How Ben Herrera Defied COVID-19 And Two Hurricanes To Expand The Local Dining Scene
Story By Kerri Cooke • Photos By Chris Brennan
Running restaurants is in Ben Herrera’s blood. His love of cooking came from his grandmother and great-grandmother, with his family’s restaurant roots going all the way back to 1910 in Louisville, Colo. His grandparents also owned a restaurant in Boulder, Colo.
Herrera’s earliest memories in the food industry were “roaming around his grandparents’ restaurant.” He started his first job in the restaurant industry at the age of 15, washing dishes on the weekend. One day, the cook “quit on the spot” and Herrera had to help the restaurant owner keep the operation running smoothly for the remainder of the weekend. Just like that, Herrera was promoted to a cook. The dish washer position went back on the market.
After gaining more experience at various restaurants while in high school, Herrera made the decision to attend Colorado State. However, he couldn’t stay away from the industry he was brought up in. He ended up leaving Colorado State and moving to Aspen, Colo., to further his culinary career.
To get some formal training, Herrera attended the Emily Griffith School of Opportunity in Denver to further his culinary training. He then went on to complete an American Culinary Federation apprenticeship at the Westin Hotel to achieve his executive chef credentials. By the time Herrera moved to Lake Charles, he had worked with various different cuisines and in restaurants across the spectrum — from small and cozy eateries to corporate restaurants.
DeAngelo’s Pizzeria Company
In 1998, Herrera moved to Louisiana. He opened his first restaurant in 2001, a franchise named DeAngelo’s Pizzeria. Herrera describes this first restaurant as “simply a business endeavor.” As far as franchises go, the goal is to make a restaurant successful and then add more locations. DeAngelo’s was very successful in Lake Charles, but one day in 2008 the building burned to the ground.
Herrera and his former partner Richie Gregory decided to rebuild in the same spot. The next year DeAngelo’s once again became part of the Lake Charles food scene, but it was not to last. The franchise contract was eventually voided and 121 Artisan Bistro was born.
121 Artisan Bistro
The name 121 Artisan Bistro (the 121 refers to the address of the building — 121 Dr. Michael DeBakey Drive) replaced “DeAngelo’s,” and the house menu expanded to include items such as fish and steak.
“Part of DeAngelo’s success was its location,” Herrera says, so he feels fortunate to have been able to secure the location for his restaurant.
121 is a well-established and successful restaurant. But when COVID-19 hit, the business felt the burn just like every other food establishment in the country. Herrera says he was able to get a PPP loan, which gave him the ability to keep paying his employees through the shutdown. Retaining those in management positions was the first priority, and when business picked back up, Herrera made a point to rehire previous employees.
The PPP funds helped keep professionals in the area from moving away, Herrera says. The money also “kept the community and the economy going.”
Since the payroll of 121 Artisan Bistro was covered, Herrera forged ahead with a plan initiated shortly before COVID-19 arrived on the scene — The James 710, an all-new restaurant to be located in the old City Market and Deli further down the road on Michael DeBakey Drive.
Herrera says kudos go to general manager Chad Fontenot and his sous chefs Stacy Rogers, Dustin Frederick and Justin Hebert for their work to keep 121 running smoothly and efficiently so he can focus on other projects.
Then Hurricanes Laura and Delta hit in August and October, respectively. Not only did this shut down construction on The James 710, it put 121 Artisan Bistro out of business for a few weeks as well.
However, Herrera says he is very grateful that neither building sustained significant damage during the storms. And 121 Artisan Bistro was one of the first dine-in restaurants to begin operating again after the dual disasters.
The James 710
The City Market and Deli was struggling due to COVID-19 and a few other factors when it was decided the establishment would close.
Chris Dierich, owner of City Market and Deli, and Herrera knew each other because they had been co-workers at Waitr. (Herrera had been one of the two original regional sales directors from 2016 to 2019.)
The unique building had always attracted Herrera, who says there’s “nothing like it in Lake Charles” and believes the structure is perfect for a “cool, upscale restaurant.” He had often mentioned his ideas to Dierich in the past but now proposed to make them a reality. Herrera also partnered with Jacques Bourgeois, who he credits with “[building] out [The James] and designer Jonna Mulqueen, of Uncommon Nest out of Denver, for making [it] beautiful.”
Once again Herrera named his new restaurant after an address. 710 refers to 710 Dr. Michael DeBakey Drive. The “James” is a reference to his maternal grandfather, with whom he shared a “special relationship.”
Family is very important, Herrera says, and he will continue to honor his family and heritage in different ways through his businesses. (There is also a tribute to his great-grandmother and grandmother in front of 121 Artisan Bistro.)
Construction for The James 710 was well underway when Hurricanes Laura and Delta hit. As 121 sat empty for the second time in 2020, Herrera says he “wanted to walk away from The James again.” What stopped him was his memory of what happened after Hurricane Rita in 2005.
Rita also hit when Herrera was about to expand business. Once Rita exited the area, Herrera “walked away from restaurant deals [in the works] and went back to DeAngelo’s to [do repairs].” Herrera says he later regretted that decision and “didn’t want to make that same mistake” this time.
Even though Herrera’s house was destroyed, just a “stripped out shell” as he describes it, he decided, “I can either give up or be bullish and say we will make this more beautiful … more efficient.” So, the work on The James continues and the restaurant will open in February.
While Herrera describes The James as “more casual than Calla,” the restaurant will still have an upscale vibe. The floor plan of the building is open so “you are able to see the entire restaurant from where you’re standing.” There is also an open kitchen, and “clean lines” in the design, which make the space “modern but comfortable.”
The menu of The James is described as “a modern American menu with indigenous Louisiana products and cuisine.” Herrera emphasizes he made it a priority to hire chefs with diverse backgrounds. They “have Latin and Asian influences either in their family or past culinary career” so he says diners can expect a fusion of many different types of food.
Herrera scouted staff from the already established 121 and from places as distant as New Orleans and Colorado.
If Herrera thought someone would be good for a job but lived elsewhere and had “Lake Charles ties,” he extended the invitation of an interview in the event the person was interested in moving back to SWLA.
Much of the essential staff for The James has now been hired. The executive chef will be Wesley Miller from Eunice, and the sous chefs will be Michael Breese and Renda Ruiz, both from New Orleans. And Blakelee Kibodeaux will be the front of the house manager.
The founder of Calla, David Sorrells, who Herrera describes as “one of the most talented chefs I’ve ever worked with,” left the restaurant industry a couple of years after Calla opened. His legacy has lived on all of the years since.
As one of the more exclusive restaurants in SWLA, Calla was already struggling due to COVID-19 when Hurricanes Laura and Delta put the nail in the restaurant’s coffin, or so it seemed.
While the building didn’t sustain any major damage, the interruption in business shortly after Calla reopened was enough strain to persuade just about anyone to throw in the towel. When Herrera heard about Calla’s imminent demise, he stepped in, along with his friend and business partner, Kyle Daigle. And, in spite of what one might think, Herrera says when Calla went on the market it was “perfect timing, even in the midst of COVID and the aftermath of the storms” and that the deal was too good to walk away from.
“Calla is one of my favorite restaurants. [I visited] weekly, if not multiple times a week.” In addition to loving the food and atmosphere of Calla, Herrera says he loves Walnut Grove, which will “stand the test of time and be one of the premier beautiful places of Lake Charles.” For a place which seems to have it all, Herrera “just didn’t want [Calla] to get turned into office space.”
David Phillips was brought on as executive chef at Calla, previously of the Chart House in the Golden Nugget. The recommendation was easy seeing that Phillips had four years of experience running 121. Also, Karlie White, promoted from 121, was brought on as the front of the house manager.
There’s a reputation to live up to, Herrera realizes, when one takes over a restaurant as successful as Calla was. He credits Jason LaBove as a “big reason people came to Calla.” LaBove was the lead bartender and mixologist. And along with having a great personality and offering impeccable service, Herrera says, LaBove was “the most talented bartender I’ve ever been around.”
But since LaBove moved to Colorado, Herrera says he needed to “find [someone] who lived up to that caliber.” Enter Brandon Ashford, a bartender Herrera senses the same energy in.
The new team at Calla recharged the restaurant and it was up and running in only a month and a half. Herrera says the “initial response has been amazing.” He realizes not only do they have to “continue to provide a great experience,” but also find ways to keep moving forward.
While some Calla favorites are staying on the menu, there will be emphasis on experimentation and expansion. Recipes are being tweaked, more entrees are being added and the restaurant is making a small turn to became a bit more of a “full-service dining experience.”
A Love For SWLA And A Spirit Of Community And Entrepreneurship
At the end of the day, Herrera is a family man who credits much of his success to the support of his wife and children. He is also a community man. He doesn’t just want what’s best for his personal businesses, but wants homegrown businesses across Southwest Louisiana to succeed as well, because it is only when the local economy is healthy and diverse that we can attract tourists to Lake Charles and the surrounding areas.
“Many other people are bullish about Lake Charles and believe Lake Charles will come back with new energy,” Herrera says. He urges people to “eat local,” not just at 121, The James or Calla, but at other great local eateries such as Luna’s, the Villa Harlequin, 1910, Crying Eagle Brewery and Rikenjaks.
“Lake Charles needs great restaurants and social places for people to enjoy.”
Herrera recently reunited with an old friend, Jean-Pierre Guidry, when their paths crossed by chance at a restaurant Guidry had opened in New Orleans called Trenasse. (Guidry had worked his first-ever cooking job for Herrera in Denver in 1996.) After attending the very prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, Guidry went on to become a distinguished chef who has worked all over the country. Guidry is “a big part of our expansion, future projects and consults with me on menu development and creative input. I couldn’t do it without him,” Herrera says.
While Herrera always has his hands in something new (he is currently planning to set up a food trailer on Beglis Parkway in Sulphur), he sees every venture as a way to invest in and give back to the community “as much as it has given us.”
He is also developing a plan for an “eatery in Moss Bluff” and is working on a “multi-unit burger concept.”