Brennan's: Old Is the New New

By Jason Meyers

Ralph Brennan focuses on preserving legacy, reinventing tradition and reminding his staff and customers that 75 years is nothing in the New Orleans restaurant business.

Ask Ralph Brennan — scion of a legendary New Orleans restaurant family and protector of the Brennan family name — what keeps him up at night, and he will reference a familial saying.

“My Aunt Adelaide had a phrase: ‘Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,’ ” Brennan says. “Sometimes you can blow it. You see that a lot in family businesses, so if you want to keep it a family business, you have to be thinking about the future and innovation and change.”

It’s fitting that Brennan cites one of his aunts, because they — along with other members of his family, both here and gone — factor so prominently in the story of his success. It’s a story of family bonding and feuding, and one that ultimately put the Brennan name exactly where it belongs: adorning an iconic pink building in the French Quarter that houses 75 years of family, culinary and New Orleans history.

Brennan has been embroiled in the New Orleans restaurant scene since he was a kid in the 1950s, but the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group has owned Brennan’s only since 2013. The story of how that came about is a good one — but even better is the story of how Brennan built his own reputation and professional success through education, business acumen and hard work, and how he hopes the foundations he established will carry on through future generations.

Not-so-ancient history

Despite the rich tradition of the restaurant that bears his family name, Ralph Brennan is the first to point out that 75 years isn’t “old” in New Orleans. “There are a lot of restaurants that are over 100 years old,” he says. Indeed, Antoine’s, the oldest U.S. family-owned restaurant, was established in New Orleans in 1840.

Even Napoleon House was 101 years old when Brennan bought it from the Impastato family in 2015.

The Brennan family history in New Orleans restaurants dates back to 1946, when Owen Brennan, Ralph’s uncle, opened the original Brennan’s on a dare.

“The story goes that my uncle was challenged by Count Arnaud, who owned Arnaud’s restaurant, saying an Irishman could never run a French restaurant,” Brennan says. “So my uncle wound up taking over a location across the street from the Old Absinthe House, and they put the Brennan’s name on it and called it Brennan’s Vieux Carré.”

It was at that location on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter where two longstanding traditions were born: Breakfast at Brennan’s, and Bananas Foster—which still makes up nearly 75% of Brennan’s dessert sales today.

“My aunt and the chef then, Paul Blangé, came up with this idea to brulée bananas,” Brennan says. “At the time, the Port of New Orleans was one of the largest importers of bananas in the U.S., so they were all over the place. My grandmother used to brulée bananas at home, so my aunt came up with the idea to cook them tableside and add ice cream.”

The restaurant moved to Royal Street in 1956. Breakfast at Brennan’s “was a very lavish, multi-course meal with alcoholic beverages — it is New Orleans, so it had the beverage component to it,” Brennan says. “It became even more famous and grew after they moved to Royal Street. That’s when my memory really starts. I played there as a child, and I worked there in high school.”

Ralph Brennan was being groomed by the family for a management role, but in 1973, a family disagreement over evolution and succession resulted in a split.

“My father and aunts and uncles moved up to a restaurant in the Garden District called Commander's Palace, which they had purchased from a different family a number of years before,” he says. “So then we had two competing groups.”

Gone and back again

It was around the time of that family rift that Brennan, armed with an MBA from Tulane, decided to take another path.

“I wound up interviewing and getting a job with Price Waterhouse in the New Orleans office, and it was a tremendous experience for me,” he says. “I've never regretted a second of it because I learned so much. Especially in the auditing function, you learn a lot about different businesses and people.”

That experience shaped the part of Brennan’s business philosophy that governs bringing new generations into the family business. His son Patrick and his daughter Kathryn both now hold leadership roles in the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group — but on his terms.

“My deal with my children was that they were going to go all the way through college, and that they would go do something else for a while,” Brennan says. “You have to work for someone else first, because if you're too dependent on the family business, you don't make the right decisions.”

Kathryn got her education in business administration, then worked for a restaurant group in New York City before returning to New Orleans.

“I always wanted to be in the industry — once I got over being a ballerina,” she says. “I loved being the host and welcoming people, and I love that every day is different in the restaurant business.”

Kathryn’s focus these days is on re-staffing in a post-COVID employment climate, which is no easy task. “We need people at every level: managers, cooks, servers and dishwashers,” she says. “It's challenging.”

Patrick, meanwhile, entered the business following culinary school and a stint doing what he and his father describe using the exact same words (“being a ski bum”). He also has coveted being part of the family business since childhood, when he went to work with his father and befriended one of the pastry chefs.

“I wrote in kindergarten or first grade all about how I wanted to work in the restaurant industry,” he says. “As long as I can remember, it’s what I wanted to do.”

Landing the mother ship

Ralph Brennan’s own reconnection with the family business took place in 1981, when his aunt offered him a job as a manager at Mr. B’s Bistro. He left Price Waterhouse that year, and his career as a restaurateur took off from there.

The Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group formed in 19XX and currently owns Red Fish Grill, Ralph’s on the Park, Café NOMA at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Napoleon House, Ralph Brennan Catering & Events, and a commissary bakery in New Orleans, plus Jazz Kitchen at Downtown Disney in Anaheim, Calif. The extended Brennan family owns many other establishments, and the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group is an investor in three of those (Mr. B’s Bistro, Commander’s Palace, and Brennan’s of Houston). And, since 2013, the group has owned Brennan’s in the French Quarter.

“I was at a Mardi Gras function in 2011, and a mutual friend told me I should talk with my cousins because they need help — they were struggling operationally and financially,” he says.

Over the next two years, Brennan negotiated with his cousins to finalize the sale. Ultimately, though, he and his business partner Terry White bought the restaurant, the building and the name out of bankruptcy after failed negotiations with Brennan’s estranged cousins.

“Twice I thought we were going to go to the altar to sign the deal, and they just went radio silent and shut it down,” Brennan says. “I made some offers to become their partner to inject capital and bring operating help to the company, and they didn't take it.”

After some legal wrangling over the name and a 16-month restoration, Brennan’s reopened in November 2014. Its demise under his cousins’ ownership is, in Brennan’s view, a classic family business saga. 

“They took that business over in 1974, and for about 30 years they worked very closely together,” he says. “Around the time of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they had another generation getting restless, and they began to argue among themselves. So we wound up buying the building in May of 2013 at the courthouse.”

Making old new(ish) again

Over his more than 40 years of restaurant success, Ralph Brennan has established a set of core values that inform every business move he makes (see sidebar). Perhaps the most important of those is the one he added last: innovation and change.

“My Aunt Ella’s greatest fear was that she was going to stagnate. She talked about getting to the top of a bell curve and going down on the other side,” Brennan says. “Our business is not as smooth as a bell curve — it’s more like a set of steps. My fear is to getting to a landing and going down on the other side.”

To combat that, everyone in the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group is charged with continuously bringing new ideas and service techniques to the businesses — which isn’t easy when you’re dealing with establishments steeped in tradition. But, as Patrick Brennan points out, sometimes that history also helps fuel innovation.

“Once we took over, people started showing up with all these old menus they had saved,” he says. “So we got to read the menu descriptions of these old classic dishes and reconfigure them for how we would do them today.”

That focus on constant reinvention is what Ralph Brennan says keeps him going — what drives him to keep expanding and innovating and, of course, entertaining and engaging people.

“We have one foot in tradition and one foot in new,” Brennan says. “When you're playing the long game like we are, we could stagnate. I don't want to do that, and that's what gets me up in the morning.”

One of those classic dishes the team reinvented was Trout Blangé, named for the same founding chef who helped create Bananas Foster — and who was such a fixture that when he died in 1977, he was buried wearing a Brennan's apron and holding a knife and spoon. His photo still hangs in Brennan’s kitchen, perhaps both as a reminder of tradition and as an inspiration for ongoing change.

Jason Meyers is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He is a fan of bananas foster and wine -- pften together.

July/August 2021

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