Hardware store houses a culinary showroom for N.O. cooking fanatics

Hardware or cookware?

Mary’s Ace Hardware is stocked like any other neighborhood hardware store, but because it’s in New Orleans customers sometimes find locally specific ways to use it. This time of year, that means the hinges, hoses and hot glue that shoppers bring to the register could just as well be bound for their Mardi Gras costumes and homemade floats as for a home improvement project.

A similar dynamic plays out at the hardware store’s sister business, Mary’s French Quarter Kitchen & Bath. Here, between product displays for culinary brands from around the world, the local food culture still shows its unique stripes.

“Normally when you stock a 100-quart boiling pot, you’re thinking that’s for restaurants, but here it’s just one of the things people want for home,” said the store’s assistant manager Mark Benson. “Big paddles too. These are the things you need for crawfish season.”

Employees here are well acquainted with the particular passions of New Orleans cooking, though often it’s the shop itself that takes people by surprise. The kitchen store sits just upstairs from Mary’s Ace Hardware on North Rampart Street, and to access it customers pass aisles of tools, paint and brooms and hop in an elevator. A moment later, the elevator doors slide open to reveal a 3,000-sqaure-foot showroom gleaming with Mauveil copper pots, Riedel wine glasses and decanters, bright splays of Wüsthof knives and the enameled, crayon-box colors of Le Creuset skillets and roasters.

“I think people just don’t expect this in the French Quarter,” said David Blaszak, manager of both Mary’s kitchen and hardware stores. “There just aren’t many real stores here anymore. It seems like they’re all geared toward tourists.”

French Quarter businessman Tom Wood first opened his Mary’s hardware store a few blocks away on Bourbon Street in 1982. Wood named it for a biker bar in Houston he frequented, and it’s always been a bit quirky. Benson recalled that the Bourbon Street store once kept a department of sequins and feathers for costume supplies.

“I still think we should bring that back,” said Benson.

Wood moved the store to this much larger location on North Rampart Street two years ago this month, when he also opened Mary’s French Quarter Kitchen & Bath. If the store sounds like a homegrown version of national retailer Williams-Sonoma, that’s not a coincidence. Blaszak was manager of the Williams-Sonoma in the Shops at Canal Place mall until that store closed in 2010 (the company still has a store in Metairie’s Lakeside Shopping Center). A key difference, Blaszak said, is the way they’ve tried to tailor this shop to locals.

“At big boxes you have no discretion of what they’re sending to your store,” he said. “It’s a one-size-fits-all approach, and New Orleans has never really fit that pattern.”

That means high-end kitchen appliances for well-heeled home cooks are stocked next to tools of the trade for chefs at French Quarter restaurants and the five-pound plonks of curved lead used for oyster shucking. There’s even a small section carved out for bloody mary mixes, plastic cups and other bar essentials as a stopgap service for the many watering holes nearby.

“They’ll send someone running down in an emergency,” Blaszak said.

The store also caters to the booming trend for handmade kitchen staples and start-up food businesses, like jars for pickling and small bottles for hot sauces. For instance, one recent afternoon, Dov Deustachio was browsing for kitchen tools for her home-based specialty baking operation Challah at Me, which supplies traditional Jewish bread at local markets.

“When I need something I can just walk over,” said Deustachio, who lives and works nearby in the Treme. “People kept telling me about this place, but it’s really not what you expect to find up here.”

This weekend, however, the store should be a little more in the spotlight with a little Mardi Gras glory. Wood is a co-founder of the Mystic Krewe of Barkus, which will stage its annual parade for dogs in the French Quarter on Sunday. Barkus begins and ends at Armstrong Park, directly across the street from his stores and just off the kitchen store’s showroom Wood carved out space for the Barkus Room. A parlor full of memorabilia from past parades, the space will serve as throne room for the krewe’s canine royalty on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Benson sees another facet of local food culture in the aisles of the kitchen store: the men who show up for hardware downstairs but end up on impromptu culinary shopping sprees upstairs.

“We get a lot of men shopping here, and they’re foodie men, which is very New Orleans,” Benson said. “Sometimes the wife ends up trying to pulling the husband out of the store.”