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All in the Family
New Orleans legacy businesses six decades or older
Maybe your brother-in-law drives you crazy when he starts telling his corny jokes. Or your niece’s idea of a hard day’s work is several hours cruising the Internet. For most of us, it’s no big deal; we only have to get along on holidays and at the occasional Sunday family dinner. But for people who work in a family business, a lot more is on the line when family members don’t get along. It takes a special kind of grace to pull it off, to be able to overlook individual foibles for the greater good. When it works well, you end up with a business like the ones profiled here. An entrepreneur, often an immigrant, plants the seed and succeeding generations add their own talents, capitalizing on the business secrets passed down the way some families pass down silver or jewelry. The result is a business that becomes a New Orleans fixture, one generations of customers love to patronize. It takes patience, hard work and an ability to separate work time from family time, so both spheres stay strong.
Ashley Hansen’s youngsters are two of the luckiest kids in town. After all, their mother is a co-owner of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz, so they get to sample the stand’s snowballs just about any time they want.
Tuesday through Sunday, from March to October, hoards of sweaty children and adults head to Hansen’s on Tchoupitoulas Street for a snowball, reveling in the perfectly shaved ice and delicious homemade syrups. For locals, a Hansen’s snowball has the same cache as a Plaquemine’s Parish orange: you could go somewhere else, but why bother?
For Ashley Hansen, though, snowballs are more than sweet treats. She sees them as a way to keep the bonds of love between her and her grandparents tight, some eight years after their deaths.
“They were so devoted to quality,” she says, and she sees her job as making sure every snowball sold at the stand maintains that same quality.
The story of Hansen’s begins in 1939, when Mary and Ernest Hansen opened a snowball stand on St. Ann Street. Ernest, a machinist, used his talents to come up with the Sno-Bliz, a machine for shaving ice. He had his invention patented. Mary created the flavored syrups, and the combination was a match made in heaven. At that time, snowballs cost the princely sum of $.02 apiece. In 1944, the stand was moved to its present location.
Ashley Hansen says her grandparents discouraged their two sons from working at the snowball stand. She quotes her grandfather as saying, “I wear jeans so you don’t have to,” and his prediction was correct. Both sons helped out at the stand from time to time, but became professionals; Ashley’s father, Gerard, was an Orleans Parish magistrate judge and his brother, Ernest, a pediatrician.
But Ashley couldn’t be kept from helping out at the stand. She was crazy about her grandparents, and working side-by-side with them was her idea of a perfect job. She made snowballs during school vacations and during summer breaks.
In 1995, after graduating from Loyola University with a degree in art, she pondered her career choices. “I was pretty sure I wanted to work with my grandparents in some way,” she says. “I loved the stand.” She lacked her grandmother’s ease with customers, though, and had to learn to overcome her shyness.
“I channeled Mary Hansen,” she jokes. In time she, too, could hold easy conversations with the customers; today, she serves some of those same customers’ children.
In 2005, the Hansen family was struck by the calamity that befell thousands of their neighbors. Hurricane Katrina blew the roof off the snowball stand, but what it did to Mary and Ernest Hansen was much worse. At the time of the storm, Mary Hansen was not well. She had developed signs of senility, and was in Touro Infirmary. Her husband had just celebrated his 94th birthday. When other family members evacuated, they moved Ernest Hansen into Touro with his wife and hired a sitter, believing they would be safer there.
When the levees broke and Touro itself was evacuated, the Hansens were separated. As soon as they could, family members traveled the state, trying to find out where the elder Hansens had been taken. Finally, Ashley’s twin sister, who was in Washington, D.C., located the pair just one mile apart – one in Pineville and one in Alexandria.
The trauma had been too much for the couple. Mary Hansen died in 2005, at 95. Her husband of 72 years passed away in ’06.
Ashley Hansen knew she wanted to reopen the stand, but she worried about re-assembling her work force. It took her about a year to clean the stand and get it up and running. Her father and uncle had inherited the business; she bought out her uncle and is in the process of buying out her father. Her twin lives in Baton Rouge, but Ashley hopes she might one day return and sell snowballs, too.
For now, running Hansen’s keeps Ashley crazy busy. “We make the syrups every day,” she says. Favorites include nectar cream, chocolate, satsuma, lemonade and strawberry. A small snowball costs $1.50; $20 buckets are available for parties. She has no intention of expanding. Like her grandparents, she thinks quality is easier to control with one location and one staff.
One of her favorite aspects of the business remains the friendships that build up between the workers and customers. “My grandma had customers that turned into friends,” she says. “Now they bring their kids.” And she can always tell when a customer isn’t a native. They ask for a snowcone, she says, while everybody in town knows you always call the icy treat with the sweet syrup a snowball.
In their search for stylish, traditional men’s clothing, countless shoppers have been drawn to the same store: Rubensteins, on the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue. Since 1924, men (and those who buy for them) have taken advantage of the fact that one shop could outfit them with just about everything from socks to suits, and provide them with clothes that don’t scream “I’m a fad, and I’ll be out of style soon.”
Rubensteins has been a family business from its earliest days. Morris Rubenstein founded the business in 1924, hiring his two brothers, Elkin and Sam, to help. (Morris Rubenstein’s parents had owned a dry goods store on Rampart Street.)
When Elkin’s sons, David and Andre, came on board, they bought out their Uncle Sam and continued to grow the business. The store added the Madison Shop for young men. Today Andre’s son, Kenny, and David’s daughter, Allison Marshall, are the third generation active in the business.
Along with family ties, staff members with longevity lend stability to Rubensteins, Marshall says; two employees have been there almost 30 years, and one has clocked almost 50.
Sometimes workers are less than thrilled to see their bosses’ sons and daughters join the staff, but Marshall says she was welcomed and supported because staffers had known her for many years. “I grew up with these people,” she says. “I tried my hardest, [and] they were all on my side.”
Marshall’s mother is a sportswear buyer, and she recalls her parents talking about the business over dinner. Fifteen years ago, after she graduated from college with a degree in business, Marshall found part-time work in New Orleans. She wanted to work full time, so she joined Rubensteins in the marketing department. Today, marketing remains her responsibility.
It can be difficult for family members in business together to keep a line between personal and professional life. “About 10 years ago, I had to start calling my parents by their first names, not Mom and Dad,” Marshall says. But family businesses have distinct pleasures, she says. She considers it a real plus that she gets to spend so much time with her family members, eating lunch with them most days.
David Rubenstein began working at the store when he was just 8. He and his brother had always wanted to join the family enterprise because their father seemed to enjoy it so much. “Our Daddy always said what a good business it was,” he says.
The two brothers rose through the ranks, running the Madison Shop and going on buying trips. “We had the time to do it slowly,” Rubenstein says. Elkin and Sam were excellent mentors.
“They had great personalities,” he says. “They were very good merchants.”
One of the best moves the company made was to buy its present location and stay there. Their parents had had a dry goods store on Rampart Street, but Elkin and Sam thought the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Avenue was the best choice for their own venture. “This was an important part of town to be in,” David Rubenstein says.
At one point, Elkin and Sam were encouraged to move the business closer to City Hall. Wisely, they declined, reasoning that a location close to the French Quarter meant that tourists and conventioneers would find the shop more easily. Today, visitors to New Orleans make up an important part of Rubensteins’ business.
Marshall is upbeat about downtown’s future, too, as she sees more retail open up shop, as well as new hospitals and condos. “We’re excited,” she says. “We’re here to stay.”
Marshall says she and her cousin know the Rubenstein clientele very well. The store is popular with those who prefer to shop in person rather than via the Internet. Their customers want clothes that are of high quality and in fashion, but not too trendy. To encourage young men just starting out to build a solid wardrobe, Rubensteins has an opening price point of $495 for a suit, Marshall says. They carry well-known Italian lines as well as those by American designers such as Ralph Lauren.
Rubensteins offers other services to set them apart from big-box retailers, such as valet service, made-to-measure clothing and tailoring.
Years ago the store had locations in suburban malls, but Marshall says those stores are closed, and there are no plans to migrate from downtown. “That’s a different kind of business,” she says of shopping malls. Her father points out that duplicating the inventory Rubensteins carries downtown for a mall slot would be costly, and that profit margins in malls are very small.
Retail doesn’t always attract third- and fourth-generation family members, David Rubenstein says. It is demanding work, requiring long hours, often on weekends or evenings. But it’s very rewarding, and as you progress you usually have some flexibility in your schedule. He used to take his grandchildren to lunch, then return to the store when the kids went down for naps.
A confirmed entrepreneur, David Rubenstein has no plans to retire anytime soon. “I have no other hobbies,” he says. “We travel, but when I’m home, I work.” And both he and Marshall expect it to continue to be a family business.
Haase’s Shoe Store
Every fall, parents all across the New Orleans area flock to Haase’s Shoe Store on Oak Street for back-to-school shoes. And all year round, doting aunties and grandmothers visit the clothing section, Young Folk’s Shop, for exquisite Feltman dresses and little boys’ “bubble” onesies. The store has become a tradition, says Judy Caliva, who is a co-owner with her husband, Kevin. In an age of big-box merchants and constantly changing fashions, Haase’s and Young Folk’s thrive because people still like to have the assistance of a knowledgeable salesperson and a selection of traditional styles that have stood the test of time.
Like other family businesses in New Orleans, Haase’s itself has stood the test of time. Russian immigrant Boris Haase opened the store in 1921 on Prytania Street, then later moved it to a spot across from its present Oak Street location. After that, he bought a camelback double where the store is now located, raised the double and put the store underneath. He and his family lived above the store. In ’31 his wife, Della, opened Young Folk’s Shop.
Both Haase’s and Young Folk’s were passed down through family members. After Boris Sr.’s death in 1956, their son Boris Jr. managed Haase’s until his death in ’68, at which time daughter, Vera May Haase Caliva, took it over. (Della Haase had ceased running Young Folk’s in ’60, when she handed down the reins to Vera May. Della Haase died in ’70.)
Vera May Haase Caliva kept her hand at the tiller of both enterprises, with help from her sons Kevin and Bruce, until she retired a year ago at age 95.
“Vera May was truly a genius merchant,” says her daughter-in-law, Judy, who says her mother-in-law is still engaged and lively. Judy married Kevin Caliva in 1981; they bought the store in 2010. One of their sons, Patrick, worked at the store for a while but is now in New York. Their younger son, Jack, goes to Jesuit High School and helps out when he can. Judy Caliva believes that it can be good for people to work outside of a family business to gain experience; she was a teacher before she came to Haase’s.
It isn’t always smooth sailing in any family business, and not every family member is cut out for it. But the Haases and Calivas always worked things out, Judy Caliva says. She says she was taken aback by the size of the endeavor when she first began working there, but now she’s comfortable. Having a stable staff helps.
Another reason Haase’s endures, Judy Caliva says, is that it offers service in an era of self-service. They have shoes for youngsters with clubfeet, or who wear leg braces or have other special needs.
“Their parents are so desperate,” she says. “It’s very rewarding.”
The store also carries lots of wide, extra wide and extra-extra wide shoes. There is no guessing at the correct size at Haase’s. “You have to measure,” Caliva says. But technology does play a role, she explains: grandparents who bring in their grandchildren send cell phone pictures of the shoes they want to buy so parents can still have a vote.
Grandparents like the “heirloom look” they find at Haase’s and Young Folk’s, Caliva says. The inventory includes beautiful smocked outfits that often become hand-me-downs. The store tries to source its wares from suppliers in the United States. Many suppliers are in New York, California and Florida, but they do carry a Louisiana line, Remember Nguyen, based in Bogalusa.
Haase’s likes to carry hard-soled shoes that have staying power, believing that people are willing to pay for good quality items that don’t need to be constantly replaced. A big chunk of their business is school uniform shoes. They also sell tennis shoes for everybody in the family, as well as adult men’s shoes.
Retailing is a fast-paced livelihood, but Judy Caliva says she’s certain about several things. At 58, she isn’t contemplating retirement any time soon, and Haase’s won’t be opening other locations. When the store first opened, Oak Street was a suburb of New Orleans. Now, Haase’s draws people from all over Louisiana and other states. Its present location is a good fit with its mission, she says, and she doesn’t anticipate branches in any malls. She does think Internet sales will grow. “You cannot ignore it,” she says. “It will play more and more of a role in business.”
Martin Wine Cellar
In 1946, David Martin was looking for a way to make a little money after finishing his service in World War II. He had an uncle in the bulk wine business, so he rented half of a double on Baronne Street and began a career selling wines.
Today, that seed of a business has grown into a food and spirits landmark in the New Orleans area. Locals and tourists head to Martin Wine Cellar for lunch or dinner, gift baskets for friends and clients, or just a nice white or red to liven up a dinner party.
Carrying on – and expanding – David Martin’s legacy are his son, Cedric, and Cedric’s daughter, Hope. Each has a special strength; Cedric has an extensive wine and food background, while Hope has ramped up the company’s marketing efforts. They say they have successfully navigated the pitfalls common to family businesses and look forward to even more growth when the Uptown store opens in 2015.
Cedric Martin began helping out in his father’s store when he was about 12, spending school vacations stocking shelves, labeling products and learning about the business by watching his dad.
“He was a legend,” he says about his father, who died in 2002. “He never missed a day of work.”
In the 1940s and ’50s, New Orleanians drank mostly spirits, so Martin sought to educate his customers about the pleasures of drinking fine wines. Along the way, he enlarged the Baronne Street store. In 1977, he added a deli and a counter with 16 stools to serve lunch. By the late ’80s, the spot had grown into a popular meeting place. The Baronne Street operation was lost to Hurricane Katrina; a small shop on Magazine Street fills in until the new Uptown store opens.
The Metairie store opened in 1988 and was successful right off the bat, Cedric says, crediting “the food, the wines, the ambience, the service.” Today that location serves lunch and dinner and carries a wide variety of specialty foods. Martin’s opened locations in Mandeville and Baton Rouge after the hurricane, and also has an expansive catering business.
Cedric Martin learned about wines by traveling, visiting the vineyards of Burgundy, France and Fresno, Calif., and immersing himself in the food end of the business, too. Most wine shops sold little more than cheeses, he says; Cedric envisioned Martin Wine Cellar as a place where customers could find unique food items to serve at parties and holiday gatherings. The company’s three chefs brainstorm to come up with lunch and dinner specials, combining local favorites with more unusual offerings. Mondays will always include red beans and rice, Hope says, while gumbo will always star on Fridays. But customers can expect some unique specials. Dinner specials change every two weeks, while lunch specials change every day.
Martin is also growing its prepackaged gifts selection. “The quality of wine in the baskets has never been better,” Hope Martin says. To hit a variety of price points, gift baskets run from $20 to $400.
Hope Martin remembers visiting Martin’s every Saturday at lunchtime with her sister and brother. The three children had lunch with their grandfather; she and her brother always had chicken salad, while her sister had grilled cheese.
“We knew everybody,” she says. “We saw how things run.”
After she graduated from Vanderbilt University, Hope returned to New Orleans and began assisting her father with managing the rebuilding of the Uptown store. Cedric Martin says he was so impressed with her attention to details that he hired her to take on other responsibilities.
“Marketing is my baby,” Hope says. Marketing once consisted of running a few newspaper ads; today, she oversees a website; social networking; wine tastings; spirits events; beer dinners; and the selection of showcase collections that combine reds and whites from the store’s extensive wine holdings. Marketing touches every department, so Hope says she’s learned the nuts and bolts of all facets of the business. She draws on her staff for advice; some employees have been there 20 or 30 years.
Because employees tend to work for the company for years, Hope knows that some of the staff remember her as an 8-year-old dressed in a ballerina’s tutu, waiting for her dance lessons. She says she has worked to gain their respect, and she learned to listen to workers before she made any big changes.
She also tries to make sure she keeps the line between work and family clear. If work spills into family, it can spoil the special relationship you have with your nearest and dearest, she says.
Another hazard common to parent/child work situations is the tendency for moms and dads to micromanage their offspring. “Cedric also gives me opportunities to grow,” Hope says. “He trusts me.”
M.S. Rau Antiques
Bill Rau, president of M.S. Rau Antiques, spends his days surrounded by beautiful objects, each with a unique history. He began working in the business at 14, spreading open newspapers to use for packing material. He says it’s always been a labor of love.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked,” he says, explaining that it’s a pleasure to earn a living doing something he enjoys. He and the other members of his family have spent many hours turning what began as a small antiques shop in 1912 to a store that’s the largest art and antiques gallery in sales in North America.
The saga began when Bill Rau’s grandfather, Max Rau, opened a business in the 700 block of Royal Street. Although he didn’t have an education in buying and selling antique furniture, he had something more valuable, Bill Rau says: a natural eye. The shop prospered, and in 1931, Max moved to the store’s present location at 630 Royal St.
Max Rau was helped by two other fortunate decisions. First, he picked Royal Street, rather than Dryades or Rampart streets, which were also thriving commercial spots at the time. As other areas fell out of favor, the French Quarter continued to be a mecca for shoppers. More importantly, he married Fanny. Bill Rau remembers his grandmother very well; she died just a few days short of her 100th birthday. She was a powerhouse, he says, remaining an active member of the team almost all of her life.
Fanny and Max Rau had two sons, Joe and Elias, who both joined the family business. Elias, who was a whiz with figures and furniture repair, and Joe, who was a natural in sales and buying, learned by working side-by-side with their father. Then, in turn, they passed their knowledge down to their own sons.
“You grow in the business by doing,” Bill Rau says. “Hands-on experience is always better.”
Elias Rau retired in 1995 after 60 years in the business. Joe Rau continued working until after Hurricane Katrina.
A third generation, Elias’s son, Jack, and Joe’s son, Bill, both went into the business. Jack Rau retired after Katrina. Bill Rau, who became a full time employee after graduating from college in 1982, is now president and chief executive officer.
M.S. Rau Antiques has changed tremendously since Max Rau opened his doors. The store now has a 30,000-square-foot showroom filled with magnificent jewelry, furniture, fine art and collectibles of every description. Beautifully illustrated catalogues were a big help in growing the business. Today, customers also turn to the store’s website as well as print advertisements in major newspapers. In addition, Bill Rau attends antiques shows up to eight times a year and sends unique emails to clients.
“We touch our customers in different ways,” he says.
When it comes to finding inventory, Bill Rau says the company is aggressive, seeking out unique items at the best prices. “We’ve always had things a little bit different,” he says. Antiques, like everything else, go in and out of style, so its important to keep searching for people who have collections they might decide to liquidate.
M.S. Rau Antiques isn’t the place to go for an inexpensive gift, but there are objects under $1,000 and hundreds of items under $5,000. Of course, if you’re feeling flush, you might pick up a 12.27 carat pink diamond ring. Bill Rau and his staff help educate shoppers on the value of buying authentic collectibles, which will increase in value, rather than cheap reproductions, which will depreciate.
“We want them to know why [a purchase] is valuable,” Bill Rau says. Having employees who stay for years is a big boost, he adds. “Our cumulative brain trust is amazing.”
In its Rau for Art fund, the company gives grants to high school art educators in the New Orleans area. Teachers can use the grant money for supplies, field trips and other expenses so they can better help students develop their creative abilities. The fund was created in 2012 as part of the company’s centennial celebrations.
Bill Rau believes the family saga that is M.S. Rau Antiques has a new chapter waiting to begin. He and his wife have two daughters, Rebecca, who is pursuing a fellowship in art, and Hannah, who is a junior in college. His hope is that they, too, will join the other family members who have kept the company a New Orleans institution.