By JANE BLACK
Published: March 6, 2012
Had Emeril’s Delmonico been open for lunch, Wendell Pierce would probably have ordered the duck confit leg, served with a creamy barley risotto, roasted beets and snap peas. Instead, Mr. Pierce, a star of the HBO series “Treme,” ended up a few blocks away at Houston’s, where — given his perennial dieting — he made do with clam chowder and steamed spinach.
It was hardly a quintessential New Orleans meal. And Mr. Pierce, who grew up here, apologized for taking an out-of-town reporter to a chain restaurant in a city known for its culinary traditions. “You would love the Bon Ton,” he crooned in his deep baritone, referring to the historic Cajun joint that is famous for its Rum Ramsey cocktail. “And you would love Olivier’s. They have a 100-year-old rabbit recipe from Mr. Olivier. It is so good.”
Food has always been important to the portly actor, who first drew national acclaim in the role of Detective Bunk Moreland on another HBO series, “The Wire,” and now plays the trombonist Antoine Batiste on “Treme,” which is filming episodes in New Orleans for broadcast next fall.
His mother raised him on a diet of bayou classics like okra with shrimp, and he has been a gustatory adventurer ever since, seeking out dishes like Creole tacos at Juan’s Flying Burrito or the grilled octopus at El Pote Español in New York, where he lives for part of the year.
Many celebrities with a taste for good food veer into the restaurant business, but Mr. Pierce has taken a different tack. This summer, he and two business partners plan to open a grocery store called Sterling Farms, the first of several in New Orleans’s low-income neighborhoods, where supermarkets are scarce.
In December, they opened Sterling Express, the first in a convenience store chain that will sell fresh produce, salads and competitively priced staples in addition to the usual chips and sodas.
In intriguing — and intended — ways, his effort to bring more-nutritious fare to an urban food desert parallels the TV series, which charts New Orleans’s struggle to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.
“Bringing fresh food into these areas helps create economic growth,” Mr. Pierce said. “But it also helps people understand that there’s value in eating better. It’s not something that’s only available in a better neighborhood.”
Since Katrina devastated the city in August 2005, New Orleans has reclaimed its place as one of America’s prime food destinations. Many of the old standby restaurants have reopened, and new ones — like Scott Boswell’s pan-European Stella and John Besh’s Domenica — cater to the influx of younger residents and tourists with a taste for global flavors.
But grocery stores have not rebounded in the same way. Before the storm, there were 30 in New Orleans; today, there are 21. Most that have reopened are in wealthier neighborhoods: a Tulane University survey in 2007, the latest data available, found that nearly 60 percent of low-income residents had to travel more than three miles to reach a supermarket, though only 58 percent owned a car.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas, the only stores within walking distance are dollar stores, which sell staples like eggs, milk and meat, but few fresh fruits and vegetables. “Grocery stores are a very basic need, but they are especially important in New Orleans,” said John Weidman, deputy executive director of the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit group that is working with the City of New Orleans to allocate $14 million of public and private money to encourage markets to return. “One of the things we’ve heard is that people who left the city are waiting for grocery stores to come back. It’s a signal that things are back on track.”
Mr. Pierce, 48, grew up in Pontchartrain Park, one of the first suburban-style subdivisions developed for and by African-Americans after World War II, when New Orleans was still racially segregated by law.
But the neighborhood, born from the ugliness of separate-but-equal, blossomed into something beautiful, a “black Mayberry,” Mr. Pierce recalled.
More than 90 percent of families owned their own homes. Children rode bikes after school around the central golf course. Everyone knew everyone. Growing up, he jokes, his last name might as well have been “Mrs. Pierce’s son” as in: “Oh, you’re Wendell, Mrs. Pierce’s son.”
By the 1950s and ’60s, the neighborhood was home to the city’s rising African-American middle class. New Orleans’s first black mayor, Ernest N. Morial, known as Dutch, grew up there, as did Eddie J. Jordan Jr., the city’s first black district attorney, and the current Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Lisa P. Jackson.
One of Mr. Pierce’s treasured childhood memories is shopping on Friday nights with his mother at the local grocery store, Schwegmann’s. The chain was one of the first to sell everything — toys, jewelry and food — under one roof. He remembers his mother’s picking over the okra and peppers, and needling the fishmonger to cut her red drum just as she liked it.
At home, Mrs. Pierce made sure her two sons learned to cook. Though he admits his shrimp and okra isn’t as good as his mother’s, he coyly suggests that he has impressed quite a few guests with his kitchen skills. “To this day, that’s my little rap,” he said. “Oh, my man can cook? Yeah, baby. I cook.”
Mr. Pierce never intended to get into the food business. He attended the competitive specialty arts high school, Nocca, in New Orleans, and later the Juilliard School. His dream was to become a successful actor, a goal that was well on its way to being realized when Katrina ravaged Pontchartrain Park.
He returned to the city with the intention of rebuilding the house he grew up in, which was under 14 feet of water. But it wasn’t long, he says, before neighbors asked him to help restore the entire area.
In 2008, Mr. Pierce, in partnership with Troy Henry, his childhood friend and a New Orleans businessman, announced that they would build 300 solar-paneled, geothermal, low-cost homes in Pontchartrain Park for those who had lost everything.
The effort, as “Treme” fans might expect, has moved forward haltingly, slowed by city politics and bureaucratic delays. To date, only 10 homes have been built, and the goal has been slashed to 150.
Friends, he says, encouraged him to get back to his “real” life. But memories of those Friday nights at Schwegmann’s made him realize that reviving the neighborhood would require more than new homes. How could he ask people to move back if there was nowhere to shop? “You start to realize all the parts of infrastructure that are needed,” he said.
Mr. Pierce’s first pitch for a grocery store was to his partner, Mr. Henry. “My first response was, ‘We’re way too busy,’ ” Mr. Henry recalled. “But if you know anything about Wendell, you know he doesn’t take ‘no’ very well.”
None of the Sterling Farms stores will serve Pontchartrain Park. (The two partners and a third, James Hatchett, lost the bid to redevelop the commercial strip where Schwegmann’s once sat.) Instead, the first full-service grocery store will open in a former Winn-Dixie in Marrero, La., a suburb across the Mississippi where 26 percent of households have an income of less than $25,000 annually, and 55 percent earn less than $50,000.
How will Sterling Farms make it in neighborhoods where other grocery stores fear to tread?
The depressed city’s low real estate costs will help, Mr. Henry said. In the Marrero store, instead of a fixed monthly rent, the company will pay 2 percent of sales that exceed $9 million annually, allowing it to build the business.
Sterling Farms will look like most other conventional grocers, with a deli, bakery, seafood counter and as many as 40,000 items. But it also will cater to the special needs of low-income shoppers. The store will offer a free shuttle to anyone who spends $50 or more, so they need not walk or take the bus with heavy bags. Each month, the store plans a cookout (which in New Orleans usually means a crayfish boil) to raise money for the community.
Still, no one, least of all Mr. Pierce, expects such an ambitious project to go entirely smoothly. Years of working on “The Wire” and “Treme,” shows that spotlight systemic failure and bureaucratic incompetence, have taught him to be wary of relying on public money and timetables. “It’s life imitating art, and art imitating life,” Mr. Pierce said. “The shows influence me, and the work I do influences the shows.”
Mr. Pierce is convinced that to preserve its food culture, New Orleans needs good grocery stores as much as restaurants. “When I think of Sterling Farms, I remember those Friday nights with my mother,” he said. “That communal thing of actually going to get the fresh food that you are going to cook and eat together. That’s a memory. As corny as it sounds, it feeds the soul as much as the body.”