Lion’s Share says its final goodbyes

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Geraldine Cooks did what she had done thousands of times before on Saturday night.

She grabbed a ladle, scooped up some light-brown seafood gumbo from a giant stockpot, and poured it into two bowls and a cup. Seth Walker, a teen in a large, white polo shirt, brought the steaming plates to Andrew and Carolyn Hebert and Derek and Alison Santiny, seated at a large table in the back.

And with that, the Lion’s Share had served its final meal.

The Lion’s Share has closed its doors after being a Houma staple for 48 years. The restaurant, featuring loyal staff with decades of experience, shuts down after having spent three generations in the Walker family. The Lion’s Share opened in 1969, ran by a group of local businessmen. In 1977, Floyd and Peggy Walker bought the restaurant, with their son Craig running the business on the weekends. When Floyd and Peggy died in 1995, Craig took over. He ran the Lion’s Share on a part-time basis until 2000, when he took an early retirement from his sales representative job to fully concentrate on the restaurant.

The restaurant spent 42 years in the Southland Mall, offering a small, popular venue for locals to pop into while shopping. Six years ago, the Lion’s Share moved to its current location Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Last year, Craig retired and passed the business onto his son, Scott.

However, a confluence of circumstances convinced Scott to shutter the restaurant’s doors. He accepted an athletic director position at Academy of Our Lady, a New Orleans high school, and needed more time to focus on his job. The next Walker generation, including Seth the server, is not out of college yet, so there are no Walker heirs to pass the business to, and Craig said he is not able to work the demanding hours required to run a restaurant anymore. With the lease ending at the end of July, Scott saw late July as the time to close for good.

“It was a tough family decision, but it was time,” Scott said.

The Lion’s Share announced its closure to both employees and the public on June 9. According to manager Marcie Newby, the early announcement was to give everyone ample time to adjust to the impending closure.

“We wanted to give all the employees the opportunity to look for work, if they wanted to, or to stick it out with us, either way. We weren’t just going to leave them with closed doors. We wanted to give our community time to get their favorite meals – which we didn’t know they were going to be coming back 15 times. And they keep on coming,” Newby said.

That community showed up on Saturday for one last taste of their local cookery, with sometimes as many as three generations of Lion’s Share loyalists sharing a final meal. The restaurant’s offerings grew thinner and thinner through the day as patrons exhausted the restaurant’s supplies. By 2:30 p.m., the kitchen had run out of hamburger steak, stew, marinated chicken, catfish, fried pickles and cheese sticks.

Orders later in the day focused on seafood, particularly the fried shrimp or the gumbo. That was no problem to 12-year-old Lily Domangue, seated with her parents Darryl and Carol as well as her grandparents Ida and Ernest Robichaux. Lily’s elders had been coming to the Lion’s Share for years, with Lily joining the team while she was still in Carol’s womb. The family would usually come every Friday night, sometimes switching to Saturday if scheduling was an issue.

When Lily was a toddler, she was more interested in crying up a storm at the Lion’s Share, so much so that waitresses would walk her around the restaurant to calm her down. As she grew up, the crying stopped, replaced by a love for the restaurant’s seafood gumbo. The Lion’s Share’s gumbo is the only way Lily eats shrimp; whether fried, boiled or in gumbo, shrimp in any other form from any other place makes her stomach hurt. On Saturday, Lily had her final cup of the gumbo she loves so much. And what will the family do on Fridays now that her favorite gumbo spot is no more?

“No one knows,” Lily said with a shrug.

The maker of Lily’s beloved gumbo is Jacquelyn “Jackie” Clay, a 33-year veteran of the restaurant. Clay is in charge of making the gumbos and stews used throughout the day each morning. Though most of the Lion’s Share’s menu is based on Peggy Walker’s recipes, Clay has inserted her own Creole flavor into the mix during her tenure. Craig praised Clay’s gumbo as his favorite dish at the Lion’s Share, going so far as to say he’s come to an agreement with her to occasionally make him gumbo after the cookery’s closure.

When asked what her plans were once the lights went out for the last time in the kitchen, Clay simply said, “Rest.”

Joining Clay in the kitchen with decades of Lion’s Share experience are Geraldine and her sister, Linda Cooks, with 21 and 24 years, respectively, under their belts. Craig said the Lion’s Share has strived to do right by the kitchen to keep them around, noting that having more than 50 years of experience working in the kitchen at any time is invaluable.

“I keep my cooks because we treat them like family. And that’s pretty much what it’s been. The customers are the same way. We’ve just been blessed. It’s been a great 48 years,” Craig said.

That family feeling was prevalent throughout the Share’s final hours, as groups of regulars flocked in and out, hugged the Walkers and the staff and spoke about the memories they’d had. David and Shirley Melancon, Richard and Tina Chauvin, and John and Germaine Corso had a dinner together before heading to watch a movie as a group date night, a Saturday tradition the crew has done for years, since the restaurant was back at the mall.

“It’s going to be a tradition that’s going to be missed, for sure – the people and the food,” Tina said.

A table over, Alicia Culhane ate with her husband, Jack, her daughter, Jackie Clement, and her son-in-law, Anthony. Alicia and Jack have been regulars since moving to Houma from New Orleans 22 years ago. The family had Alicia’s 60th birthday party at the restaurant last year, and every anniversary or Valentine’s Day would be spent at the Lion’s Share. Jackie had even worked there during high school, bussing tables and helping in the kitchen when the need arose. Alicia has shed quite a few tears since hearing about the closure, and she showed up Saturday to get her last order of shrimp and her favorite Long Island Iced Tea in the town.

“It is a loss. It’s a big void in your life. It’s like losing family. It’ll all be okay. This too shall pass. Life goes on,” Alicia said.

Making Alicia’s drink was Kim Guidroz, a longtime server at the Lion’s Share. By the time she was preparing the Long Island Iced Tea, Kim was working for free, having gotten off the clock after the lunch shift. Kim hung around after her shift ended, having a few cold ones as she talked to regulars streaming into the establishment. She stayed through the night, and as business picked up, she got behind the bar to help her (now former) co-workers.

That familial sense of assistance at the Lion’s Share stretches not just from co-worker to co-worker but between customer and server. Elton Sweet ate his last meal at the Lion’s Share on Saturday with his wife Lucetta and daughter LaCean. While their main gastronomical love is the restaurant’s steaks, all three switched it up and had shrimp that night.

The Royal Dukes Civic and Social Club, of which Elton is president, had been hosting its monthly meetings at the Lion’s Share, and Elton said he’s thankful for the treatment the ownership and staff showed him over the years. So thankful, in fact, that when Guidroz, studying at Nicholls State University, faced a shortage in financial aid for her summer session tuition this year, Elton’s club raised money for a $500 scholarship to cover the cost.

“My husband’s out of work from the oilfield. I’ve been taking care of myself. [Elton] really helped when I needed it,” Guidroz said.

As the night wound down, orders were getting confused, as customers would order things that were already depleted. Newby and the youngest Walkers, helping their dad and grandfather on the family restaurant’s last day, negotiated with the kitchen about what was still available. Gumbos had to be served with no rice, while other orders had to be changed entirely.

“Y’all really don’t want us to leave, huh? I got a job on Monday morning I’ve got to be at,” Cooks said, playfully chiding the young servers.

Those final bowls of gumbo made it to the table of the Heberts and the Santinys, who rushed back from their weeklong trip to Destin to ensure they had one last meal at the Lion’s Share. As the final patrons filled up their bellies one last time while the staff began cleaning the back of the restaurant, Geraldine summed up everyone’s Saturday night.

“We’ve come to the end of the road,” Geraldine said. •