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A Family Tradition

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Icon
Aug 1st, 2021
0 Comments
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Catfish Cabin of Monroe will celebrate 50 years of serving delicious meals. Today, the restaurant is owned and operated by the children of original owners James Russell Hearn, Sr. and his wife Norma Moore Hearn.

ARTICLE BY GEORGIANN POTTS AND PHOTOS BY KELLY MOORE CLARK

In March 15, 2022, Catfish Cabin of Monroe will celebrate 50 years of serving delicious meals not only in Ouachita Parish, but also well beyond. Because of their commitment not only to their business but also to our community, Catfish Cabin of Monroe and the Hearn Family are our Bayou Icons for August.

Today Catfish Cabin customers are to be found throughout north Louisiana, south Arkansas, and western Mississippi. Catering with onsite cooking available proved to be an excellent addition to their tableside offerings. It was added in 1988 when Graphic Packaging placed an order for Plant #70. Since then, they have catered events large and small, offering delicious food and personal service to groups of up to 1,300 people. 

The restaurant’s motto — “Monroe Landmark & Hearn Family Tradition” – is an understatement. The restaurant is absolutely both a landmark and a family affair. Today Catfish Cabin of Monroe is owned and operated by Russell Hearn, Jr., Patricia Hearn Tolar, and David Hearn – the children of original owners James Russell Hearn Sr. and his wife Norma Moore Hearn.

The Original Fish Camp
But the story of the Hearn family tradition of family and good food begins much longer ago than 50 years. To understand the Catfish Cabin story best, one has to go back to 1937 to a family home and fishing camp located on the banks of the Tombigbee River in Lavaca, Alabama. Charles Agnew Ezell, James’s first cousin, and his family lived in an old log cabin that had served as a trading post during the Civil War. Many believe that the original dogtrot log structure was built by a French fur trader.

According to the family, Charles worked with his father as commercial fishermen on the river. When his family outgrew the two-room dogtrot, Charles kept the cabin as a hunting club. When his hunting club members needed a meal, Charles began frying catfish and hush puppies for the members. Word got around and his reputation for providing good food led to Charles opening Ezell’s Fish Camp restaurant in the late 1940’s. The business grew with people traveling from miles around to eat at Charles’s fish camp on the river. This original catfish cabin by the river was to be the beginning of a family food dynasty that by the mid-1960’s had spanned well over a dozen successful family-operated franchise restaurants in Albertville, Birmingham, Phenix City, Gadsden, Mobile, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Memphis, Tennessee; Columbus, Georgia; and Boyle, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Meridian, Taylorville, and Waynesboro, Mississippi; Pensacola, Florida; Dallas, Texas; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Each would be named “Catfish Cabin” and all would use the same menus and recipes that originated at Ezell’s Fish Camp, and would recreate the rustic décor that had helped make Ezell’s such a success.

t was the economic boom in the United States after WWII that increased the demand for drive-in restaurants, according to Russell. A new industry — catfish farming — “took off” in the south where the large freshwater ponds were well-suited to growing catfish. “Soon, fried catfish filets were in big demand across the US,” Russell says. “Farm-raised catfish is very delicious!”

Monroe, Louisiana, Family’s Beginning
James Hearn, Sr. was born in Ward, Alabama, the youngest of 6. His father was an attorney (and classmate of Hugo Black, U.S. Supreme Court Justice), a farmer, and owner of Hearn Country Store. After graduating from Ward High School, he was introduced by friends to Norma Moore. She was born in Union, Mississippi, one of 6. Her father was a machinist and gun smith. She graduated from Union High School.

Three years after they met, James and Norma were married. He earned a BS degree in Business Administration from the University of Southern Mississippi. During this time, their first child, Russell, Jr. was born. After earning his degree, James, Sr. enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean Conflict. He was stationed in Germany and had his young family with him there.

When they returned to the states, the family returned to York, Alabama, where their second child and only daughter, Patricia, was born. Both Catfish Cabin of Monroe founders acquired valuable work experience before they embarked on a franchise of their own. James, Sr. worked in medical sales, and Norma worked in retail sales management with Bill’s Dollar Stores. 

In 1959, the family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where their third child, David, was born. After several years, the family moved first to Baton Rouge and then to Opelousas as James’s job required. Norma continued to work as the store manager of a Bill’s Dollar Store in Opelousas.

When their children were 18, 15, and 11 years old, James and Norma decided to make a personal dream come true by opening their own Catfish Cabin franchise. The two considered possible locations in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but Monroe’s geographic location became the deciding factor. “My parents thought that Monroe would be ideal because I-20 was a heavily traveled, east-west corridor across north Louisiana,” Russell explains. “They were right.”

Luckily, the iconic Rendezvous Drive-In Restaurant (a very successful family-owned and operated restaurant founded by the Pappas family in the late 1930’s) was available for lease from the Johnson/Pappas family. The building continues to be leased today. In mid-March 1972, Catfish Cabin of Monroe opened its doors for business at 1400 Louisville Avenue.

Growing Up a Hearn
For Russell, Patricia, and David, childhood memories center on family gatherings and learning the value of working hard. Russell and Patricia remember visiting cousins and grandparents in Mississippi and Alabama on holidays and during family vacations. “We shared lots of good food and slept on pallets with cousins and friends,” Patricia recalls. For David, it was a family trip to Washington D.C. to learn about the history of this great country that stands out the most.

The Hearn family gatherings were — according to Russell, Patricia, and David — always large and fun. “Christmas was the best, because somehow Santa always showed up even though we weren’t in Louisiana. The men and boys would hunt, and the women and girls cooked. It was a very special time,” they say.

Russell admits that both of their parents were good cooks, but their mother was actually the best. She prepared many memorable dishes, and her fried chicken with vegetables from their dad’s big garden was delicious. The family favorite, however, is their mom’s chicken and rice casserole which they still prepare today along with other of her best recipes.

Not surprisingly, the siblings are all excellent cooks, too. Russel learned to cook at Catfish Cabin, taught by two sisters – Hazel Bell and Evelyn Spencer – who retired after 40 years at the restaurant. David learned to fry catfish when he was 12, cooking with Charles Ezell, the catfish cabin patriarch. Patricia remembers learning to cook at home with her “Easy Bake Oven” that Santa had brought her.

The Hearn family home epitomized “togetherness” in all of the best ways. The parents and their children worked together, ate together, talked together, and watched television together. “Our parents taught good Christian values, provided us with a loving home, and instilled in us a family orientation for the rest of our lives,” Patricia says.

Career Paths 
All three Hearn siblings started working early. Russell mowed yards, and later worked in Bill’s Dollar Store doing stock work, moving lay-a-way packages, making change as a cashier, and learning how to give good service to both management and the customers. Patricia began working as a Christmas package wrapper in an Opelousas department store. At 15, she started working in Catfish Cabin doing whatever her parents asked her to do. She learned from them to always do her best and to respect people. David began working at Catfish Cabin when he was 12. He bussed tables, washed dishes – whatever his dad asked him to do. “All of the duties prepared me to understand all the jobs that have to be performed in the business,” David says.

Each sibling found different career paths but all eventually led back to Catfish Cabin. For all three, as Russell explains, “. . . continuing the legacy of our parents is our most rewarding professional accomplishment.” Russell credits his early work experience before and during his Catfish Cabin days with preparing him for the daily challenges that restaurant operations bring. “The most important lessons I learned were the significance of hard work, self-discipline, self-reliance, organization, and customer and employee relations skills – including respect and appreciation for every customer,” Russell says.

David began working at Catfish Cabin at an early age, but later worked in a food distribution warehouse and in outside contract sales before coming “home” to the family business. He credits these experiences with teaching him to work hard, persevere, and to organize carefully. “All of these experiences taught me the necessary skills for working and communicating with customers, employees, vendors, contractors, business owners, and people at all levels in our community,” David explains.

For Patricia, her time at Catfish Cabin developed in her a passion for taking excellent care of her customers. She made a point to know them personally, and through her they got to know Patricia and the Hearn family. “Today, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of many of our earliest customers still patronize Catfish Cabin,” Patricia says. “We consider our patron customers to be part of our family!”

Patricia’s work at Catfish Cabin was interrupted when she married John Tolar (who she met at Catfish Cabin) and they moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee. She worked for Bank of America there as a teller, teller trainer, and administrative assistant in private banking. When John retired, they moved home to Monroe. She worked at Catfish Cabin for several years, and then spent nearly a decade working at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) in the Office of Public Relations and the Office of Admissions. Although she enjoyed her work at ULM very much, she cites her work with family at Catfish Cabin with the employees and loyal customers as her greatest professional reward.

Catfish Cabin of Monroe Evolves
In 1980, Catfish Cabin expanded when the adjacent old Rendezvous Lounge was converted into two dining rooms. This brought seating capacity to 450. Today the restaurant has 5 dining rooms serving families, clubs and organizations, and special events.

The original menu has changed very little over time. At one time, steaks were offered but they were dropped from the menu. Outstanding hamburger steaks remain, however, offering a delicious beef option. Several new salads have been added, and in a tip-of-the-hat to health considerations, some healthy meal options have been added.

The bestselling item on the menu is – no surprise here – catfish. One favorite is their “thin and crispy” catfish fillet option. When asked where that special item originated, Russell explained that it was added after customers began asking for it after having enjoyed it at Middendorf’s restaurant in south Louisiana. Customers have made other requests over the years, but the family tradition of serving catfish and seafood remains predominant. 

Special Memories
Over 50 years, any business will accumulate special memories. Catfish Cabin is no exception. For Mother’s Day 1987, they ran an ad offering a FREE meal that day to all mothers. On another memorable day, four NBA players from the Monroe area came in for a meal together. Although all were taller than 6’7”, they sat together — in one booth! One of the restaurant’s patrons, a 100-year-old lady, celebrated her birthday over a meal there every six months until she passed away at 104.

Two anniversaries hold very special memories. One was the 25th anniversary of Catfish Cabin, and the other marked the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, James and Norma. Their mother passed away shortly after, and their father some years later.

There are more than a few unusual experiences that come along over time in the restaurant business. One of the most memorable was recently shared by David. It seems that the Monroe City Police Swat Team took a lunch break at Catfish Cabin while they were doing a routine training drill. They ordered lunch in the Cypress Room after parking their armored vehicles in the parking lot. Just as their meal was being brought to table, the team received an emergency call from the 911 dispatcher advising them that the bank in OIB Plaza across the street was experiencing automatic weapon fire and under terrorist attack. The team grabbed bullet proof vests, automatic weapons, and helmets and rushed to their vehicles with sirens blaring. 

The story has a happy ending – for some, at least. Patricia’s husband, John Tolar, was the OIB bank security officer. He quickly discovered that a young visiting bank auditor had heard what he thought was machine gun fire, barricaded himself in an office, and called 911. The SWAT team surrounded the bank, only to discover several roofers with nail guns attaching metal flashing on the roof. The crisis was a false alarm.

“The SWAT team returned to Catfish Cabin and finished their lunch,” David explains. “This is just one more reason why we are so grateful to the police and all first responders for what they do for our community.”

Special Challenges
As with every other business, Catfish Cabin has had to deal with special challenges. With the sudden appearance of a worldwide epidemic, every sibling had to work together to adjust Catfish Cabin to the new reality that COVID created. Patience was perhaps the most important response as each sibling and their employees sought ways to keep the business open and their food available to the public. In what felt like a throwback to the distant past, tableside service was transformed back into drive-in service as the crew learned how to run a curbside business. The first few weeks were the most difficult as everyone associated with Catfish Cabin had to adapt.

“When you lose 60% of your revenue in three months’ time, it’s really tough,” Russell explains. “The PPP money helped to pull us through.” Brother David agrees, “The pandemic taught us that change is going to happen, and we need to be able to adapt to that change,” he says. “A challenge was – and still is – acquiring products (much like we experienced during the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf that made it hard to get seafood). We definitely worried a lot until we figured out a survival strategy for Catfish Cabin.” 

Anyone who has been around the restaurant business knows something of the long hours that are required to make a success of it. When asked recently to talk about the amount of “work” necessary to make a good business an excellent one, all three siblings agreed — the hours are long, and working with split schedules just complicates things. Balancing work time and family time has always been both difficult and necessary.

Russell, Patricia, and David and their spouses together have 7 children and 11 grandchildren. As one would expect, through the years there have been many activities that the children and now the grandchildren have been involved in. Although they tried, there were still times when the siblings couldn’t be two places at once. Staying involved in family activities while working in a demanding career, according to Russell, was one of the hardest parts of his job. For example, while he managed to attend things his children were in, he was unable to coach – a personal disappointment. David and Patricia agreed, adding that all of them tried not to neglect their families. 

Finding Time to Give Back
Even though they were balancing family and career, all three Hearns have found ways to give back to the community that made them feel welcome and who have kept their Catfish Cabin dishing out fried catfish and warm, personal greetings all these years. 

Their choices of places to volunteer their services reflect both their love for the local community and for their industry. Russell has served on the ULM Athletic Foundation Board of Directors and received the Slim Scoggin Award for Service there. He also serves as a deacon at Parkview Baptist Church.

Patricia has also been involved in the community, but often in a behind-the-scenes sort of way. She served on a variety of service committees during her time at ULM including one that helped plan former president Nick Bruno’s Investiture as incoming president. She especially enjoyed being invited on stage to accept a plaque for Catfish Cabin, which was recognized at the 2021 Miss Louisiana Pageant for its sponsorship of the Miss Louisiana Pageant for the past 40 years. 

Their father was active in the Louisiana Restaurant Association and was one of the founders of the LRA-SIF (Self-Insured Fund), a fund that is still in place today. David followed his dad in this work, and served the LRA from 2000-2018 in a variety of positions including state chairman of the board in 2013. In 2018, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and was named Humanitarian of the Year by Louisiana Cookin’ Magazine. Catfish Cabin has been a member of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce for 40 years.

What’s Next?
Although none of the siblings are ready to retire just yet, all of them have some idea what they would do if the business didn’t keep them occupied. All of them had early career dreams – Russell always wanted to work in the restaurant business, Patricia thought that becoming a dental hygienist would be an interesting career, and David had thoughts of becoming a police officer. Today, they are grateful for the lives they have lived and for the business that each learned “from bussing tables on up” at Catfish Cabin.

Still, retirement will someday come. All three want to spend more time with their families, but there are other dreams as well. Russell hopes to one day play 18 holes of golf at Pebble Beach, followed by dinner at sunset with his wife and golfing buddies. Patricia wants to spend time at home in her yard or boating on the Ouachita with John. David has a slightly different — though definitely specific — goal. He wants to be sitting in his deer stand on a cool day with 35 degree temperatures and no wind, watching several large bucks in front of him.

Who will take over Catfish Cabin when the siblings are finished? That’s a question that has yet to be even thought about. Several of the children work at the restaurant, and others pitch in especially for large catered events. All are too young yet to really tell which ones might want to take over operational duties.

One thing is certain – whoever does will understand from example the importance of good food, served with an appreciative smile. For 84 years, some member of the family has been frying catfish and hushpuppies for their family, friends, and customers. It is hard to imagine that ever stopping. Here’s to the next 50 years, Catfish Cabin of Monroe!