That talent often runs in families is no secret. In entertainment, names like Coppola and Fonda come to mind. The same can be said of the hospitality business, and New Orleans is home to one of the industry’s most celebrated dynasties: The Brennans. This year, the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience is proud to bestow the Ella Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award to Ralph Brennan, a nephew of the award’s namesake and a leading figure in hospitality both locally and nationwide.
Ralph Brennan’s accolades are many. He is the past president of the National Restaurant Association and the Louisiana Restaurant Association. He testified before Congress regarding the BP oil spill that threatened the Gulf seafood industry. He is an active presence on numerous boards and author of a regionally definitive seafood cookbook. Then there’s the small matter of his restaurant group, which employs almost 800 people across multiple states. His long history of advocacy, mentorship and philanthropic efforts make this decision an easy one. “If you look at the criteria for this award, there’s nobody more perfect to receive it than Ralph,” says NOWFE Board Member and Event Chair Cameron Perry.
Ralph Brennan is reserved, with a quiet demeanor. He is admittedly shy, but possesses a personable warmth that draws in people. He is an introvert in an industry of extroverts, and his achievements in a landscape of bombastic, outsized personalities have a lot to do with his Aunt Ella. One incident in particular stands out.
In 1968, when he was still in his teens, Ella dispatched Ralph to help open an expansion Brennan’s in Houston. “It was a disaster,” Ralph recalls. “We didn’t anticipate the different dining patterns – guests stayed at the table longer and it totally messed up the reservation book. Ella had put me on the front door. Everything ran late and people were mad.” Ralph told his aunt afterwards that he’d never work the door again. But when he asked for a job the next summer, Ella remembered what he’d said and plunked him down on the front door at Brennan’s in New Orleans. “Typical Ella,” Ralph says smiling. “She sensed a weakness and forced me to overcome it. I was a shy kid, and both Ella and Adelaide always tried to push me out of my comfort zone.”
Ralph was attending Tulane University when the family famously split in the early 1970s. It was an uncertain time and there was no opportunity for him in the immediate aftermath of the schism. Commander’s Palace wasn’t the juggernaut it is today. “Ella and I struck a deal,” Ralph says. “If she saw an opportunity she would call me.” Ralph went on to earn his MBA and got a job as a CPA with Price Waterhouse for several years, an experience which paid unexpected dividends down the line. The New Orleans office was small, and it put Ralph in a position to learn a lot more, a lot faster than he would have in a larger office elsewhere. He worked with a wide range of clients and learned the particulars of management. But underlying it all was the understanding he had with Ella.
The call came in the early 1980s. By then his side of the family’s restaurant group had found its legs, and Ella summoned him back into the fold. It was off to New York and France for an immersion in hospitality and fine dining, and upon his return he was dispatched to a struggling Mr. B’s. Ella told him to “straighten it out.” It was there that the pieces came together.
Outside of his comfort zone but with his professional background and newfound management skills to lean on, he got Mr. B’s back on track. He went on to become General Manager, and the rest is history that’s still being made today.
As Ralph’s accomplishments grew, he became deeply involved in advocacy. Ralph became a voice, not just for Louisiana but for hospitality nationwide. He is the only Louisiana resident to have served as president of the National Restaurant Association and as chairman of its educational foundation, a component in which Ralph takes particular pride. He helped to initiate a program called ProStart, which gives high schoolers an opportunity to include restaurant and food service management courses in their curriculum. “When they graduate there are scholarships available if they want to continue,” Ralph says. “I want career paths for restaurant employees – both in the kitchen and in the front of house.” To this day, the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group makes a point of celebrating tenure – a notable achievement in an industry marked by high rates of turnover. All these priorities fit the profile of a man who puts people first. “In this business you work through your staff,” he says. “Success is all about your people.”
Cameron Perry couldn’t agree more. “Hospitality casts a wide net,” she says. “Ralph Brennan doesn’t want to just run his restaurants; he wants the community that his restaurants are in to thrive. Ralph’s true passion is the city of New Orleans.”