New Orleans' Mardi Gras Zone could only be considered a grocery store in the traditional sense by the non-discriminating eye of a Yelp-bot. After stepping into the central dining area—with the deli's glass display case on your right and the pizzeria's looming brick oven on your left—you stare down into aisles of shelving, typical of your regular bodega. Then you look up, and on the second floor, you see boas, beads, masks—and a row of washers and dryers. "We'd like to be an all-in-one and have whatever people might need. That's kind of why the place is built so organically," says Jonathan Cromwell, MGZ's pizza kitchen manager. "It doesn't look like it was this big, planned-out thing; it looks like it was built piece by piece, which is kind of nice. It makes it feel more unique and local."
Staying local is integral to the business philosophy of Benny Naghi, MGZ's founder and owner. Even the pizza oven, which Naghi himself designed, is part and parcel of this vision: "My whole idea [was] building an oven that works with wood, that in case you have another mayday scenario, you can actually make food even if you don't have gas, you don't have lights," says Naghi. "It's very strong. You can put a tank on top of it. Literally."
Of course, the mayday scenario Naghi is referring to is Hurricane Katrina, a catastrophic event that forced the city and its inhabitants, including Naghi, to question what type of future they envisioned for themselves.
Once strictly a Mardi Gras bead and party supply business located in the Marigny neighborhood, MGZ became something of an emergency resource center during the aftermath of Katrina. When the storm hit New Orleans, and residents had little access to food and water, Naghi fulfilled a role that the government failed to: he set up some shelves, bought a few coolers, ordered a shipment of milk, and began to feed his neighborhood. And when people came in asking for something hot, he served up fried chicken—and gave half of it away. "It was a necessity. It wasn't like somebody else was willing to do it," he says. "It needed to be done so we did it."
Sue Lindley, a cook in MGZ's deli, attests to how Naghi helped the residents of the Marigny neighborhood when no one else did. "He made me cry. He got [me] a pineapple," she says, referring to Naghi's unceasing resourcefulness. "I mean, after Katrina you didn't see anything alive. He would do anything you asked."
Naghi once spent his time designing and selling Mardi Gras beads, but soon found himself focusing on the grocery and his farm in Larose, Louisiana. "My house got flooded, so FEMA gave me a trailer and I put it on the farm," he tells me. "I got this place right before the hurricane … I was like, 'Let's get some trees,' so we started planting. 'Let's get some cattle and some chickens.' We started working."
Thus, his vision evolved a step further. Not only would he run a grocery, but he would run a self-sustaining grocery by placing what grew on his own farm in Larose on the shelves of his downtown store. "To get suppliers—to be able to get a very good price—is very difficult as a single store. So I thought we can produce our own, and we can produce at much better quality," he says. "Here, the beef we have is the best quality. The honey we make is the best quality. The eggs—the yolks are so yellow. The idea of a supermarket that could grow products to sustain its neighborhood is a great idea. It should be the idea of the future. You bring the farm to the city, and you create a much higher quality of products and services."
The way Naghi tells it, he never wanted to be running a grocery store. It was something he did because he felt a responsibility to his community, and to hear him talk about New Orleans and the people of his neighborhood, you come to understand that his dedication to the city rivals that of any native New Orleanian. Though he has lived in New Orleans since he was 14, Naghi spent his early years in Tehran. When the Iranian Revolution erupted in 1979, his parents decided to move the family to Israel, as they were Jewish, and planned to return "when things settled down." Things never did, of course, and in 1981 Naghi came to the States, settling down instead in New Orleans, where his father had once come to purchase antiques for his business in Iran. After graduating high school at 15, Naghi immediately started working in the bustling French Quarter, at a tourist shop called Yesteryear's on Bourbon Street. He delivered the now-defunct paper Fun City Times and ran a number of souvenir-style booths. In doing so, Naghi acquired a substantial understanding of the French Quarter—and the knowledge that beads were a pretty excellent product.
Naghi's current to-do list includes obtaining a liquor license; acquiring the proper zoning permit to build a smoker (where MGZ can smoke its own farm-raised beef); developing MGZ's own artesian water supply at a facility he recently purchased in Kentwood, Louisiana; constructing worker housing on the farm; and getting the laundromat up and running. Naghi is building a unique business in the heart of the Marigny—one that doesn't detract from but rather fulfills his desire to help his community.
From the Monday night meals in which Naghi and his cooks prepare free, home-cooked dinners for the community, to letting Fringe Fest set up stages in the lot behind the store, it's clear that fostering the health and creativity of the Marigny is intrinsic to Naghi's vision for Mardi Gras Zone. And among operating the many facets of his business, Naghi still makes time to attend his own Monday dinners. "It brings the whole community together. You might know your neighbor right across the street and live 20 years and maybe just say hi, but when you actually come and sit down with people and you have a meal, you get to really know your neighbor, right? It brings people together. You got quite a diverse neighborhood, and that's New Orleans."
"It's rare you can find someone who's a businessman and a people person, and he's both of those things," says Cromwell, the pizza kitchen manager. "The best thing I can tell anyone is to talk to him."
But if you don't have the privilege of living in New Orleans, strolling into Mardi Gras Zone, and shaking Naghi's hand, the contents of his warehouse can provide a pretty good introduction to the heart of the man.In addition to storing beads, bulk food items, and a custom designed machine to print medallions, Naghi allows Krewe Delusion, a satirical parade that rolls during Carnival season, to store its floats here, free of charge.
"They didn't have the money; they had to start somewhere," Naghi says. "But you know, it takes time to build something, right? You have to have love if you want to build something. Remember that. With that, you build."