. I learned that every friday they feed lunch to their "cantankorus uncle" and his buddies who come into the shop, setup a card table and play cards. Never mind the customers shopping.

After our work was done, I stood there and talked with the ladies for almost 2 hrs. They have the gift of gab and were fascinating and intelligent ladies to speak with. I learned so much about their lives in New Orleans growing up and just general new orleans culture. Oh the stories!

I also learned that they used to be located on Royal Street in the French Quarter for many, many years. Then, they moved to Metairie Road after the storm. Then that location FLOODED! Now, they are hopefully high and dry on Veterns Blvd. (Read more about their history.)

What was so apparent that day was that the effects of Katrina still lives on. These women told me so many stories. They joked that they became social workers after the storm. People would come in and just sit there on that bench and let it all out. They listened. They cried. They hugged. And as I saw that day. They still do it.

As I was leaving I decided to make a few purchases. I bought my kids these great plates:

I also bought each kid a big swirl-ly lollipop as that is their fav. As I was paying, the owner walked up with two pralines and two bags of her version of Heavenly Hash called N'awlins Hash. "Just a little lagniappe for your kids." (That's means a little something extra for all you out of staters.)

Well, let me tell you this much! Heavenly Hash can't stand a chance to Old Town's N'awlins Hash! Here is a picture and it is incredible!

So if you are in the area be sure to stop by to visit Mary Lou and her daughter. Support an old New Orleans business that is struggling to keep going since Katrina.

Don't worry, you will get your laginappe!


Pontchartrain Pete said...

Welcome to the true south! I've heard that from a lot of gallery owners who became counselors of sorts; after Katrina people would come in and start talking about what they needed to decorate new walls and everyone would end up crying.

bella said...

Just happened upon this site and am so glad. Just reading about the shop makes me want to visit. I sure miss Metairie (we moved a year before the hurricane). Gosh I've really got to make a visit back home!