It is 30 minutes before closing on a sweltering July afternoon in New Orleans’ famed French Quarter, and Johnny’s Po-Boys is still packed with patrons. Lori Beth De Grusha, the third-generation owner of the storied eatery, stands behind the cash register waiting to take an order from a customer, whose eyes are still scanning the extensive menu board above him.
There is a po-boy for most everyone at Johnny’s, from alligator sausage to roast beef to country-fried steak to chicken salad to chicken parmesan to crawfish to shrimp to turkey to hamburger steak to hot dog to hot sausage to meatball to pastrami to pork chops to fried oysters.
“Po-boy” is “poor boy” spoken in Louisiana dialect. There are myriad stories to the origin of the po-boy sandwich, including one from 1929 of how a New Orleans restaurant created it to feed to striking workers who couldn’t afford to eat. A po-boy is basically a submarine sandwich served on crunchy French bread. But there are striking variations of the sandwich in New Orleans.
“You know what makes our roast beef different?” De Grusha asks proudly. “We boil it on top of the stove with onions and bell peppers. Most people cook roast beef inside the oven.”
The sheer amount of roast beef stacked on the French bread also makes it different. Johnny’s has the reputation for not skimping on the protein, a reason it has been in business for 65 years.
De Grusha’s grandfather opened Johnny’s in 1950. It was a simple operation – customers would submit their orders and put money in the cash register and even take their own change. As the French Quarter grew, so did the business.
The eatery made a name for itself and for its sandwiches. Johnny also gained a reputation for his altruism. While segregation flourished at the time, Johnny distanced himself from it. He served whites and blacks, and treated everyone equally.
“My grandfather loved everyone and accepted everyone,” Lori Beth, 33, says. “He didn’t care about segregation, even if he was threatened. And he never lost business because of it.”
Johnny worked in the restaurant nearly until his death in 1999. “He was running circles around people,” Lori Beth says. “He never got tired.”
Lori Beth’s father, also named Johnny, took over the business when his dad died. Lori Beth took over the business with her two uncles after her father died in 2012.
The French Quarter was not flooded like other parts of New Orleans a decade ago in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Johnny’s Po-Boys had some external damage, but the inside of the restaurant was intact. Still, it was closed for five months as the city recovered from the devastation.
When it reopened, the restaurant’s only employees were members of the De Grusha family, including Lori Beth and her parents. Many of the restaurant’s pre-hurricane employees were displaced.
“We were very busy,” Lori Beth says, noting that Johnny’s was one of the first restaurants in the French Quarter to open. “It was nice to be back.”
At the time, Lori Beth and her family were unsure if New Orleans would ever be the same again. But they knew one thing: If the city did come back, they wanted Johnny’s Po-Boys to be part of it.
New Orleans has come back and is still coming back. Business has also been solid the past few years at Johnny’s, and Lori Beth believes the New Orleans food scene is as vibrant as ever. And the po-boy, be it from Johnny’s or one of the city’s many other distinguished cafes, remains a vital component of the Crescent City’s food scene.