The Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA) and its chair, Greg Reggio, co-owner of Taste Buds Management in New Orleans (parent company of Zea Rotisserie & Bar and Semolina), are pleased to announce this year’s Restaurateur of the Year, Hall of Fame Inductees, Associate Member of the Year and Advocate of the Year. The honorees were recognized yesterday evening at the LRA Awards Reception at Arnaud’s Restaurant in New Orleans.
The 2017 Restaurateur of the Year is Tommy Cvitanovich of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant. Cvitanovich co-owns and operates three Drago’s restaurants in Metairie, New Orleans, and Jackson, Miss., with a new location in Lafayette currently under renovation.
Cvitanovich’s parents, Drago and Klara, opened their first restaurant in Metairie’s Fat City neighborhood in 1969, after they immigrated to the United States from Croatia. The restaurant’s goal was to offer delicious seafood and a family atmosphere at a reasonable price. Cvitanovich, along with his brother, Gerry, grew up in the restaurant, helping out when not in school. That hands-on experience prepared him for taking over the day-to-day operations of Drago’s, which expanded to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside in 2007 and Jackson, Miss. in 2014. But Cvitanovich knows who’s still the boss—he jokes often and fondly that his mother “still signs his checks.” Cvitanovich cares deeply about his family legacy in the restaurant industry, perhaps even more so since his father’s passing earlier this year.
Cvitanovich is known as one of the most generous restaurateurs in the state. After Hurricane Katrina, he facilitated the feeding of thousands of residents and first responders in the days and weeks after the storm. He and his restaurant’s efforts earned him the 2006 Restaurant Neighbor Award from the National Restaurant Association. He also received one of the most prestigious community service awards in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune Loving Cup, in 2010.
Cvitanovich is an active Past Chair of the LRA and also serves on the board of directors of the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation and the National Restaurant Association.
The LRA recognized Cvitanovich as the Active Member of the Year in 2003 and Drago and Klara Cvitanovich were inducted into the LRA Hall of Fame in 2013.
The 2017 Hall of Fame Inductees are Leah Chase of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans, Warren Leruth of LeRuth’s and Don Weems of Waterfront Grill. Leruth and Weems will be inducted posthumously. The LRA Hall of Fame recognizes LRA members who, through their work, have impacted our industry and the LRA. This year, the LRA is honoring Chase and posthumously honoring both Leruth and Weems for their lifelong contributions to the state’s restaurant industry.
Leah Chase, known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, has run the famous Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans since the 1950s. Dooky Chase’s, named for her late father-in-law and her late husband, was a gathering place for Civil Rights leaders in the 1960s and houses an extensive African American art collection. She has served New Orleans natives, celebrities and U.S. Presidents, but “Ms. Leah” simply refers to herself as a “just a cook.” She has received countless awards and recognitions, most notably the Times-Picayune Loving Cup in 1997, a James Beard Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2016 and is a recipient of the Francis Anthony Drexel Medal, the highest award presented to an individual by Xavier University. Chase also holds honorary degrees from Tulane University, Dillard University, Our Lady of Holy Cross College, Madonna College, Loyola University New Orleans and Johnson & Wales University. A dedicated LRA member, she was previously honored with the LRA’s Restaurateur of the Year award in 2009.
Warren Leruth, chef, restaurateur and noted food scientist, opened LeRuth’s in Gretna in 1966. Leruth began cooking in the military as a baker and carried over that level of exactness to his restaurant, introducing new and exciting dishes during a time when fine dining restaurants in New Orleans offered similar takes on traditional Creole recipes. Three of his creations became universal classics, replicated in restaurant kitchens all over the world—oyster-artichoke soup, sautéed softshell crab, topped with crabmeat and brown butter and Green Goddess dressing. Leruth also owned a food consulting business, developing new products for chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Krystal and Nestle. Among his most notable creations was Popeyes’ beloved red beans. Leruth was an influential member of the restaurant industry, becoming a mentor to many New Orleans chefs, including LRA Chair Greg Reggio. He died at the age of 72 in 2001.
Don Weems was co-owner of WaterFront Grill in Monroe and was very active in the LRA, serving in many leadership positions within the organization, including Chair in 2007. He also served as Chair of the LRA Education Foundation and was awarded the LRA’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2002 and Chair’s Leadership Award in 2005. Before his second career as a restaurateur, Weems worked for Northeast Louisiana University (now known as University of Louisiana at Monroe) in various roles from 1976 to his retirement in 1999. He was integral in the development of the popular tailgating area known as the Grove and the annual university Chili Cook-Off. That concentration on food as a celebration carried over to WaterFront Grill. Weems was a friend to all, a mentor and educator, always willing to lend a helping hand. His optimism was a crucial part of his five-year battle with Multiple Myeloma, which he succumbed to on March 29, 2017 at the age of 70.
The 2017 Associate Members of the Year are Paul, Scott and Steve Ballard of Ballard Brands. The Associate Member of the Year award recognizes a restaurant industry supplier who exemplifies dedication to the LRA’s mission. Ballard Brands, the fast casual dining leader, was formed in 2012 by brothers Paul, Scott and Steve Ballard. The company includes five restaurant brands that collectively total nearly 150 locations and are growing. Ballard Brands also operates wholesale brand New Orleans Roast, which produces coffee for that brand and PJ’s Coffee. New Orleans Roast offers premium coffee, state-of-the-art equipment and marketing support to restaurants, hotels and foodservice institutions all over Louisiana. Their hard work and success led to the honor of the Outstanding Family Enterprise Award from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business in 2017. The Ballards are very involved in the community, both in the New Orleans area and in St. Tammany Parish where they all reside with their families. As LRA member suppliers, they are among the first to volunteer their services wherever needed, while offering exemplary products.
The 2017 Advocate of Year is Senator Conrad Appel, who represents District 9 based in Jefferson Parish, in the Louisiana State Senate, serving on the Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs; Education; Environmental Quality and Finance committees. The Advocate of the Year recognizes an individual who has supported the advocacy efforts of the LRA and its partner industries. Appel has worked closely with the LRA Advocacy team to promote good public policy that benefits our industry.
The 2017 Chair’s Leadership Award recipient is Greg Hamer of B&G Foods. Through his company, Hamer owns 106 Taco Bell restaurants in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and employs more than 2,500 people. Greg is a LRA Past Chair, served in numerous leadership committee positions, and represents the state’s restaurant industry nationally as an Emeritus Director of the National Restaurant Association and is the current Chair of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. He was previously honored by the LRA with the Hall of Fame award in 2003, Active Member of the Year in 2005 and Chapter President of the Year in 1994.
“On behalf of the LRA, I am honored to recognize these award winners and commend them for the work they do not only for their individual businesses, but also for the association and the restaurant and hospitality industries,” said LRA Chair Greg Reggio.