A New Orleans Oyster Restaurant Went Without Detailed Profit-and-Loss Statements for Almost 100 Years. 2 Twin Sisters Are Trying to Bring It Into the 21st Century.
Natalie Gerdes and her twin sister, Nikki, have introduced new ideas to their family business like merchandising, an expanded menu and yes, keeping track of the company's finances.
Natalie Gerdes and her twin sister, Nikki, grew up around their family’s restaurant, just as many generations before them did. Casamento’s was founded by their great-grandparents in 1919, and it has become an institution — for its hometown of New Orleans, but also for the Gerdes family. Both sisters hosted their engagement parties there. Over the years, they’ve done a little bit of everything: bartend, serve, wash dishes, bus tables and hostess.
Gerdes ultimately left to become a nurse, but when the pandemic hit, her family needed her. Her parents were struggling to keep the restaurant afloat, and her twin is still recovering from the effects of a car accident in 2015. So Gerdes returned full time — and now, at age 33, she’s looking to bring this old restaurant into the future. “You have to adapt with the times,” she says.
Casamento’s is well-known for its locally sourced oysters, but it didn’t have much of an online presence. So Gerdes created an Instagram page and redesigned the company’s website. She also started selling oyster craft art at the restaurant. (She cleans their leftover oyster shells and turns them into jewelry.) To celebrate the restaurant’s 100th anniversary recently, she created swag like specialty cozies for people to take home. “My sister and I are always trying to come up with something new to shake things up and make it interesting,” she says.
Gerdes has also sought to expand the menu. For example, Casamento’s used to sell only cheesecake for dessert, so she reached out to a local bakery about including some of its goods, too. She is also looking to branch out into catering. Especially during the pandemic, she has found it important to explore opportunities the family hadn’t pursued before.
Change isn’t always easy, however. Her parents still own the restaurant, and they like things the way they are. That can be good in a way — her dad, for example, is the only one with a full mastery of all the recipes. But it also means that Gerdes’ ideas can be met with skepticism. “I have to really explain a proposition to them,” she says.
There have also been surprises along the way, like when Gerdes learned that her parents never kept detailed profit-and-loss statements. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, how do y’all do this stuff?’” she says.
Suggestions of change also come from outside the family. Gerdes maintains close relationships with her customers, which she has learned means being open to criticism. She appreciates honest reviews and constructive feedback, which isn’t always easy to hear. She has had customers complain about employee behavior, for example, which is something she is addressing. “You can’t grow unless you know,” she says.
But above all, she believes that family comes first — and that getting through this period of change means finding ways to band together. “When you have a fam business,” she says, “even though sometimes you want to strangle each other, you have to work together.”
Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. Her features have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere.