Giving Something Back
Like many of us, Klara Cvitanovich has powerful food memories from childhood, but hers aren’t associated with rose-colored recollections of Thanksgiving feasts. When she was 8 years old and living in post-World War II Yugoslavia, her school lunches provided by the Marshall Plan were the most important (and sometimes only) meal of the day. “America was sending us cheese, eggs and milk. And that was the best meal of the day,” she recalls. “Not just for me, but for a lot of people.”
Fast forward to New Orleans in early September 2005. In those first days after Hurricane Katrina, Klara and her husband Drago set up a base of operations on Harrison Avenue in Lakeview. Over the course of the next four weeks, they gave away more than 80,000 meals. During that time, Klara’s childhood experiences were never far from her mind. “I just felt that we had it, other people didn’t, so we had to give it away,” she says. “For me it was a moral obligation, and also my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the city of New Orleans and the United States for all they had done for us.”
Gratitude, compassion and generosity – these three words best describe Klara and Drago Cvitanovich. So this year, when the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience’s Board of Directors met to decide who would receive this year’s Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award, their choice was easy. “Klara and Drago truly epitomize hospitality in every aspect of the word,” says NOWFE chairperson Cameron Benson Perry. “They have a way of just transforming people. Their love for this country and their love for the city is just inspiring.”
They are also successful businesspeople. When Drago and Klara first arrived in New Orleans in 1961, they came with just two suitcases, a little bit of money and their two young sons, Tommy and Gerry. By ’69 they had saved enough to open Drago’s in Fat City. The early years were tough. Drago worked round the clock to get the business up and running. Klara worked full time at DH Holmes as a travel agent, and when she was done there went straight to Drago’s, where she managed the front and did bookkeeping. After close they would wash and fold the linens and then start all over again the next day. They did this for several years, all while raising their two children.
Four expansions later, Drago’s has blossomed from 70 seats to over 300, with banquet facilities and their famous repurposed oyster-roasting fire truck to boot. They opened a second location in the Riverside Hilton a few years after Katrina, which has since become the international hotel chain’s highest grossing restaurant out of all their properties worldwide. Its success set the stage for a third Drago’s, set to open in Jackson, Mississippi, at the end of this year.
Their signature dish, Charbroiled Oysters, was invented by their son Tommy, who perceived an opportunity at a time where most other oyster establishments were facing a downturn due to a negative perception of raw oysters. “We were thinking what we could do for sales, when Tommy said, ‘Mom, what do you think about putting the oysters on the grill with our garlic-butter sauce?’ I said we can try, and a star was born,” Klara says about the genesis of that famous dish.
Charbroiled oysters have since gone on to join the rarified menu of dishes synonymous with New Orleans, such as Paul Prudhomme’s Blackened Redfish. On a busy day, they serve over 10,000 of those oysters. It also single-handedly flipped the table on the negative perception of the bivalve. “People who ‘don’t eat oysters’ eat their oysters,” Perry points out. “For this year’s award, we just really wanted to knock it out of the park. We don’t think we could have done any better than Miss Klara and Mr. Drago.”
Editor’s note: Each year the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience selects a person from the hospitality industry to receive the Ellia Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award. New Orleans Magazine has been proud to profile the winners. Previous recipients are: Ella Brennan (2010), Paul Prudhomme (2011), Bill Goldring (2012) and Leah Chase (2013).