Preachers, po-boys, pita bread, and the evolution of St. Francisville’s famous Friday night
One of the best things about the Magnolia Café is the people watching. Businessmen in suits trying not to get that delicious au jus on their ties, rub shoulders with leather-clad, fifty-ish biker couples. French tourists working out the meaning of “muffaletto,” share tables with groups of girlfriends chatting over glasses of sweet tea—their talks running long into the afternoon. Parents sit back contentedly, delighted that no-one minds if their kids take over the dance floor on a Friday evening, when live music and dancing children is sort of a thing. Every visit to the Mag feels a bit like being invited to a laid-back house party. Everyone feels welcome here, and it shows.
Even the owner of The Magnolia Café isn’t quite sure how it all came to be. Robin Marshall didn’t follow a rule book for running a successful restaurant, or obtain a degree in business. What started out as a simple health food store has grown into an institution St. Francisville would be lost without. What’s the recipe? As Robin explains, what you do is take hard work, mix it with good food, welcoming smiles, community support, and add a generous dash of help from the Bank of St. Francisville.
A life of its own
Magnolia Café owner Robin Marshall moved to St. Francisville as a young adult, drawn simply by the beauty of the land after having grown up in Baton Rouge. She opened her business thirty-four years ago as Magnolia Specialty Foods—a natural foods store offering products like fresh-baked pita bread and home-grown sprouts. But within the year it had become a café. “The restaurant evolved by whomever I hired,” Robin says. “Whatever their talents were, that’s how it evolved. We had a Jehovah’s Witness preacher that cooked alligator sauce piquante and shrimp fried rice. After that, there were some young people we hired and, well, that’s how the music started.”
And it hasn’t stopped since. First came the house band. Now, local, regional and even national bands stop by to play—the music spilling joyously out from the Mag’s screened porch every Friday nights. One of the biggest draws, Robin thinks, is that band-members can bring their families, and play early enough in the evening that everyone can enjoy the music, and get up and dance.
Where everybody knows your name
When Robin first made plans to open a health food store, she was a young mother with two small children and no experience in business. Today she questions who in their right mind would have given her a loan. But the Bank of St. Francisville did, believing that what Robin lacked in business experience, she more than made up for in vision, passion, and commitment to St. Francisville. Carter Leak IV, BSF's executive vice president, explains that sometimes, when it comes to supporting a venture with the potential to benefit the community, the bank looks beyond the spreadsheet. “When we look at a project in the next town over or in Baton Rouge, the numbers have to add up and make sense,” says Carter. “But with what happens here in West Feliciana, there’s so much more of an emotional, community-based part of the decision-making process.”
“They gave me an opportunity and I’ve stuck with them ever since,” said Robin of the Bank of St. Francisville. “I can still just call them and talk to an actual person and get help right away.”
A recipe for success
“I’m surprised at the success in spite of everything I did,” Marshall says with a laugh. “In 1982 no one had ever heard of pita bread. I grew all our own sprouts. I started selling pizzas and homemade bread and we did organic carrot juice. The turkey special—it’s still on the menu today. It’s still our biggest selling sandwich. The employees and the town made the success without a doubt.”
See who's playing at The Mag this Friday night: www.themagnoliacafe.net.