NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - JoAnn Clevenger is a true jewel of the New Orleans restaurant industry and her recent nomination as a James Beard finalist marks her dedication to her work.
Through her love of fine art and wealth of stories about the city’s history, she presents a style and attention to every guest at her restaurant Upperline that she hopes leaves them feeling brand new.
“The original meaning of the word restaurant was restorative. It could be a hot dog stand, or a diner, or a little pizza place. And if you can restore your guests after the hassles of the day, then you have made their lives a little better and they go back into the world stronger and braver,” Clevenger said.
Clevenger is deeply devoted to her guests, a commitment to her craft that’s created a global hunger for a seat at her beloved restaurant.
“People don’t make a reservation two weeks ahead of time because they’re hungry for physical nourishment. I feel very strongly they are yearning for an experience that can give them the opportunity to be nurturing to themselves,” Clevenger said.
And she’s given that opportunity to guests for 36 years, turning a bankrupt BBQ joint into an acclaimed restaurant with only a pocket full of dreams.
“No money for the first week’s payroll, but you get a little honeymoon in the beginning because everyone comes to see who’s new,” Clevenger said about Upperline’s opening week in 1983. “My son was in the kitchen and I was running the dining room, so there weren’t a lot of salaries. Most of the wait staff, their money was on tips, so it was very, very exciting.”
More than three decades later, Clevenger will tell you the reason she’s recognized as a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Restaurateur Award is because she sweats the small stuff.
“The lights aren’t too bright, the music is not too loud, the waiter is personable, but not intrusive, there are so many little things. I can't win at the big things, I can only win on the little things, that we make people feel good about themselves,” Clevenger said.
It’s her focus on the guest that has driven her to perfect Upperline.
“I mean, I can make a lot more money if I just sold this property, because the property now is worth more than I make. But that feeling of -- I call it 'the benevolent circle.’ We make the guests happy, and they give us lots of praise, and we want to come back the next day and do it again,” Clevenger said.
Her unbridled desire to please every guest fuels her focus on the iconic Uptown restaurant, a spot that’s secured its own corner in New Orleans lore.
“If someone had told me, ‘You know JoAnn, if you do this it’s gonna take most of your adult life,’ because I was 42 when I started, I might have said, ‘Hmmm,’ but once you get in it, it carries you -- the people who work here, the people who come here,” Clevenger said.
Clevenger will celebrate her 80th birthday during the award ceremony Monday (May 6), and hopes to bring home a birthday gift in the form of a James Beard Award.