Randy Montalbano, Jr. must be in line for understatement of the year.
On the August 2016 flood that submerged his seafood shop and restaurant, Montalbano’s Seafood on Florida Boulevard, knee-deep in water, kept it closed for months and forced a complete overhaul of the interior, Montalbano was philosophical.
“It wasn’t so fun,” he said.
Montalbano was comparing the aftermath of last year’s storm, which devastated huge swaths of the Baton Rouge area, destroying thousands of homes and immobilizing business, with that of Hurricane Gustav in 2008, which “peeled the roof back” on Montalbano’s Seafood.
Back then, Montalbano said, the power was knocked out and they were left with huge supplies of food just waiting to go bad in the cooler. Montalbano’s mother, Darleen, who works the front desk at Montalbano’s most nights, scoffed at the idea of throwing it away. Not when there were people who had lost access to food and hundreds of volunteers and recovery workers out on the streets helping people salvage what they could, she said.
They set up tents in the parking lot, cooking huge batches of everything in stock. They fed the National Guard, private engineers, volunteers and those who lost everything.
“I’m not joking, we fed thousands of people,” Randy Montalbano, Jr. said.
The Montalbanos have always been committed to being a part of the community. Since Montalbano and his father, Randy Montalbano, Sr., started the combination seafood restaurant, grocery and catering business in 2006, they have given a portion of revenues to charity, catered neighborhood events and tried to welcome all their neighbors, Montalbano, Jr. said.
It doesn’t hurt that the business is a family affair. In addition to Darleen heading up the front of house and Randy, Jr. handling most catering business, Randy, Sr. takes care of purchasing while Randy, Jr.’s wife, Emily, is in charge of the books. But really, Randy, Jr. said, everyone does a little of everything.
The family’s community spirit in part stems from their faith. Each year, Montalbano’s donates to a number of Christian charities such as Adullam House, an Alabama children’s home that takes in the children of prison inmates and reunites them with their parents when they are released.
“From when we opened, we always wanted to just be a blessing to this community,” Randy, Jr. said.
That same faith helped them persevere when the August flood filled the shop waist-high in floodwater.
Randy, Jr. still has a video he shot with his cellphone from that morning, when he and Randy, Sr. drove to work to see how their shop had fared. They had already waded down flooded miles of Florida Boulevard after reaching a point Randy, Jr.’s truck couldn’t pass. They forced the glass door open to find the power still on, seafood coolers submerged halfway and baseboard air conditioners bubbling away.
“We are officially, completely underwater,” Randy Jr. says in the video. His voice is shocked, full of disbelief rather than despair. And while there was much hard work to come, Randy Jr. said despair never did set in.
On the contrary, he was amazed and heartened by the upswell of community support he saw. He recognized that he was relatively lucky, he said, that his home was mostly unaffected and that he and his family were safe.
And he saw how lucky he was to have conscientious neighbors. As they trudged to the shop that morning, the Montalbanos passed men in boats, asking where help was needed.
“They told us they were from Lafayette and said, ‘Our wives told us we didn’t just buy these boats for fishing, and we better take them to Baton Rouge and go help some people if we wanted to keep them,’” Randy, Jr. said.
“It was a blessing, in a way,” Randy, Sr. said. “Of course, people lost everything, but it brought people together as well.”
Possible contamination from the floodwater meant cooking the food in stock was out of the question this time. Still, redeveloping the shop gave the Montalbanos a chance to add some shiny new features. Emily took the lead on designing a new, modern dining room at the front of the house, while new kitchen fixtures have been added, along with a new boiling room outside and new catering trailers, each of which can serve up to 500 pounds of boiled crawfish per hour.
After months of renovations, the shop reopened in mid-February. While this break might not have been as much fun as the one enforced by Hurricane Gustav nine years ago, the Montalbanos never lost hope.
Photos by Kristine Stone.