The neighborhood dogs knew change was afoot for Matassa’s Market. After all, the old corner grocery was part of their daily rhythm, too.
The store at Dauphine and St. Philip streets was a reliable stop where proprietor Louis Matassa would toss them treats over the checkout counter, just one of the small ways this old-fashioned grocery was part of French Quarter life.
The market had been shut down for a while. But now it’s back after the first phase of a renovation meant to preserve its role in the neighborhood. Matassa himself is back too, working the checkout counter as usual. And so, as their owners walk them past, dogs who know the turf have been stopping, ever hopeful to catch a glimpse of, and a treat from, Matassa.
The historic market closed in January, though plans were quickly revealed for a comeback. The store had been run since its founding in 1924 by members of the Matassa family.
But diminishing business in recent years had brought the store to the brink. So earlier this year, Matassa and his business partner Vincent Catalanotto Jr. leased the grocery to new operators.
Now, Richard Djapni, a pharmacist based in Monroe, and his business partner Nasser Hasan are in the process of reviving the store. It reopened last week after the first round of work was completed. There’s new equipment and displays, longer hours, a greatly expanded produce section and more liquor, beer and wine, long a staple of the corner store’s inventory.
Still to come is a revamped deli for hot plates, breakfasts, po-boys and grab-and-go meals.
Hasan is confident that with a new investment, better marketing and use of technology and a more focused mix of goods they can build a niche between the larger supermarkets and smaller convenience stores.
“This store has heritage. It’s been a beacon for the neighborhood, and we want to keep it shining,” said Hasan. “That will take some innovation.”
The store has kept the Matassa name, and Louis Matassa himself is back on most days too. He’s working shifts now, while fulfilling the same role he previously did as the face of the store, the first and last person customers see when they visit.
Matassa grew up working in the store his grandfather Giovanni Matassa first opened, and he’s worked here all his life. At 70, he was still working 80-hour weeks to keep the family business going. Now, he’s working less but says he still enjoys being part of the store.
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“I’m glad it’s back, and I’m glad to be back,” Matassa said. “But now, when I go home at night, I don’t have to worry about trying to make payroll and cover expenses. I just like being here.”
As renovations progressed, he hauled the store’s old wooden sign out of storage, one that had been replaced by a modern sign. It’s now hanging over the front door.
The Matassa name goes back deep in New Orleans history. Louis’ father was Cosimo Matassa, the late record producer who helped shape some of the early sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. He recorded hits from a pantheon of greats, including Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Dave Bartholomew and the Meters.
The senior Matassa opened many other businesses, including a bar called Johnny Matassa’s adjacent to the grocery. By the 1970s, that bar became the starting point for a celebration that grew into today’s Southern Decadence, a major event each Labor Day weekend.
Displays honoring the timeline and contributions of the family are part of the plan for the new store, and some have already materialized.
As Matassa minds the till up front, there’s a $20 bill taped to the shelf behind marked with the message “good luck,” from the reopened shop’s first sale. And down low, of course, there’s a new bin of biscuits waiting for the neighborhood dogs.
1001 Dauphine St., (504) 412-8700
Daily 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.