by Kristen Cloud/staff writer
Linda “GG” Gibson says “New Orleans” like only those whose families have been there for generations do: New Awlins. She knows all about the city—its neighborhoods, its people, its food. But GG doesn’t live in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged The Big Easy a decade ago, made that virtually impossible for her.
“I was in New Orleans my whole life until Katrina hit,” GG tells The Shelby Report. “I grew up there. I married there, had my kids, everything. My life was centered around New Orleans until the storm hit.”
Katrina dumped eight feet of water into GG’s home. Her New Orleans East business, an intimate cafe specializing in what she calls “designer” coffees, breakfast and lunch, as well as catering, was destroyed by nine feet of water. She had been in business for three years when the storm hit.
“(The cafe) did so well and, when Katrina hit, I couldn’t understand,” she says. “Everything had changed; it was just hard to start operations over again. I was renting the building, and that made it even harder. It was just a nightmare. That’s why we didn’t do it there anymore.”
GG reveals she was “lost” at the time but remembers it was one of her daughters, who was attending the city’s Tulane University, who prompted her to take a look at relocating to Georgia.
Immediately following the storm, a number of University System of Georgia institutions mobilized to assist Katrina victims, particularly Gulf Coast college students displaced by the disaster.
“That’s how we ended up in Georgia,” GG says. “At that point, we knew we had nothing to lose, and I needed to change scenery just to be able to focus. I couldn’t focus. It was just a chaotic time in the state during that time. The city basically was under water, and it wasn’t just one part that was hurt—most of the city, the majority of it, was hurt. Everybody was in chaos, so much so that, at that time, I could not wrap my head around how in the world we were going to do this over and rebuild and start over. It was my daughter’s insight that prompted us to come this way (to Georgia).”
It wasn’t easy. For several months, the family was living out of single hotel room in Georgia’s Cobb County. It was a woman with the American Red Cross, who happened to have been a customer at GG’s restaurant, who introduced GG to North Georgia.
“She said I needed to go somewhere where there were a lot a lot of trees, where I could find some solace, and she told me about Canton and Woodstock (north of Atlanta).
“Once we got out here, I really liked it. The people were very friendly, and I just felt like, ‘OK, we can do this. We can regroup.’ My husband told me, ‘You can do it again. There’s nobody like you out here.’”
She soon opened a restaurant in Woodstock, similar to the one in New Orleans, called GG’s Creole Cafe, serving lunch and dinner.
Business was good, she remembers, but then the recession hit. She was forced to close in 2008.
“I was wondering, ‘God, why is this happening to me?’ I really thought we were back on track. We were going to be able to create a good life for ourselves and our family. I just thought, ‘How could this happen?’ I could not wrap my mind around that. I didn’t understand. I felt so lost at that time.”
In some ways, GG says, the recession “did me worse than Katrina.”
“I did not know how I was going to bounce back from that because, in my mind, I felt like it was a second loss—the first was a natural disaster, the second was a man-made disaster. I just felt like I couldn’t go on. I wasn’t going to be able to bounce back. From that point, I went into a dark place.”
GG considers what happened next “part of my destiny.”
“When we closed the restaurant, I had to house all of the equipment we had bought and I couldn’t find a storage unit big enough to hold it, so I found a warehouse (in Woodstock),” she says. “One day, I was just in this place that I don’t wish on my worst enemy, so far as in your mind, and my daughter came in like an angel, and I still tell her that to this day, and said, ‘Mom, you have got to do something. What do you want to do?’
“At that time we had nothing—it was a double whammy—lost again,” GG adds. “And I really didn’t know how to pick up or try to start over. The only thing I knew was how to cook—that was it. And I said I’ll start doing it, and I’ll just start selling it on my own. That particular day I had a defining moment; I looked up in this warehouse full of all this stuff, and I said, ‘I need to build a kitchen.’ I got people to help me, sold off what I could, got pennies on the dollar for it. I just basically started from nothing again. I got the kitchen put in place and started selling my products, reconnecting with some of the customers who used to come in the restaurant. They started buying from me.”
That warehouse that GG had originally found simply for storage has turned into the home of her manufacturing business, which has taken off and continues to grow. Her products are available in Atlanta-area Kroger and Whole Foods Market stores. By the end of the year, she’ll have distribution across Whole Foods’ Southeast region. Her products also are available at several Winn-Dixie stores in Florida, as well as at some area markets and independent stores and online. Additionally, GG has expanded her product distribution into the food service arena. In all, she has 11 retail SKUs and 11 food service SKUs, ranging from her one-of-a-kind seasonings to her signature Famous Crawfish Pie; the recipe dates back to at least GG’s grandmother, from whom she learned how to cook.
“Down here in Georgia, it has been an item I have had to explain a million times because people just don’t understand crawfish being in a pie, but that’s a New Orleans staple right up there with jambalaya and gumbo,” GG says. “The recipe has been in my family forever…I have no idea where it came from. I’ve been making them since I was about 9 years old.”
GG, who will turn 52 Nov. 20, has written a cookbook and hopes to have another out by summer 2016; it will not only feature recipes and cooking tips, but also stories about learning her craft from her grandmother and her family’s history in New Orleans, where her extended family still resides. GG makes it back at least every other year, but plans to stay in Georgia. There is, however, a caveat.
“Families who live (in New Orleans) don’t move, they stay for generations upon generations,” she says. “I long for it sometimes. I think if I wasn’t able to cook my food, talk about this food, sell it, interact with people, keep that fire—the love I have for New Orleans in my soul, if I wasn’t able to keep that going, I don’t think I could stay (here in Georgia). I would have to go back. That’s the thing that keeps me moving.”
It’s also what differentiates her products.
“It’s the authenticity of the product,” GG says of what separates her from the crowd, adding that her goods are made with clean ingredients. “I don’t compromise New Orleans food. Whatever you can get in New Orleans, you can get it from GG—it’s that real. That’s why on my logo it says ‘Real New Orleans Creole Cuisine.’ We’re not New Orleans style, we’re not trying to put a twist on it, it’s not like that. It’s real. And I do that from the gumbo to the chowder to the red beans to the crawfish pie.”
“I’m on a mission, honey, to bring people back to the table and to get them eating and talking again as families. That’s so important, and I think it’s fading away very quickly.”
—Linda “GG” Gibson, GG’s Fine Foods
To learn more about GG’s Fine Foods, visit ggsfinefood.com.
*Editor’s note: This story also appears in the November 2015 print editions of The Shelby Report of the Southeast and Shelby Food Service magazine. Read more about life 10 years after Hurricane Katrina in the The Shelby Report of the Southeast.