Café du Monde’s world famous beignets and coffee. Photo by Sarah Mulligan
Author: Elyse Loeb
Editor’s Note: The following series “Transplant in New Orleans” is a week-long series curated by Piper Stevens as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Institute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.
New Orleans is a city overflowing with vibrancy and culture, and it defines a piece of each of its inhabitants. ”Transplant in New Orleans” takes a tour of some of my favorite spots in New Orleans and shares some history and insight into what makes these places, and the city as a whole, feel like home to someone who has only lived here for a few years. In a time when everything feels a little quieter and more distant, I hope these articles remind us of all there is to love about living in the city that care forgot.
Eating beignets and sipping coffee during odd hours of the night at Cafe Du Monde is a practically inescapable experience for any New Orleans resident. The cafe closed briefly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, however it’s doors are open again. Enjoy this look into the history of Cafe Du Monde and take a minute to appreciate that, at least most of the time, delicious fried dough is at your fingertips with a quick trip to the French Quarter. This article was originally published on April 27, 2012.
Café du Monde stands as one of the oldest landmarks in New Orleans, celebrating its 150th anniversary next spring. The original coffee shop was founded in 1862 on Decatur Street, across from Jackson Square. Café du Monde is open 24 hours a day, every day with the exception of Christmas Day and when the city is threatened by particularly severe hurricanes. The Café is famous for its Café au lait and delicious beignets.
Café du Monde was founded by Fred Koeniger in 1862. Hubert Fernandez purchased the coffee stand in May of 1942 and the business has remained in his family since. At the time of purchase, Fernandez also owned the Fernandez Wine Cellar directly across the street, in the Pontalba Apartment Building. In 1972, the family closed the cellar in order to focus all their time and attention on the coffee stand (“Fernandez Family History.” Cafe du Monde. (2011): n. page. Web. 31 Oct. 2011. http://cafedumonde.com/fernandez.html). Café du Monde has been a family-run business since the change of ownership in 1942. After the passing of Hubert Fernandez, his widow, June Fernandez, along with his sister Leonors Schwarz, and two daughters, Slvia Maher and Cynthia Roman, took over running the corporation. The spouse’s of these three women: Wilbur Schwaz, Bob Maher and Harry Roman now serve as the main officers of the corporation.
Café du Monde is very popular and successful today, but there was a period of time in the 1970s when the coffee stand’s survival did not seem likely. Around this time, the French Market Corporation set up a renovating project to upgrade buildings in the French Market to help increase tourism revenue. The project cost the Fernandez company about $250,000 in renovations in order to stay in business. These upgrades included the construction of a slate pedestrian sidewalk, a new sign, the change from the striped awning to a larger, more weatherproof portico, and a new fountain (Bourg, Gene. “Expansions of the Little Coffee Stand that Could.” Times-Picayune. (1992): n. page. Web. 27 Oct. 2011).
A bustling crowd fills every table in Café du Monde. Photo by JC Winkler.
For the first 123 years of business, Café du Monde’s French Market location was the only one to exist. Then, in 1985, a second restaurant opened in the Esplanade Mall, on the outskirts of New Orleans. Soon after, others were established in the Lakeside Mall, the Riverwalk, and in Mandeville (Morales, Daniel. “Café Du Monde Abroad-Beignets in Japan.” Untapped New Orleans. (2011): n. page. Web. 30 Oct. 2011). In 1990, Café du Monde was franchised by a company named Duskin. Two years later, in July of 1992, Georgia became the first state to open a Café du Monde “on American soil outside Louisiana” (Bourg). Untapped Cities reported in 2011 that over the past 22 years, the Japanese Café du Monde franchise has been extremely successful with the Ikebukuro store, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2012. There are now a total of 20 Japanese stores in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Hiroshima (Morales). Today, there are 26 Café du Monde units in Japan and 8 throughout New Orleans (“Café Du Monde – New Orleans.” Nation’s Restaurant News. (2010): n. page. Web. 30 Oct. 2011).
In most stores, the most popular food item on the menu is of course the infamous beignet. It is a delicious, square-shaped, piece of fried dough topped off with a mound of powdered sugar. The store is also known for its café au lait, made with dark coffee and chicory. Japan was the first to try out soft drinks, and after their success in the 1980s, soft drinks and iced coffees became a permanent part of the menu (Nation’s Restaurant News). The Japanese franchise has made other additions to the original menu, such as varying types of beignets like cinnamon and ice cream, as well as hot dogs, frozen drinks and seasonal desserts (Morales). In addition to owning and maintaining the cafes, the H.N. Fernandez Inc. also sells its coffee in grocery stores (Bourg).
Only a select few instances have forced Café du Monde to close. In 2001, the Times-Picayune reported that a fire broke out in the kitchen and caused only minor damage to the building. Before being evacuated by firefighters, the staff was able to grab some of the old pictures and posters from the walls. The blaze forced the coffee shop to close for almost a week (Pompilio, Natalie . “Blaze at Cafe du Monde disrupts life in the Quarter – Damage to building closes landmark 5 days .” Times-Picayune. (2001): n. page. Web. 26 Oct. 2011). Further, Café du Monde was forced to close for a full seven weeks in 2005 due to the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. According to Frenchquarter.com, the hurricane knocked out both the building’s power and water, as well as relocated many of the staff members. The owners took advantage of the forced closing and used the time to install new kitchen appliances and clean the place up (“Beignets Are Back!”. New Orleans French Quarter. N.p., 13 october 2005. Web. 27 Nov 2011. http://frenchquarter.com/dining/beignets_return.php).