A Y NOT Cajun Vittles
1217 Park Avenue
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana 70517
February 13, 2018
Sometimes the answer to "Hey, Why Not?" is to create a quirky way-off-the-beaten-path destination that ought to have comfort food lovers beating a path to find.
The food landscape is filled with entrepreneurs, risk takers and dreamers. Tonya Marsocci is all three.
If I hadn’t left La Poussiere in the late afternoon daylight after dancing to a great zydeco band, I would never have seen the quirky hand painted sign hanging on a white picket fence right across the street. The bold red letters A Y NOT Cajun Vittles certainly gets points for folksy originality.
No sign of a restaurant. Halfway down an aging cement driveway, I see a small cedar framed shack, apparently closed, that leads to another street parallel to where I started. I walk up three steps to an aluminum framed ordering window covered with the names and prices of offerings. Still no sign of life. A smooth metallic swoosh later, I’m startled when the window slides open and I’m greeted cheerfully by a woman whose blonde ringlets fall casually from under her white Nike visor.
Forty-five minutes later, I’ve devoured a Triple X Cajun Dog, listened to the story of a woman who is living her dream, and doing everything possible to give it a happy ending.
Connecting via geography and family seem like the first things people ask in order to get acquainted in these parts so I’m not surprised when she asks, ”Where you from?”
“Boston” says I.
“What’s your name?”
“That’s a good ‘ol paisan name!” she says with a raspy laugh right from her gut. “I was married to an Italian from Boston.”
Fewer than six degrees of separation later, we’re connected and practice reciting our last names by squeezing out every vowel. It helps that I can pronounce Marsocci the way they do it in the old country.
Tonya is one big bundle of bubbling energy. “I want you to try my Triple X Cajun Dog and brag on it when you get back to Boston,” she says. She means it. Tonya is as hungry for acknowledgement as I am for dinner.
Tonya’s been tinkering with the menu and drumming up business since she opened last August.
“Everybody does hamburgers. I want to have a Cajun specialty.” I hear her words but I feel the unspoken conviction that’s saying, ‘I want to be different, to become a household name, a destination for local families and people who live within driving to roll down my driveway, stop at the drive-up window and order food every day. And brag about it’.
She tried selling a hot dog with crawfish topping but learned customers didn’t go for the combination. Keeping a price point when filling the bun with crawfish wouldn’t work since crawfish prices swing wildly during the year. The same creative juices that thought up A Y NOT Cajun Vittles name for her business - a clever play on her first name - invented her signature “Triple X Cajun Dog,” fried catfish, melted cheese topped with crawfish etoufée.
Swoosh, the window slides opens again. Tonya hands me a hot packet wrapped in heavy aluminum foil. And waits.
“I think you’re going to enjoy that, it’s a big piece of Louisiana right there."
I take a bite. The cheese and liquid from the etoufée have been absorbed into the fresh bun. I taste the catfish and feel its fried texture then the cheese and savory crawfish flavors and a sly kick of piquant sauce. A mouthful of southwestern Louisiana indeed. "Everyone who orders it says it makes their taste buds dance," she says with that throaty laugh. I'm no exception.
When you’re struggling to make it in a tough business, it’s not every day that a customer from a big city a thousand miles away literally stumbles onto your tiny drive up shack then gushes about the food you put your heart and soul into. One compliment like this throws dry kindling into the will to succeed that burns within her.
This isn’t her first rodeo. Her family operated a business in Lafayette in the 80s that could routinely sell out 40 gallons of her mother’s gumbo every day during the Festival International. She's all done with sit-down service, lots of overhead, and managing employees.
It’s Ash Wednesday tomorrow, Lent begins. “I want to specialize in Cajun food for people on the go. I’ll be making crawfish etoufée and shrimp stew on Friday since no one eats meat. I’m thinking about opening up a food truck, bring food to the people instead of waiting for them to come to me, gives me more than one option.” Gotta love this woman’s gumption.
“I’m 54 years old and its time for me to do my own thing instead of make money for everyone else,” Tonya says, a Triple X dream wrapped up in a battle plan.
Tonya’s a fussbudget when it comes to food. She cuts her own French fries, hand forms every hamburger from beef she buys from the same butcher (“I don’t buy from the supermarket”), makes her own natcho sauces, does everything but milk the cows for the ice cream.
Then she tells me she designed her drive-up shack and helped put on the roof! The layout inside is clearly designed by someone who knows how to set up a workflow that can be operated smoothly by one or two people. It is positively spotless. Tonya has something to do with that too. ("If I go out to eat and the bathroom isn't clean, I walk right out the door.")
A Y NOT Cajun Vittles is a gem with tasty well-prepared food and ridiculously inexpensive prices. The cost for lunch for everybody in the family van competes with any fast food outlet and is way healthier. I paid $6.78 for my Triple X Cajun dog and a cup of really good vanilla ice cream.
If success is predicated on location, Tonya (now Tonya Berry) is facing headwinds. Although her property is zoned commercial, there are no other destination businesses along the street. The dance hall attracts a night crowd and she’s open Monday - Friday from 11 AM to 5 PM. She advertises on Facebook and leaves flyers where she can. In person, she’s a positive force of nature, energetic, enthusiastic, edging toward charismatic.
Business is slow. "Some days it gets you down. I advertise and get word of mouth business and people who come here tend to come back. I don’t want to throw the towel, I want to strive to make it better," she says in a rare moment of doubt. A moment later, the entrepreneur, risk-taker and dreamer perks up.
“My mom said you can’t call it a Triple X Cajun Dog, that sounds crazy. I sure can, I told her, it’s my business!”
That pretty much sums up what Tonya is all about. If pride and quality had a price point, no one could afford to eat here.
The side entrance to her business? By now, I'm not surprised that Tonya designed that too. It's another piece of her business she says I can brag about.
The La Poussiere Dance Hall (red building) is across the street from the drive-in entrance (in my case, the walk -in entrance). If A Y NOT Cajun Vittles isn't your destination, you might drive right past the big sign tacked on the fence right in front of her house, the white house in the background.
Tonya's Triple X Cajun Dog. There are tons of interesting foods served around here but this one's an original.
"My grandfather built this house," Tonya says. "I bought it from my father." Her commute to her business is about thirty seconds.
Since the land is zoned for commercial, why not build my drive-up business right behind my house, Tonya thought. The entrance to her work kitchen is on left, a walk-up window on the corner, and the drive-up window to pick up food you ordered is at the opposite side of the shack.
The menu covers the basics: hot dogs, hamburgers, cheese sticks, ice cream, sweet potato fries, nachos, Bobbie's special praline cookies and a Louisiana sweet tooth favorite - Snow Cones. "Lots of snow cone places are seasonal. I'm open year round. Some days are hot, some cold, I've got the machine, if they want them, I've got them."
La Poussiere Dance Hall in the background, Tonya's house between the dance hall and her drive-up business.
PT ready to brag about the food.
Tonya's son John, her mom Bobbie, Tonya on the steps of the entrance into the kitchen.
She hands me a tear-off sheet she distributes everywhere she goes. "You're gonna take that flyer back to Boston and brag on me, right?" Tonya says. Here's the answer!
Late breaking development...this will soon become A Y NOT on wheels!