Robert LeBlanc, CEO of hospitality group LeBLANC+SMITH, knows hospitality. With five New Orleans bars and restaurants under his belt, the team is entering the hotel scene with Hotel Chloe, a 14-room F+B-driven hotel in Uptown. We talked with Robert on the story behind LeBLANC+SMITH, keeping the business of hospitality people-based and preserving the culture and Joie De Vivre of New Orleans.
Want more? Come hear Robert speak on January 14 at INDIE Confab: New Orleans!
Before you were in the restaurant business, you were primarily focused on bars and nightclubs. What encouraged you to take the leap into restaurants?
I always felt that the interaction with both team members and guests would be more enriching and fulfilling than in bars or music venues. In venues, the interaction is pretty transactional. A hello, maybe time and an audience for a quick joke, and a “thank you for coming.” In restaurants, we get so much more meaningful time with our team members and our guests, and our product offerings are more varied, diverse, and inspiring.
What’s the story behind the name LeBLANC+SMITH?
The French side of my family, the LeBlancs, were a long line of architects, engineers, and builders. The family home was impeccably decorated. My grandmother was a fantastic cook and we would have these elaborate dinners that were amazing. I always remember my Grandfather making sazeracs for everyone beforehand. It is from the LeBlanc side of my lineage that I learned most of what people viscerally experience at our restaurants in terms of what they look and sound like and how they taste. The Irish side of my family, the Smiths, originated from an orphan from County Cavan, IR, who immigrated to New Orleans as an 8 year-old. I always remember the Smith family parties being inclusive of everyone: family, extended family, neighbors, neighbors’ family, and anyone who may not have had other plans. Everyone was always made to feel completely at home at the Smith family parties, and they were always filled with laughter and a sense of camaraderie. So the Smith side of my lineage represents what I want our restaurants to feel like: warm, engaging, and fun spots where everyone is made to feel completely at home.
Are there other restaurateurs (inside or outside New Orleans) you admire?
Joe Beef in Montreal for the way they blend incredible food and wine with a relaxing, fun atmosphere. Patois for being the best neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans and teaching the rest of us how to do it. Maypop in New Orleans for their really inventive dishes that are still very comforting. Galatoire’s and Arnaud’s in New Orleans for being easy and fun for groups to celebrate any occasion. Pastis in New York for being great with guests but also unapologetic about who they are.
I’ve heard from a few New Orleans residents who are related to the hotel/f&b industry that, in comparison to New York or L.A. or Chicago, there has been a lack of go-to restaurants within hotels historically – the stand-alone restaurants seemed to stand out more. However, that’s starting to change. Why do you think this is?
Straight up: because Nina Compton and Larry Miller proved it could be done with Compere Lapin.
You are now jumping into the hotel space. What prompted this and what’s the vision behind your first project?
I always loved hotels and have been working toward that. I feel strongly that modern travelers will begin to seek our smaller bespoken hotels that can embed deeper into historically and culturally significant neighborhoods that still offer incredible hospitality, food and beverage and service. The timing for what we are doing feels right.
The second thing is that I want to do more projects but need to stay close to home while my kids are young. I don’t want to miss anything with them, but particularly not any “first times” or time that they still want to hang out with me. But I also feel that New Orleans is really saturated now, so if we did anything else like Sylvain, Meauxbar, Cavan or Longway we would just be watering down our existing portfolio. Doing a small hotel gives us a different expression of hospitality. As does sun___days, our hospitality partnership with Krewe Eyewear.
In other interviews I’ve read, you talk a lot about the importance of people and community. I recently read a New York Times opinion article titled ‘Gentrification Might Kill New Orleans Before Climate Change Does’ detailing the threat that the influx of wealthy white residents has on the culture of the city (rise of housing costs, diminishing the population of African American working-class residents, National F+B trends taking over creative variations on local cuisine). It’s a sticky topic, for sure. But, as a long time resident of New Orleans, what are you seeing and how can the local hospitality industry & its leaders be more conscious of these issues or help remedy them?
The culture of our city is everything. That’s why people want to move here in the first place. And while it doesn’t exist because of any one particular neighborhood, income level, etc., it is absolutely essential that we are cognizant that it is the artisans, the musicians, and people who work in hospitality that make this a magical place. If we make it unaffordable for them to easily access where they create and work, New Orleans will not be the same. A few things that we can do:
1) develop inventive ways to allow people with whom we work to earn more without compromising our own already thin margins. We need to do things differently, but it can be done.
2) do a thorough job informing our teams of resources available to them related to housing, public transportation, and health-care availability to make their lives in art, music, and hospitality more sustainable.
3) be more people-based in standards enforcement than rules-based. Someone’s being 15 mins late because they have three bus transfers over a 45 min commute is a lot different than someone’s being 15 minutes late because they are hungover. We need to have the empathy to acknowledge the difference.
Favorite hotel in New Orleans?
Maison de la Luz.
For those visiting, what is a MUST see/do in New Orleans?
Friday lunch at Galatoire’s, first weekend of Mardi Gras Uptown (you’ll really get a sense of the communal aspect of it), locals Thursday at Jazz Fest, a mint julep from Chris Hannah, a late night beer at The Saint, Dirty Linen Night in the Quarter, Krewe Du Vieux.
Describe the culture of New Orleans in 3 words or less!
Joie de Vivre.