For more than 20 years, Scott Wolfe ran a successful chain of convenience stores in New Orleans. In 2012, after Hurricane Katrina, he and his wife, Jane, combined two very different businesses to help bring the community back.
--As told to Sheila Marikar:
I had a chain of convenience stores called Wagner's Meat. In 2003, we sold the company but retained the real estate for rental income. I went into property development. We had 10 properties producing revenue.
Katrina hit in 2005. We went through a lot of hardship thereafter. I was diversified, or at least I thought I was--but I was diversified in New Orleans, which meant I wasn't at all. We had $125,000 in monthly mortgage payments and no tenants. But because I had a contractor's license, we started a construction company, and we were able to salvage the properties and do a lot of construction around New Orleans after Katrina.
We typically look for corner locations, which I can develop if I can't find a tenant. We purchased this blighted property in the Eighth Ward in 2012. It was a very depressed area that had been hit hard by Katrina: graffiti-ridden, no commerce, no property taxes, no revenue streams. Just blight and crime. It was on a very busy corner, but we couldn't get anyone to rent it.
We had delis inside all Wagner's where we sold po' boys and chicken. I wanted to make this new location a restaurant. Believe it or not, New Orleans doesn't have that many high-quality standalone po' boy places. And I didn't want it to be only a local favorite. I wanted to draw tourists, because we're five minutes from the French Quarter.
The building was big enough, so we put together a po' boy shop and a laundromat. It's often not profitable enough for a laundromat to stand on its own, because of the labor costs. But by putting it with a po' boy shop, we have a rich resource of employees to help out.
When you come to Melba's, we attack all your senses. We have an art gallery where we sell works by local artists. We pipe in oldies. And we're getting a lot of tourists. We have 40 employees now. In the area, we're the highest-paying employer. We start at $9 an hour; the average employee earns $10.60 an hour. Our employees have benefits, and we are not shy about paying overtime.
New Orleans has always been a city with small bars, corner groceries, and mom-and-pop shops throughout every neighborhood. But Katrina pushed many out. Melba's gives my neighborhood a place to meet, hang out, and share good times with friends and family--something like Cheers. We're resonating, because it's the way things used to be.