The start of Carnival season this week means people will be on the hunt for king cakes, and many new faces will likely find their way to Henry's, a tough-looking place in Faubourg St. Roch that makes up for its hardscrabble appearance with plenty of heart. To understand why Henry's king cakes are so good, and why we might see a whole lot more of them in the years to come, it helps to know where they come from.
Owner Dwight Henry, 44, says he got an early start in baking simply because the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood where he grew up was dominated by the nearby Risings Baking Co. Just about everyone he knew worked there or had family working there, so it was practically a given he would, too. Over the years that followed, Henry worked at a veritable roll call of local bakeries including McKenzie's, Tastee Donuts, Dorignac's Food Center, Alois J. Binder and, later, Whole Foods Market.
'It was a journeyman thing, I learned the hard way." he says. 'But everywhere I went, I picked up something different."
Around 2000, Henry decided to open his own bakery, but he ended up having do it the hard way. He was turned down for bank loans and Small Business Administration assistance, so he worked two jobs to build his own capital. He found used restaurant equipment in local classified ads and bought one piece at a time, stashing them in his grandmother's garage. After two years of saving and foraging, he was ready to open his first business in a St. Claude Avenue storefront.
'Making this place work was like a campaign to me, so I went door to door telling people about my place, marching up and down all these streets," Henry says.
The shop quickly became profitable and Henry was preparing to open a second location in New Orleans East just before Hurricane Katrina hit. Floodwaters wiped out the planned expansion site, but Henry was determined to reopen his damaged original shop as soon as possible. In the months after the flood, he took a day job on a construction crew while at night he gutted his shop, working solo under the grind of a generator and the glare of portable lights.
Henry reopened the shop in 2006 with another complement of second-hand baking equipment. Even with the city's population severely reduced, he found that the closure of other local bakeries brought waves of new customers to his door. Today many of them remain devoted regulars. Henry's gets lively soon after opening at 6 a.m. each morning, drawing everyone from commuters headed downtown to bartenders just getting off late-night shifts to military police taking a break from neighborhood patrols.
By noon, much of the morning's donut stock is sold out and demand shifts to plate lunches. Since Katrina, Henry has seriously boosted the quality of his lunch offerings with a menu that changes daily but might include smothered pork chops in onion gravy, bell peppers overstuffed with beef and chopped shrimp, au gratin potatoes with chunks of hot sausage, liver with grits and candied yams that are practically as sweet as the donuts.
King cake season or not, Henry's is a busy place. Henry operates a sno-ball stand at the front of his shop in the summer, and his apron-clad bicycle delivery men can be seen bringing lunch cartons to local households. The shop caters private parties and now it also supplies donuts to local corner stores.
'I believe in maximizing what you've got," Henry says.
That's the same motivation behind a recent addition to the bakeshop's schedule called 'midnight breakfast." From Thursday to Sunday, Henry's opens its doors at midnight to serve hot donuts and a steam table line of breakfast items. Hungry people turn out in droves.
The setbacks from the levee failures did nothing to discourage Henry's ambition to expand. Early in 2007 he opened a second store Uptown and hopes to open another somewhere on the West Bank. He dreams of opening more shops across the city. Interested investors are now abundant, Henry says, though he prefers to take on partners who might not have a cent but are willing to put their heart into the business and devote all their time to making it grow.
'With the right team, we can open 10 stores and all of us can be successful and make it," says Henry. 'I'm turning my micro business into a mainstream business. That's not a goal of mine. That's a promise."