In one Mid-City household I know, McHardy's chicken is the unlikely carrot wielded by a wife to motivate her husband toward greater physical fitness. If he rides his bicycle to work, logs an extra mile on his jog along Bayou St. John or does some other health-redeeming feat, he earns an indulgence of McHardy's fried chicken. Under another roof not far away, the husband uses an offering of McHardy's chicken as an olive branch to his wife to smooth over any tiff they might go through.
It's fortunate for them that McHardy's has proven so resilient. The Seventh Ward restaurant was looted before it was flooded by about 3 feet of water following Hurricane Katrina. Owner Kermit Mogilles also lost his Gentilly home to the flood. But he and his wife, Albi, repaired the restaurant and with the help of family members reopened in January, dishing out chicken to returned residents and construction workers in the area as fast as they could fry each batch.
Five months later, in June, a fire that Mogilles blames on an electrical power surge devastated the restaurant once again. It was the eighth major blaze reported in the city in a two-day span as structures caught fire with alarming frequency around town, and at first it appeared to be the last straw for Mogilles. As the ruins of his store smoldered, he told people that perhaps this was the end for McHardy's in New Orleans, that he would rather rebuild in a more stable environment.
Mogilles says that his frustration with the city's pace of recovery and response from government leaders has only deepened since then. But he has also been inspired by the progress individuals are making on their own and he was moved by the support he got from neighbors and strangers alike after the fire. So he decided to give it another go. McHardy's reopened -- again -- on Oct. 10 and seems to have picked up right where it left off four months ago.
"What I hope people see from this is that if I can do it twice, you can do it once," he says.
While McHardy's has received a surfeit of misfortune, its most recent recovery has also been helped along by an outpouring of goodwill. A good bit of it turned up on McHardy's battered doorstep courtesy of Melvin Jones, a friend who runs a local ministry for people overcoming addictions. A lot of these people happened to have professional building skills and Jones put them to work helping rebuild McHardy's.
"It was amazing, because as people cycled through the ministry they seemed to be the guys with the skills we needed as the repairs went along. We needed carpenters up front and there were carpenters. When we needed to install the tile floor, guys who could do that turned up," Mogilles says.
Starting over seems to be a recurring theme at McHardy's, even from its origins five years ago. A native of New Orleans, Mogilles had a long career as a commercial banker, and part of his job was helping other people get businesses off the ground. He wanted to make the entrepreneurial plunge himself and -- despite having no restaurant experience -- decided to join the hotly competitive chicken business in 2001.
He worked on family recipes, playing with as many as 40 different combinations of seasonings until he struck on one that seemed perfect. The first day the restaurant opened, he dished out free chicken to passersby as a test run.
"I was outside sweeping when I saw a guy take a bite of chicken and throw the rest of the piece on the ground," Mogilles recalls. "I knew that wasn't a good sign, so I went back inside and we worked out a new tweak to the recipe to use the next day."
As always, the restaurant serves just five items: chicken, pickled jalapeno peppers, rolls, French fries and fountain drinks. The fries and the drinks come in one size only. The different sizes of chicken orders are listed in the fashion of a multiplication table: five pieces is $3.14, multiply by 20 to reach the $62.80 price for a suitcase-sized 100-piece order. The restaurant is take-out only and creature comforts are nil, besides a few benches and some murals of New Orleans street scenes painted by a street artist Mogilles hired for the job.
When the place is busy, which is most of the time, the small room can sound like an auction in progress, with women at the counter calling out order numbers with the rapidity of fast-rising bids.
Simplicity behind the counter also keeps the place focused, which helps explain why the chicken is so good. In a large, rear prep room, McHardy's employees inspect each delivery of chicken, trimming fat as they go and seasoning it before it's battered and sent to the fryers up front. The result is chicken that is highly seasoned without being spicy, always fresh and surprisingly lean.
With the restaurant back open again, Mogilles is also putting the wheels in motion for a local expansion. He plans to open his second McHardy's in the spring at the site of a now-closed KFC restaurant on Lapalco Boulevard in Marrero and wants to build a third one from the ground up on a site he's eyeing in Algiers. From there, he says, he could open the business up to franchise expansion.