The summer hasn’t been kind to New Orleans. Three of the city’s most famous musicians have died in less than two months. Between the loss of these artists, chef Leah Chase, and now Gene’s Po'Boys—a famous mom-and-pop restaurant on the edge of the Marigny neighborhood that was known for its late-night sandwiches, daiquiris, and video poker—the Big Easy will lose a bit more of the funkiness for which it’s known and loved.
Citing rising taxes, insurance, and a shrinking clientele in the post-Katrina market, owner Eugene Joseph Theriot told The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate in June that he listed the building at 1040 Elysian Fields Ave. on the market in February for approximately $5 million. Since then, the building was sold and will reportedly be turned into condominiums. The daiquiri shop next door closed in 2018 and sold for almost $900,000, according to The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.
Before Gene’s opened in 1968, then-owner Eugene Raymond Theriot worked two jobs to get the financing needed to start the business. Since then, the iconic, two-story, pink building that housed Gene’s—on the corner of St. Claude and Elysian Fields avenues—became a fixture in the community as well as a place of pop culture significance, appearing in a Simpsons episode and a Drake music video, and was known to be an occasional stop for Beyonce and Jay-Z. While the food itself has received mixed reviews, the 24-hour restaurant bustled with crowds at all hours.
"The gravy—the fuckin’ gravy—that’s what everybody loved," said 39-year-old Carlos Smith, a former employee of Gene’s who now works at South Market Pub and Grill on St. Joseph Street. "People would get upset if you didn’t have the gravy."
Smith added that a new streetcar line, which went operational in 2016 with a route running from the French Quarter to Gene’s, brought more business. But a report released by Ride New Orleans, a transit advocacy group, in 2017 showed the streetcar didn’t provide the economic boom that was hoped for.
Theriot didn’t respond to numerous interview requests from MUNCHIES. In a YouTube video, Theriot said he hoped to save hundreds of thousands of dollars by installing an electronic ordering kiosk. Despite this measure, business hasn’t been the same since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The neighborhood has rapidly changed since the storm, which left many local businesses shuttered for good.
"After Katrina, there’s a heightened sense we keep losing things that were in our childhood, that were in our lives," New Orleans City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer told MUNCHIES. "For three or four years after Katrina, I’d be working here every day, and you kind of drove around New Orleans with this bittersweet melancholy that you couldn’t quite put your finger on."
Palmer believes there’s a confluence of things that add to the ever-changing face of the city, including the perfect storm of city’s distinct housing architecture and the intrusion of short-term rentals, which she believes contribute to the rise of property values—an idea associated with gentrification.
On August 8, the city council voted to restrict short-term rentals.
Michael Patrick Welch, a local journalist (and occasional writer for VICE) and teacher who also holds the honor of having inspired a Gene’s daiquiri flavor called the Sweet Pussy (because the original name for the mix of peach and white Russian flavors was considered too profane), tells MUNCHIES, "[Gene’s] was a cute symbol of the neighborhood and that symbol is being taken away. It’s more like the face of things changing."
According to cookbook author and New-Orleans-native-turned-Los Angeles resident Lolis Eric Elie, his hometown is starting to look less like the place where he grew up in and more like the rest of America.
Across the street from Gene’s to the north is a Walgreens and one block south sits a Starbucks. Across the street to the east is an upscale Whole Foods-esque (albeit local) grocery chain.
"The new restaurants that are opening are wonderful and greatly improved variety of what is available, but they are more reflective of national trends than indigenous New Orleans cuisine," Elie told MUNCHIES. "I think that the city’s cuisine should evolve, but I also fear the possibility that dining in New Orleans can become like dining anywhere else in America."
Beyond the changing demographics of New Orleans, tragedy befell Gene’s earlier in the year with the untimely death of 27-year-old Eugene Francis Rascoll III, nephew of owner Theriot, who was known as Gene 3. A cause of death wasn’t released.
It was Gene 3 who courted celebrities at the restaurant. Landon Hill, a Gene's employee of nearly five years, told MUNCHIES about a time when Drake came to the restaurant and ordered 200 po'boys for his production crew. Drake offered to pay, Hill said, but Gene 3 refused and ordered the food on the house. Before his death, Gene 3 was slated to take over the business.
"Everybody at the restaurant took it hard," said 34-year-old Hill, who now works at Commander’s Palace on Washington Avenue. "He was a nice guy overall."
When I visited Gene’s in mid-July, the checkered floor seemed more prominent with the tables and chairs removed. The daiquiri machines still churned as they had for years. Gene’s looked empty.
The clerk (who didn’t want to be identified) told me she had worked there for 23 years and would probably take at least two months off to take care of her family before looking for another job.
It’s not so much the fact that a local po'boy shop is closing, according to Welch, or that a large, pink building everyone knows won’t be there anymore.
"The disappearance of the people is the biggest change," Welch said. "The bad part is losing the people."