The G&G Interview

Homegrown Promise

Wendell Pierce on late-night po’boys, jazz joints, and why an actor would open a grocery store

Photo: Cedric Angeles

On-screen, Wendell Pierce is best known for playing cigar-chomping homicide detective Bunk Moreland on HBO’s The Wire and down-on-his-luck trombonist Antoine Batiste on Treme, which returns for its fourth and final season this fall. And starting in September, he’ll costar in NBC’s new prime-time sitcom The Michael J. Fox Show. In real life, Pierce is a fiercely loyal New Orleans native whose cultural and civic roots go deep. In March, he and two partners opened Sterling Farms in the shell of a shuttered Winn-Dixie in Marrero, the first of four planned grocery stores aimed at bringing fresh and local food to the city’s most impoverished areas. It’s an ambitious undertaking with plenty of inherent challenges—in other words, the kind of role Pierce relishes playing.

So how did you get into the grocery store business? 
I guess it started in 2011. I was working around the city on Treme when I realized that one of the great needs was grocery stores. There were large areas that were underserved—food deserts, they’re called—and grocery stores were a way to bring something to the infrastructure of New Orleans. An opportunity to do good and do well. You can have all the community gardens and farmers’ markets in the world, but without that distribution arm, it’s hard to change the paradigm. At the same time, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We just want to say, “Hey, here’s a way to take advantage of the fresh food and produce we have here.” I think having access itself will have an impact.

What’s the response been so far? 
We’ve been overwhelmed by people who come into the store saying, “Thank you. Thank you for coming. Finally I can just go to a decent grocery store in my own neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away, and not have to get on a bus or go some distance.”

What are your plans for future stores?
Over the next two years, we’ll roll out three more stores—two in New Orleans and one remote location, either in Louisiana or somewhere else. Then we’ll see where we are. I’ve gotten inquiries from around the country—Denver, D.C., Pensacola, Atlanta.

You must have your own fond food memories from growing up in the city.
When I was growing up, we would head down to Shell Beach not too far from the city, and go crabbing, old-school. No traps, no baskets—just a stick and twine with a chicken neck tied to the end. You’d throw it out ten or twelve feet and you’d stare at the stick until you saw the tug. Then you’d tease the crabs to shore by slowly pulling in the line. When they came into view, you’d slip a longneck net in behind them and get six at a time. And for a kid to start before dark in the morning and by one or two in the afternoon have a bushel of crabs to turn into a crab boil—that was like Christmas.

When you’re not catching dinner, what are your go-to spots in New Orleans? 
When people want something authentically Creole, I send them to Bon Ton Café for crawfish bisque and étouffée. Along with that, I go to Olivier’s across from the House of Blues for this crazy hundred-year-old rabbit dish. My po’boy spot is Gene’s—nothing beats a hot sausage po’boy late night.

How about for music?
Any night is a good night at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse. Sunday nights I go to the Howlin’ Wolf to hear the Hot 8 Brass Band. Monday nights I go to d.b.a. to check out Glen David Andrews. Tuesday night, the classic Rebirth Brass Band at Maple Leaf Bar. Wednesday night, the Treme Brass Band at the Candlelight Lounge. The Soul Rebels on Thursdays at Le Bon Temps Roulé, and also Kermit Ruffins at Vaughn’s, or I like to catch him early at Bullet’s on Tuesday. If you haven’t gotten your fill by then, you can go club hop on Franklin Street any night of the week.

Sounds like a dream week for Antoine Batiste. What can we expect from the final season of Treme?
Because we only have five episodes, it’ll be like one long finale. I tell people, Go and look at the first episode again and then watch.It will reveal a monumental shift in what these characters have gone through, what this city has gone through—the good and bad—and all the humanity that has happened in the course of change.

While we’re talking upcoming seasons, any Saints predictions?
We’ll be in contention this year, definitely. I daresay we may go all the way. I’m looking forward to the Super Bowl in New Jersey.