“Treat every customer – and everything you do – as if you are doing it for the person you love most in the world”. That is what Joanne Domilise tells the employees of Domilise’s Po-Boys and Bar day in and day out. Customer service is of the utmost importance to Joanne, her husband Ken, and everyone who has worked at Domilise’s in the hundred plus years they have been open. Joanne and her husband Ken credit their long lasting success to treating customers like family and a staunch commitment to tradition and quality. Today, Domilise’s is a New Orleans establishment. In order to understand why, we have to take a look at the past.
In 1918, Ken’s grandfather Peter Domilise opened a bar in the location where Domilise’s still stands today. At the time, Domilise’s was a full bar with “all kinds of alcohol” and no food. Peter was a cook in the navy and he eventually began to prepare lunches for workers on the river. These lunches went over so well with the workers that Peter eventually started selling sandwiches at his bar. Years later, his son, Sam, took over and moved into the conjoining house with his wife, Dot. Dot had a huge hand in making Domilise’s what it is today, forming special connections with customers for the many years she ran Domilise’s until passing away in 2014. It was time for Joanne and Ken to take charge of Domilise’s Po-Boys and Bar. Joanne knew she had big shoes to fill. Dot had always loved the customers and was deeply loved by them in return. Joanne was more than ready for the challenge.
“My mother-in-law loved the customers. I never understood why, but when I took over, it did not take long to understand.” Joanne is incredibly grateful for Domilise’s loyal customers. She says the patrons are different and more appreciative than those of any other establishment. The customers are Joanne’s “fuel” – she says they “motivate you to do the best you can do.” Domilise’s love for their customers (along with the quality of their product) is what gives them an edge over the competition – and the competition is fierce. With po-boy shops on every corner, Joanne says “when someone walks in our door, we are blessed to have them”.
The po-boy is a staple of New Orleans’ renowned cuisine, “like New York pizza to New York”, and no one does it better than Domilise’s. Joanne says their po-boys are “representative of our city and the food of our city.” Representing New Orleans is a daunting task and not one that Joanne takes lightly. “I never stop” she tells me, “I know exactly what I want and I won’t stop until I have it. It has got to be the right way – all the time – or it is not being sold to the customers.” The seafood used by Domilise’s is always fresh and local and never frozen. Even when it may be easier to import products from out of state, Joanne refuses to compromise freshness for affordability. “Everything is Louisiana; that is very important to us.” Fresh oysters, fresh shrimp, fresh catfish, roast beef, ham and cheese, sausage. The menu is as consistent as it is fresh. The menu board has been untouched (small adjustments aside) since 1974 when it was written up by the sisters of Notre Dame.
Covid-19, which affected small businesses all across the country and world, took its toll on Domilise’s as well. For exactly one year, they sold po-boys from their front door. It killed Joanne. She said she would yell, “They are as fresh as can be! If you have ten minutes, sit down and eat them right away. Don’t take them to go if you can help it.” However, the pandemic provided Joanne with an adorable silver lining: the opportunity to work with her grandchildren. Her seven year old granddaughter would take orders at the door and run credit cards. People would (and still do) come to Domilise’s asking for her. Joanne says she could not have kept the shop open without the help of her grandchildren, who are fifth generation in the Domilise’s Po-Boys and Bar family line. She calls her granddaughter a “future executive” and says she still comes in from time to time to take orders and ring people up at the counter.
The traditional family restaurant is going by the wayside. Small businesses like Domilise’s face constant adversity, whether it comes from the economy or a global pandemic.The world is changing at a breakneck pace and while progress can often be a good thing, there is also something to be said for tradition and lasting quality, especially when it comes to food. If you were to walk into Domilise’s today, the experience would be virtually the same as walking in twenty, forty, or eighty years ago. With Joanne manning the helm, this consistency will continue far into the future.