The chain is bringing its party atmosphere to new states and plates.
When the opportunity to get involved with Cajun Steamer Bar and Grill arose for Gaston Lanaux, the current president and COO, he knew it was a chance to join a brand reminiscent of his Louisiana upbringing.
Lanaux’s intrigue in the Cajun concept grew after an associate of his—who got involved with the business in 2010—passed along their enthusiasm. At the time, Lanaux was serving as a regional director of operations for The Saxton Group in Dallas, plus gaining valuable experience as a multi-unit McAlister’s Deli franchisee.
Six years later, Cajun Steamer’s founder and previous owner Jeff Thompson exited the brand, and Lanaux stepped up to the plate.
“I was so excited about it, because it felt like coming home,” Lanaux says. “And that’s what’s really cool about my job. I get to go to work every day and just kind of share the culture and the food of my hometown. “
With seven locations across Alabama and Tennessee, Cajun Steamer offers Cajun and Creole dishes in a casual but lively environment. Green, purple, and yellow Mardi Gras-themed decorations fill the space, along with the sounds of live music and a welcoming staff ready to “invite you to the party.”
While other Cajun restaurants focus on one element of the cuisine, Cajun Steamer’s expansive menu features fried, steamed, and boiled seafood, as well as jambalaya and po’boys. It also offers more cultivated dishes like a Red Fish Rockefeller, a creole redfish filet topped with jumbo shrimp in a creamy spinach bacon sauce.
“We really pride ourselves on creating that fun, exciting environment, but also being authentic to Louisiana cuisine,” Lanaux says.
The concept for Cajun Steamer started in Alabama when Thompson, who is a Louisiana native just like Lanaux, moved to Birmingham for work. Thompson grew up with a love for Cajun food and was disappointed when he couldn’t find any in Alabama. This led him to open a roadside stand where he sold live and boiled crawfish from a trailer that was attached to his truck. With the popularity of the food stand and interest from the community, Thompson opened the first Cajun Steamer location in Hoover, Alabama, in 2004.
With its newest restaurant opening in March in Hendersonville, Tennessee, the company plans to open three to four stores a year, expanding to locations in the Southeast as well as in existing markets. That includes expanding to Georgia and possibly parts of Mississippi and Florida, Lanaux notes. He also wants to move the Cajun Steamer brand west to Texas.
When it comes to Cajun and Creole cuisine, Lanaux understands the high expectations for the quality of the food. “We treat our food like a religion,” he says.
In 2019, Hargett Hunter Capital Partners—a private equity firm based out of Raleigh, North Carolina—acquired Cajun Steamer and provided resources and capital to position the company for growth. As the concept expands, Lanaux plans to keep the authentic quality of food by staying consistent with the brand’s traditional recipes and hiring high-skilled staff. He also wants to ensure employees receive adequate training and are equipped with the right tools, in addition to continuing to implement feedback from customers.
Cajun Steamer’s expansive menu allows its guests to tailor their experiences according to their preferences. They can have a couple of beers and a basket of fries with friends at the bar, or have a more sophisticated meal as a family, such as the creole blackened ribeye—a 12-ounce ribeye seasoned with Creole butter and spices. Regardless, Cajun Steamer creates a Louisiana-style “party” atmosphere to greet all its customers with its live music and welcoming and genuine staff.
“So we try to keep that spirit of celebration alive every day in our restaurants,” Lanaux says. “That’s what makes it unique, is that it’s experience driven with tremendous food. A lot of times those two things don’t marry up.”
With Cajun Steamer catering to different crowds, the concept has been successful in different communities. The brand’s Huntsville, Alabama, location is in a more urban area, yet has performed at the same level as a more rural location in Trussville, Alabama. Lanaux compares the demographics of Cajun Steamer’s customers to the turnout of the yearly Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans—a crowd of people of all different backgrounds and ages.
“You know, we see older and younger men, women; everybody loves the food and there’s a little something for everybody,” he says.
For the grand opening of the Hendersonville location on March 7, Cajun Steamer had a family-friendly Bourbon Street theme party that included drink specials and live music. The brand also posts about its happy hour deals and gift card giveaways while showcasing the fun atmosphere to more than 6,000 followers on Instagram.
Like many other restaurants, Cajun Steamer faced supply chain issues and labor shortages during the pandemic; however, Lanaux notes the restaurants were able to retain a lot of its staff. He attributes the company’s higher retention rate to paying employees well, along with the “fun and exciting environment that encourages people to be themselves,” he says.
Lanaux’s passion for the foodservice industry began in college, when he started working part-time in a restaurant. He enjoyed the sense of accomplishment he got from having a successful shift and providing good food to people.
“You can kind of lay out your day, and if you follow the proper procedures, you can have a great shift,” Lanaux says. “It kind of felt [like] just executing a playbook.”
In that role, he cherished the small details of creating a great shift while also enjoying the ever-changing experiences, like creating a welcoming environment for the guests and becoming part of a team with other employees.
“It was exciting; it kept you on your feet and on your toes and every day while you were trying to do the same things operationally,” he says. “Every day was a little bit different based on the people that came in.”
Lanaux valued the relationships he built with customers, and understood that by creating a good experience for them, he could make their days better in a significant way—and he’s utilizing those lessons in his role at Cajun Steamer’s as he seeks to grow the brand.
“Compared to office work, it just seemed much more enjoyable in terms of work-life balance,” he adds.