Immigrating from Sicily in 1957, Biagio “Blaise” Todaro worked in a neighborhood grocery before opening his own shop - one that's become a French Quarter institution.
- by Jeremy Trager
- photography by Jeremy Trager and Ellis Anderson
Biagio Todaro still opens the store every morning. After the lights are turned on and the doors unlocked, he sits by a window that faces Chartres Street. There, on a little table, he places a stack of well-worn devotional cards. He cradles them, murmurs their inscribed prayers, and slips each card inside his plastic face shield for a tender kiss. This ritual begins daily operations at Vieux Carré Wine & Spirits six times per week – Sundays they’re closed so Todaro and his family can attend church.
He opened the petite and repletely stocked shop at 422 Chartres Street in 1986. Though he’s passed ownership on to his daughter, Maria Nicholson, Blaise still comes to work. This enterprise is, unquestionably, a family affair. His grandson, Francisco, and granddaughter-in-law, Ruby, are usually behind the register. One employee, John Carmouche, has been working at the store for 32 years. Some of the customers have been patronizing it for just as long.
From Sicily to New Orleans
Todaro grew up in a little town outside of Palermo. When he was a teenager, his father took him to see Louis Armstrong in concert there. Already a fan of American jazz, he was entranced by “Satchmo.”
“He was 90 pounds soaking wet – don’t believe anyone who tells you he was heavier than that!” he says of Armstrong. His voice twinkles at the memory.
Seeing the jazz great put the thought of New Orleans into the boy. The familiar subtropical climate made it an appealing destination, too.
His father was born in Colorado and brought back to Sicily when he was still a boy. Because of this, American citizenship was available to Todaro. Now he would cross back over the Atlantic. He would be the first in his family to do so, but he wouldn’t be the last.
In 1957, a 20-year-old Todaro said goodbye to his large, extended family and left the only country and culture he’d ever known. He boarded a ship in Napoli, arrived in New York, and rode the train to New Orleans. The sound of jazz filled the streets, reminding him of Armstrong. There were lots of Sicilians, too. They had forged an indelible place in the city’s culture, particularly in the French Quarter.
Still, he was alone. He had no work history. He couldn’t speak English. But he was happy to be in America. He would find success through decades of determination and with more than a little charisma.
He wouldn’t be alone for long.
Soon, his older brother, Calogero, joined him in New Orleans. Though the brothers were 18 months apart, their mother dressed them up as twins when they were little. She was the next to arrive, with the intention of talking the brothers into returning to Italy. Instead, they persuaded her to stay. The following year, Biagio’s father and younger brothers, Elio and Rosalino, joined the family in New Orleans.
Todaro’s first job was at the locally beloved Schwegmann's on St. Claude Avenue. He worked as a stocker there for as many as 80 or 90 hours a week. It was a demanding job with very low pay. After a few years, he was recruited by a friend to train as a butcher. He jumped at the opportunity.
Once trained, he was hired by another grocery chain that’s now much missed, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, or A&P. He worked as a butcher at their tiny, iconic location at Royal and St. Peter Streets (now Rouses) for 25 years. A&P gave him a reasonable weekly schedule and paid him twice the hourly rate that Schwegmann’s did. He was happy there, in no small part because he worked with his future wife of 62 years (and counting), Estelle.
“She was the fastest cashier they ever had,” he marvels. Estelle wasn’t the only co-worker who had designs on Todaro, though. “This other girl, she liked me too, and she tried to get in a fight with my wife, who at the time was still my girlfriend,” he says, chuckling.
Working at A&P helped Todaro to establish roots in the French Quarter and optimize his customer service skills. Meanwhile, more of his family arrived in the area. His cousins opened a restaurant in Lafayette (that branch of the Todaro family now operates two locations of Marcello’s Wine Market Cafe, including one in New Orleans). The success they also had selling wine and beer wholesale got Todaro thinking about doing the same in New Orleans.
Pride and Prejudice
Though anti-Italian prejudice peaked in New Orleans around the turn of the century, Todaro experienced being stereotyped on occasion. That didn’t make him bitter, though. The mob was active in New Orleans, and honest Italian merchants were sometimes viewed with an air of suspicion. But Italian immigrants had profoundly shaped New Orleans culture since their arrival. From the invention of the muffuletta, to citrus import and truck farming, to St. Joseph’s Day altars, Italians left their mark on New Orleans. Todaro and his family would do the same.
Like his cousins in Lafayette, Todaro and his brothers sought to open a brick and mortar business of their own. After nearly 30 years of hard work, their dream would come to fruition.
A French Quarter Gem
In 1986, Todaro leased a storefront that had previously been a coin shop and opened his doors. His brother Elio ran the store with him before opening his own wine shop in Uptown. Rent at the time was $250 per month. The family wanted to buy the building outright, but at first the owner refused.
“I told the guy, I says look: I’m going to pay rent for so many months and then I’m going to buy this building,” he recalls with an accented lilt. Todaro takes a very direct approach; there is no beating around the bush. He’s determined without being pushy. There’s a kindness in his voice and a warmth in his eyes that would be hard for anyone to turn down.
After just one year, the owner fell on hard times and decided to sell the building – providence for Todaro and his family.
“If we hadn’t bought the building then, we’d be long gone,” he says, referring to the exponential rent increases the business would have faced.
Located on Chartres in the heart of what was once Little Palermo, Vieux Carré Wine & Spirits offers an impressive variety and competitive price points. The store celebrates local distillers, breweries, and artisans. It also prides itself on fair pricing. There is no “French Quarter markup” here. What you see is what you get, and you can get just about anything. They carry rare spirits – including a wide selection of absinthe, fortified wine, bitters, and cordials – that prove impossible to find elsewhere in the French Quarter. They also stock lunch meats, cheeses, glassware, and sundries.
Thirty-six years later, the walls of Vieux Carré Wine & Spirits are covered in vintage photographs, news articles, local art for sale, and thank you notes from celebrity patrons. The shop has been graced by Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, John Travolta, Francis Ford Coppola, and Oprah.
But Todaro is the real celebrity here, and he gives his longtime customers star treatment in return. A revolving door of local characters stops in to grab their favorite bottles of wine. Sometimes, they come just to see Todaro. Every day feels like a family reunion. The air often bristles with boisterous back-and-forth conversation and brims with nostalgia.
“Hey baby! Hey honey!” a woman squeals upon seeing Todaro. She used to live in the Quarter. She’s visiting from Arizona; her trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing him. “We laughed so hard at this table! Didn’t we, Blaise?” she says, beaming. She’s remembering one of the most important places and people from her New Orleans story.
The customers know Todaro; they know his family and they know his employees. They are all one extended family – his family. Over the decades, customers from around the world have shown their appreciation for Todaro by mailing him gifts, including clothing, fruits and vegetables, wine and spirits, and hand-painted cards.
“They can spend just a dollar. I treat them nice,” he says.
Representatives from liquor and wine companies chat with him the same familial way his loyal customers do. Business exchanges are colored with admiration and warmth. Todaro appears to have a photographic memory of every product in stock. The sales reps list off bottles that are running low. Todaro knows which items to reorder and which to leave aside. He knows this business inside and out.
Nicholson, who was just 15 when she started working in the shop, is thrilled to carry on her father’s business. She’s grateful for growing up in the store, where she got to spend time away from home with her dad and her uncles. Now, she and Todaro spend their workdays with her son and daughter-in-law. The legacy continues.
“Working in a family business can seem like a burden when you’re young,” she says. “But when you get older, you realize it’s a blessing.”
While Nicholson worries about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the French Quarter, she’s confident the wine shop will pull through.
“If it ever ends, it was a beautiful run,” she reflects. “We will continue to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.”
Judging by the multi-generational participation and the fierce customer loyalty, that end is not in sight. When asked what makes Vieux Carré Wine & Spirits special, Todaro takes a second to think.
“Anything anybody needs, we can get it the next day,” he answers.
For a sense of local flavor and family, there is never a wait.
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Jeremy Trager is a transplant from Chicago, where he was an award-winning professional actor and singer for many years. His plays have been given staged readings at Bailiwick Chicago, the University of South Dakota, and the UNO Playwrights Festival. His nonfiction and photography have been published in 433 Mag; his flash fiction is upcoming in Midway Journal. He is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of New Orleans and serves as a writing tutor at Delgado Community College.
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