Gia DiLeo is a study in contrasts, in a way that resonates in New Orleans; here, complexities tend to churn beneath the surface in most of us.
She’s a California girl, spent a decade as a Chicago lawyer, fell in love with a Southern boy, and moved to New Orleans when the city was at its lowest. Once here, she turned her love of fresh cuisine into a cottage business that she envisioned running from the back of a bicycle. Now Green to Go has morphed into two busy restaurants, a meal delivery service and a catering outlet.
“Katrina really brought us here,” says Gia, a fearless entrepreneur and mother of two who burns energy at a rate that arugula and artisan veggies would hardly seem able to fuel.
At the time of the storm, she and her husband, physician Noah Emerson, were living and working in Chicago.
“My husband’s family lost their home in Pass Christian, and every night he’d come home and pull up satellite photos and look at where his family house used to be,” Gia recalls. The pull south grew too strong to ignore on a flight back to Chicago after a New Orleans visit. “We looked at each other and said, this is where we need to be.”
After a few years in town and the births of her sons, now 7 and 4, Gia was ready to get back to work. But not as a lawyer.
“I knew that I wanted to start a business, but I had no idea what that would be,” she says. Ideas kept coming up, and somehow they all seemed to be food related.
“I had two little kids and I thought, there’s nowhere to go for good salad. But I don’t have time to sit down and eat anyway. I picked up the phone and called my sister in California, who’s always a good sounding board. I asked her, ‘What do you think of a salad business?’ And she said, ‘I’m in.’ She’s a surgeon and mother of two boys herself, so that was my marker that this was going to work.”
But, after scouting locations for a kitchen/restaurant and having a potential site on Freret Street fall through, Gia began modifying her concept.
“I saw so many innovative companies using bikes. So I started making salads out of a guest kitchen at home, put the baby in a Bjorn and began pedaling around delivering them.”
Green to Go launched in January 2012. Salads were delivered weekly on a pre-ordained Uptown route, mostly to friends and friends of friends.
“I started a Facebook page, and in a heartbeat I had 180 followers. Then 200, then 500. People were desperate for this. Each week I’d post four salads and the route. I’d be sold out within an hour – and I’ve had people chase me down the street.”
A favored pick-up location was the Uptown Jewish Community Center, and soon the institution asked Gia to take over its member café. Three years later she opened a restaurant in the CBD, at 400 Poydras St.
The menu has grown beyond those original four salads, although everything is still made daily from scratch, and nearby deliveries still done on the back of one of a pair of Worksman industrial tricycles. “The bikes are kind of like a cross between pizza delivery and a food truck. We try to stock extra items on them.”
Green to Go also sells a line of homemade salad dressings, at the Uptown and CBD locations as well as Well in Metairie. Brother-in-law Conrad Emerson, a former sous-chef at Bayonna, joined the family business as executive chef.
“We work with local growers, with an eye toward people in New Orleans having a healthy alternative to fast food. And we’re also price-conscious. I hate to think that organic food would be available only to wealthy people.”
Growers text Gia on weekends to let her know what they will be harvesting, and she plans her menus accordingly: luscious fresh figs paired with prosciutto at the height of summer, satsumas and pumpkin seeds over arugula in the fall. The salad line has been augmented with hot dishes, like grilled salmon with broccoli and onions or sake-glazed shrimp over black rice. Her hands-down best seller is the chicken Caesar salad, which Gia attributes to the in-house vegan Caesar vinaigrette.
The Poydras Street Green to Go also offers an oatmeal bar, fresh fruit, eggs and muffins for breakfast. The restaurant is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays, catering mostly to the busy downtown crowd. “No one in New Orleans wants to eat healthy on the weekend,” Gia says with a laugh.
Customers tend to be regulars – 75 percent of her clientele are return diners. She employs about 25 people; “being an employer is terrifying,” she says, “but the people part of the business is what I love most.”
Gia also plans to partner with other organizations, such as fitness outlets. “Why can’t someone go to an exercise class at lunch and then have a pre-ordered lunch waiting when they’re done?”
She’s looking at more locations, and will continue the green concept not only behind the counter, but out front as well. “I think bike delivery is the way of the future, and this is an entirely bikeable city.”
Never, she says, did she envision her initial concept turning into the sprawling business it has become.
“I thought it would be this sleepy little thing I’d do while my kids were in nursery school,” Gia says with a laugh. “I’d be riding around on my bike dinging the bell.”
But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you’re important to me, I cook for you,” she says. “This is my love letter to New Orleans.”