Meet the cafe owner serving Louisiana delicacies inside her gas station
Words by Nicole Letts
For me, a stop at a service station is a road trip highlight. To be honest, it’s one of the things I most look forward to, and it’s the one time I lose all inhibitions. My go-to grab-and-go is simple: a bag of salty, airy Munchos and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. Calories be damned!
You can imagine my excitement when my Natchitoches, Louisiana, tour guide, Kelli West, says that our first stop after arriving at the Alexandria airport will be to a local filling station. I am starving, and I know my signature selection will hit the spot. However, when Kelli begins describing our destination, I discover that this filling station is different.
Opened in 1995 by Linda Henderson, French Market Express features a full menu of southern Louisiana delicacies. Think staples such as gumbo, crawfish etouffee, and chicken and dumplings. To top it off, the restaurant serves its famous yam cake, a carrot cake-type confection modeled after an award-winning recipe created by Henderson’s Aunt Audrey. Below, Henderson shares why her service station stands out.
Where did your love for food originate?
I was raised on a farm in south Louisiana where we had our own chickens. My dad milked cows. My mother made butter. Everything came from our farm. That's the way I grew up. I remember making my birthday cake when I was six years old. My mother was a semi-invalid for most of my childhood, so we had help for her at the house. Some of the recipes that I use today came from them. I also learned from my grandparents. Instead of stressing me out, cooking relaxes me. It has always been something that I've enjoyed.
Tell me about why this gas station, and specifically this elevated place that has a cafe, came to be.
I noticed that people would come in at lunch for chips and snacks and things, and the people who were working in my store would order out for lunch. And I thought, well, why can't we have more lunch-type items? And like I said, I like to cook anyway!
The cafe at French Market Express is modeled after a New Orleans courtyard, which is quite different for a typical convenience store.
Yes. I actually designed the store itself without any real design experience. Instead, I cut out pictures to scale, and I would move them around like paper dolls to figure out where I wanted everything. I bought books of New Orleans architecture, and I studied all of the different features. Then, I came up with the ones that I thought would work well with the store.
I'd love to hear about some of the Louisiana specialties you serve.
All of our entrees, like our gumbo, are made from scratch, the old-fashioned way. We have several dishes that I created and named them after my relatives, like the Crawfish Adele—that's my great-grandmother. It’s crawfish in a cream sauce served with pasta. Each of these dishes are things that I've learned to cook. When I would get a new dish that I wanted to bring to the French Market, I would cook it for my family every day for a week until it was perfected.
Speaking of family recipes, let’s discuss your prized yam cake and your Aunt Audrey.
She was the oldest of seven children, and she had to help grandma take care of the younger ones. Their dessert was usually a sweet potato. Eventually, she started baking with them and created a yam cake recipe very similar to the one we serve today that my dad always spoke fondly of. Without Aunt Audrey’s recipe written down anywhere, I tinkered with many of the flavors he described, and that’s how our yam cake came to be. We sell them in a variety of sizes: large cake, small cake, loaf cake, or minis.
Any plans to ship them, so I can relive my first bite again and again?
We’re working on it! The problem with the yam cake is the fact that it needs to be decorated with its delectable cream cheese icing, but unfortunately, cream cheese icing does not set; it stays like it is. Plus, we want it to be pretty when it arrives, so we have to figure out a way to keep it from being turned upside down. But I will say that we're coming close!
How is French Market Express more than a gas station?
One of the things about convenience store customers is that 20 to 25 percent of them will never visit your business again, so you have to make a good impression. And I think that’s exactly what we do. We’re memorable. First and foremost, we want people to have a great experience, but we don't want them to have to wait any longer than necessary. When you say you're a convenient store, you need to be convenient. We have people come in, look around, and maybe even sit and have a bite to eat in our interior courtyard. I think we are truly a destination stop, not just a place you pass by along the way.