Posing for this magazine’s photographer as though he would rather be doing something else is one of Ste. Marie’s co-owners, Robert LeBlanc. Despite the business he’s in – restaurants, nightclubs and bar/lounges – LeBlanc doesn’t seem to like being the center of attention. He would rather be the instigator, interviewing the interviewer.
Which makes it hard to interview him. He gets me a drink, asks me about what my plans are later that night and then tells me that I could do better than the last man I dated. I try squeezing in questions, but am often queried by him or am met with “Oh no, that answer is boring. I’m boring.” I say, “No you’re not – or else I wouldn’t be interviewing you.”
I know what he’s doing: trying to deflect attention away from himself. It is backfiring magnificently. No, Robert (“Ro” to his friends), gaze at me earnestly with your brown eyes shaded by bangs, you’re not going to thwart me.
It is this charm – self-deprecating, yet sincere – as well as hard work and smart business acumen that has made pretty much anything LeBlanc has opened or managed in New Orleans a success: Republic (a nightclub) was his first project, then LePhare and loa (two bars/lounges in partnership with Sean Cummings of International House Hotels), Capdeville (a British-style “gastropub” with James Eustis), Sylvain (a brasserie with Sean McCusker) and Ste. Marie (a French restaurant with a modern twist with Pierre and Leon Touzet of Patois). With the exception of Republic, they’re all part of the Lifestyle Revolution Group.
So how does a nice boy from Houma become the restaurant and nightlife impresario of New Orleans? After a brief stint in finance in New York City, LeBlanc founded a record label with a friend, Renaissance Records, for which he produced hip-hop and indie albums. Not finding the record business fulfilling (“I think we sold 18 copies”), he went looking for another outlet.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and the opportunity arose to do something positive, something that his family has been a part of almost since the city was founded. His father’s side of the family has been in New Orleans for more than 250 years, with one ancestor who supposedly came over with Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville (according to LeBlanc, that hasn’t been substantiated). Another of his ancestors was the first Royal Architect of New Orleans. His mother’s family has been in New Orleans since the mid-19th century.
As the city started to rebuild, LeBlanc and his partners founded Republic, a nightclub that featured up-and-coming and established musicians and DJs. It also presented special events, such as fashion shows. It became the center of nightlife in the city – if you’re a celebrity in town, a stop at Republic is generally a given.
Ever restless, this self-proclaimed “geek” eventually turned his eye to restaurants. These days you can probably see him at his latest creation, Ste. Marie, popping his head in the kitchen, and commiserating with customers – one of whom, when I was there, was Mardi Gras World’s Barry Kern; LeBlanc and Kern are co-chairs with the Hospitality and Entertainment Committee as sitting members for the Host Committee for Super Bowl 2013.
As I leave Ste. Marie, I turn around and see that LeBlanc is already working the room again.
Why Republic in New Orleans? It was the only way I could figure out how to get back here to New Orleans, as opposed to staying in New York City after our marketing firm was sidelined by Katrina.
I never thought it would work out as well as it did, but was sure that Republic was what New Orleans needed. And I needed a job.
You sold your interest in Republic to your COO. I sold it to Matt Alleman. He’s been with me since we started Republic and he’s got the vision and leadership to see it through its maturation stage. It is just a completely different operational setup than the restaurants and even LePhare. As such, I felt it would be best to sell it.
What prompted you to expand to restaurants? Just a natural evolution. It is more sophisticated and less static a product offering in terms of different menu items, wine list and level of interaction with guests. Also, restaurants are the primary choice of our friends and colleagues in terms of where to hang out these days.
I can’t stay awake past 11:30 p.m. anymore and started listening only to rock and classical music. Two death knells to any bar owner.
Do you think New Orleans is a town for entrepreneurs? Yes. It is, maybe with the exception of Paris, Rome and a few others, one of the most universally beloved cities in the world. So everyone is cheering for us and watching us.
As such, if you can make something happen in New Orleans, people in the rest of the country and world will notice it. You can garner an international audience by being based in New Orleans in a very affordable, nurturing community. It’s the only place to be.
Why do you think you succeeded? Complicated answer, but it starts with the values that your parents, family and friends instill through everyday life experiences as you go through the early part of life. Things like work ethic – ethics in general – loyalty, honesty, humility and being courageous enough to take chances, or even fail and then try again.
I think, as we all were by choosing to return to New Orleans despite having options elsewhere, the next step was just the courage to make some really bold choices in terms of projects to which we’ve committed. And ultimately it comes down to the combination of two things. The first is being fortunate enough to work with really committed, talented people in the form of partners, administrators, staff, and suppliers/vendors who are responsible for helping to execute our vision. The second is an extremely dedicated, supportive and passionate group of guests who support us time and time again, even when we slightly miss the mark.
What businessmen have inspired you? Sean MacPherson, Ralph Lauren, Steve Wynn. And my grandfather.
What’s next for you? To figure out the best way to bring that which makes New Orleans magical in terms of entertaining people in restaurants and maybe even hotels (If I can convince Sean Cummings!) to other cities throughout the Southeast that would appreciate the character, hospitality, wit and charm that is the city of New Orleans.
In your job, what celebrity has left you speechless? This never happens. (But the exceptions are Malcolm Gladwell and Magic Johnson.)
True Confession: I can only cook grilled cheese and pop-tarts.
At a Glance
Profession: Partner in LePhare, Capdeville, Ste. Marie and Sylvain Age: 33 Born/Grew up: Houma, La. One of three children: he has a sister in Montreal and a brother in New York City. Family: Wife, Danielle; son, Bear, 7 months; Argentinean mastiff, Jackson Education: Graduated from Vandebilt Catholic High School in Houma; a bachelor of science in economics and finance from Loyola University New Orleans. Favorite book: The Count of Monte Cristo Favorite movie: The Shawshank Redemption Favorite TV show: “Criminal Minds” and “CSI: New York” Favorite food: Steak with béarnaise sauce Favorite restaurant (that isn’t one of yours): Patois Favorite music/musicians: Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, Dave Grohl, The Strokes Hobby: Wakeboarding, boxing Favorite vacation spot: Southampton, N.Y.