Teamwork Leads to Success for Entrepreneur Neal Bodenheimer

Credit: Neal Bodenheimer

Despite the hardships the pandemic has posed for many business owners in the service industry, entrepreneur Neal Bodenheimer and his highly motivated partners successfully pivoted their existing operations and even opened three new venues – Peychaud’s, Dauphine and Val’s on Freret. Neal is the husband of Kea Sherman, former candidate for state representative and co-founder of Les Femmes PAC, a political action committee dedicated to electing Democratic women. 

Through his company CureCo, he also operates the premier cocktail bar Cure as well as the French Quarter restaurant Cane & Table. In partnership with Gary Solomon Jr., Bodenheimer also leads the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, which went digital in 2020 and reached a larger global audience. 

Bodenheimer never planned to have a career in the hospitality industry. Instead, he yearned to be a big league advertising executive. “I was 18 when I got my first bar and restaurant job. It was a means to an end,” Bodenheimer explained. 

After he started working in advertising, Bodenheimer quickly decided the industry was not for him. “I was not meant to be behind a desk.” That decision renewed his vigor for bars and restaurants and he never looked back. 

Bodenheimer’s active participation in the Independent Restaurant Coalition (IRC) was a big benefit to many of New Orleans’ small independently owned businesses. “The IRC added value to the restaurant advocacy landscape. It was a crazy time. We needed our own independent voice.” The IRC had a seat at the table in Washington during negotiations with President Biden’s administration to ensure their member’s needs were met. 

“We had a voice. We all had a stake in it. Smaller independent restaurants have more specific needs. It makes sense for us to group together. I need different things than casual or fast-food chains. We have a different relationship with our employees. 

Bodenheimer says he is satisfied with how the city’s reopening is proceeding.  “New Orleans is on the right track. I am waiting to see what happens now with the new CDC rules about mask-wearing. It’s very important to open gradually. You can’t go from 2 to 60 in business. You have to scale up in a reasonable way to meet guest expectations. You can’t turn on a fire hose. Bodenheimer says he is “very pleased” with the gradual opening process at his venues. “We know where we are and where we are going. We’ve ended up in a good spot.”  

Val’s on Freret, an upscale Latin-inspired street food, taco and snack bar that uses the finest ingredients, opened last June in a retrofitted gas station with plenty of pandemic-friendly outdoor seating. Chef Fredo Nogueira, who also leads the kitchen at Cane & Table, is Bodenheimer’s partner at Val’s. “Business is good. What we’ve learned about restaurants in today’s climate is that we just get overrun with people. We get slammed.”

He said it was “very nice” to open in a former gas station. “We want to grow sustainably.” Bodenheimer explained that they made decisions at Val’s that were really important to business success and designed it that way.  

“We’ve wanted to do Val’s for a long time – five to seven years. There are lots of taco restaurants in the market. It takes a long time.” He thinks the restaurant is a “nice addition” and calls Chef Fredo Nogueira “an amazing talent.”   

Bodenheimer’s new walk-up cocktail bar, Peychaud’s, opened in the Maison Deville Hotel less than two weeks ago. It serves classical drinks like the Ramos gin fix, Pimm’s Cup and a brandy milk punch.  Antione Amedee Peychaud, who created the bitters named after him, one lived on the site.  The bar’s signature cocktail, Peychaud’s Fizz, is a mixture of infused Peychaud’s aperitivo, citrus, cucumber and seltzer.    

“Antione Peychaud was passionate about cocktails.  Very few people had a greater influence. The bar’s courtyard is very beautiful. We’re not inventing the wheel there. We’re not pushing the envelope. It’s a nice place to have a drink,” Bodenheimer continued.

Earlier this month, Bodenheimer also opened the New Orleans-style restaurant Dauphine in Washington, D.C., a joint venture with Long Shot Hospitality who also own Salt Line, a New England style seafood raw bar. Well-known to New Orleanians, Chef Kristin Essig has taken the helm at Dauphine and will be offering her twist on the city’s cuisine. “I started working on this project in 2018. We had to get it right. I liked the challenge of exporting New Orleans.” 

A construction delay postponed Dauphine’s original opening from October 2019 to the spring of 2020. The pandemic further pushed it back until May, 2021. “It’s been amazing thus far. Kristin Essig has lived up to all my expectations. We are thrilled,” he said.  He recommends the State Street Cocktail as one of his favorites at Dauphine.

Bodenheimer did not received any funding from the federal government’s latest round of aid to bars and restaurants. The initial focus was for restaurants owned by women, minorities and veterans. If the program become available again, he intends to apply. Bodenheimer did take advantage of PPP funding.. “We are doing our best. We are still here and we’re grateful to our community for rallying around us.” 

Bodenheimer thinks he has his partners have done “a pretty good job” of keeping his core teams intact. In March, 2020 everyone was laid off and applied for unemployment. “I feel very responsible for my team but I felt like it was the right decision. At the same time it was the worst day of my life.” 

Now Bodenheimer has smaller teams that are paid better than before. “I don’t intend to change that,” he said. Bodenheimer also thinks that hospitality industry business owners must show their employees “how we value them.” “We’re doing our best to create sustainable jobs for people. We’ve done a good job of restarting our businesses. Generally things are better for it.”

Continuing to breathe life into Cane & Table was one of Bodenheimer’s biggest challenges during the pandemic. PPP funding helped keep the restaurant afloat. “Business in the French Quarter is dependent on tourism. We had a small local following. We had to reconnect with our locals.” 

Bodenheimer says that it’s not easy for locals to come to the Quarter to eat, especially with the parking issues. He streamlined the operation at Cane & Table and kept a small team. He also worked with the World Central Kitchen which provided some income. “The French Quarter is the hardest place to work but our team never gave up.” 

Bodenheimer attributes his overall success to his employees. “We genuinely care about the people who work for us. Each person brings his or her own talents to the quality of work we do. People cannot be replaced. Positions can be replaced.” 

Bodenheimer concluded by saying that it was a “huge honor” to be able to work with the Solomon family on Tales of the Cocktail and to give back to the community. The 19th annual Tales of the Cocktail convention will take place September 20-23 with the Spirited Awards set for September 23.  Most events are currently scheduled to be digital.     

To make the transformation complete, Tales of the Cocktail – the international platform which acts as a catalyst to educate, advance and support people who work in the beverage industry – went virtual and reached a more global audience.  Their 2021 event will be held September 20-23 and is expected to be primarily digital, depending on the latest COVID-19 guidelines. 

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