The Sandwich Issue

The Po-Boy (and Girl) Next Door

It’s a story that has all the trappings of a Hallmark made-for-TV movie, Louisiana style: Two rival po-boy shop owners battle it out in a fierce competition to see who makes the best version of their signature creation and eventually (spoiler alert!) fall in love. And while the plot might sound like something dreamed up by a softhearted Hollywood writer’s room, it’s the real, honest-to-goodness way that Justin Kennedy of Parkway Bakery in New Orleans and Becca Murphree of Olde Tyme Grocery in Lafayette began their life together.

And it all started — as so many good tales do — with a sandwich.

“In 1929, Benny and Clovis Martin, former streetcar conductors, retired and opened a grocery store and coffee stand on North Peter Street, right at the head of the French Market, called Martin Brothers Coffee Stand. When the Great Depression hit the country, New Orleans was really impacted through the streetcar workers. Those guys weren’t getting paid, so they went on strike,” explains Kennedy. “So, Benny and Clovis said, ‘Look, you come to our coffee stand, show us your badge and we’ll feed you; we’ll feed our poor boys.’ P-O-O-R B-O-Y-S.”

There was one big issue with feeding so many people with one loaf: It needed consistency from beginning to end.

“What made [the po-boy] different from just a regular French bread sandwich is that the French bread baked at the time was wide in the middle and skinny on the end, so when you had the soup line with guys trying to get their sandwich, the person on the end would get a little skinny piece [of sandwich] and the guy in the middle would get a big fat piece,” Kennedy recalls. “John Gendusa, whose family is still in business today at the bakery on Mirabeau Street, solved this problem by coming up with a 36-inch loaf consistent from beginning to end: the poor-boy loaf. It caught on and got really popular. Parkway was one of the places that started baking that consistent loaf. Then we started making po-boys and calling them po-boys. I have pictures of two guys sitting out front at the restaurant in 1929 when a po-boy was 10 cents!”

Fast-forward 87 years to 2016, and po-boy shops are scattered in neighborhoods not just across New Orleans, but all of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, including Olde Tyme Grocery in Lafayette, which has built up a devoted local following for its delicious sandwiches and familial, convivial atmosphere since opening in 1982. Kennedy, who started working at Parkway at 18 and has devoted the last 20 years to the business, was running day-to-day operations at the legendary po-boy stalwart when a national competition crossed his radar — along with this little shop two hours west that he’d never heard about.

USA TODAY put a competition poll out back in 2016 to see who had the best po-boy in Louisiana through how many votes each place received. At first, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to take part in that. I have too much to worry about.’ But then I didn’t want us to be dead last in the competition, so I started getting into it. I swear, it was like running a political campaign: getting all your friends involved, reminding your family to vote every day. I was on the local news. Before our staff punched in, we had it set up to where they had to vote! I’m not saying it was all legit, either: Being from New Orleans, people know how to hustle and vote, and I was getting votes any way I could. It wasn’t just from natural customers, I’ll tell you that.”

Parkway was holding steady toward the top of the po-boy competition ranks when, all of a sudden, a serious competitor emerged: Olde Tyme.

“Knowing all that I was doing to get votes — reminding customers, posting on social media, getting business partners, putting signs up, QR codes at the restaurant, all kinds of craziness — there was this place called Olde Tyme Grocery in Lafayette that was getting more [votes]. All of a sudden, they’d be in first, and you could see it live, too! That’s what made it fun. They jumped to number one, and they were holding at one, and I’m thinking at the time, ‘Lafayette’s the country, right? How’s this country place beating us?’” Kennedy laughs. “I know better than that now — it is definitely not the country. We even went undercover to check the place out, and it was just like Parkway: a nice, busy po-boy shop. It started to turn into a little battle between the two of us. They got wind, because when I saw they were winning, I was like, ‘Well, if you can’t beat them, join them; whatever they’re doing, we’re going to do!’ I ended up pulling it off, and Parkway got first place with a week left. I don’t think I would do that again, but I’m glad I did it that time, because I met my wife.”

After going tit for tat in such an immersive, intense po-boy battle, Kennedy and the Parkway team decided to make a visit to Olde Tyme in Lafayette that was a little less, well, sneaky to meet the family who gave them a true run for their po-boy money. “We went and visited the [Murphree] family at Olde Tyme, and they’re a beautiful family. I met Becca, who’s a beautiful girl, but when you notice beauty, you don’t just ask them out or nothing like that. So, that never happened. I remember my aunt, because I was single at the time, doing ‘the nudge’ on the way home, because aunts are always trying to set you up, like, ‘Huh? What about her?’ I said, ‘What am I going to do? Come up here and ask her out? That ain’t happening.’ So, I kind of forgot about the whole thing and went back to New Orleans.”

After the nail-biter of a competition, Kennedy kept loosely in touch with the Murphree family, bouncing ideas around about the sandwich business. By 2020, they were trading tips and tricks for navigating the day-to-day of restaurant operations during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Becca called Justin out of the blue: She wanted to visit Parkway to see if it would be the right spot for the Krewe of Iris to hold a future luncheon.

“I told her, ‘That’s fine, but I’m on unemployment. We’re closed. When we open, I’ll give you a call!’” Justin chuckles, remembering the era of his “COVID beard” and no-shave days. After two-and-a-half months, Parkway officially reopened in May 2020, and ringing up Becca was at the top of Justin’s list. “I called to tell her we’d be opening on a Friday, and by golly, she was there on Saturday morning all dressed up and stuff. I can’t blow no smoke. When I saw her, I knew why she was there. We weren’t even having Mardi Gras the next year! I quickly got the hint, asked her out, and on our first date, I took her to Biloxi on Old Highway 90 and we had lunch in Bay St. Louis — a nice little drive.”

By August 2021, Justin knew the relationship was getting serious, and decided to propose with Lake Tahoe, California (a place he’d first visited with Hogs for the Cause team members) as the sweepingly scenic, romantic backdrop. Life, however, had other plans.

“When we got to Lake Tahoe, the first day was nice, but by the second and third days there were wildfires all over California, and Lake Tahoe is just a basin, so all the smoke went over the mountains and fell into the lake so you couldn’t even see your hands in front of your face. It was crazy. So, my original idea to propose on a boat was canceled. Then, toward the end of the trip, Becca’s coughing, I’m kind of coughing, and we’re coughing a little heavier, and we’re thinking it’s the smoke — but we both had COVID. I ended up putting the ring in a medicine bottle and leaving it on the side of the bed. In hindsight, that started up the ‘in sickness and in health’ part of marriage real quick!”

Becca and Justin married in January 2022 at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama, during a three-day celebration packed with family, friends — and only one po-boy. The groom’s cake was decorated to resemble a hyper-realistic shrimp po-boy, dressed, with papers from both Olde Tyme and Parkway peeking out from underneath the sandwich-shaped cake.

Since the wedding, the couple’s commitment to their respective family restaurants hasn’t wavered, with both Becca and Justin still clocking plenty of overtime while commuting between their two po-boy havens down (of course) Old Highway 90. “I’m still a New Orleans resident; she’s still a Lafayette resident. We don’t know what we’re going to do just yet. She works the restaurant business just like I work it — it’s still 50-plus hours per week!”

The couple is also expecting a baby who, without a doubt, will grow up with a deep appreciation for the pedestal-like place that po-boys hold in nourishing the people who make Louisiana’s communities so rich. (It’s also not difficult to imagine that the kid’s first words might be, “Dressed or undressed?”) “I think home base for the kid is going to be Lafayette, because she has more family surrounding her over there than I do in New Orleans, but this kid is going to be entrenched in New Orleans culture and Lafayette culture. It’s going to be neat for my kid to see both these places. It’s going to be a well-rounded Louisianan!”

And what a colorful childhood — filled with heart-bursting love of place — that will be. Po-boy shops are a tapestry, weaving together the ins and outs of daily life in cities, towns and wide spots in the road across Louisiana with an ease of connection that would be impossible to replicate if they were uprooted and moved elsewhere.

“If I had to go work in a hotel or white-tablecloth restaurant or something like that, I wouldn’t do it. I’d only run Parkway Bakery — that’s it,” says Justin. “You go to these nice white-linen restaurants and look, they’re beautiful, but there’s only a certain type of person who can afford that. You’re not going to get everybody going in there. Not everybody feels comfortable going in there! Also, not everybody feels comfortable going to eat at a corner store. But a po-boy shop, it attracts all walks of life: eight to 80, young and old, all ethnicities. You’ll have people sitting at the bar together, and one guy could be a millionaire and the other person could be someone who can barely afford that sandwich, and they’re striking up a conversation.”

It would be simple to imagine that memorable sandwiches are the reason po-boy shops keep their tables packed from morning to night, but Kennedy knows it’s more than that — it’s the people.

“You have to have good food to attract people to your restaurant, but that ain’t the reason I’m there. I like it because it’s the heartbeat of the city. I’ve seen old-timers who died 15 years ago who would tell stories about New Orleans you wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen little kids sitting on their mom and dad’s laps who are now doctors! I’m getting to that age where you’re start to see life happen in front of you. That’s what Parkway is. I can see the city of New Orleans every day without leaving the store.”