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Bayou Icon | Jan Mason

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Icon
Jul 31st, 2023
0 Comments
1255 Views

It takes a very special person to work in the hospitality industry. The hours are long, the challenges are many, but for some, it is the perfect vocation. Jan Mason, co-owner and proprietress of Warehouse No. 1, is one of those special people who seems to have been born for the job. Her restaurant has been serving delicious meals for 43 years now, and for almost all of those, Jan has been a mainstay. Her touch is evident in the details – the food, the service, the décor, the ambiance. In spite of the demands of The Warehouse, she still finds time to help others. Because of her trailblazing efforts to bring fine dining to the riverfront, and for her “can do” spirit that permeates every aspect of her life, Jan Mason is our August BayouIcon.

When she looks back over her life, Jan Mason cannot help but see destiny at work. Often when her life seemed at a crossroads, just the right opportunity arose. Never one to step away from a challenge, Jan has always been ready to adapt and move forward. As a result, she has enjoyed an amazing career in the restaurant business. She is quick to say that she learned from the best – her mother, Frances; her co-owner, Duane Humphries; and countless others along the way who helped her navigate the restaurant world.

PARENTS SET THE STAGE

Those who know Jan well are impressed by her determination and grit. She comes by that honestly. Her parents set the standard by which Jan has lived her life.

Jan’s father, Clarence L. “Tiny” Mason, was born in Morehouse Parish. He was anything but “tiny” – standing over 6 feet tall. After graduating Collinston High School, he took classes at Louisiana Tech. Her mother, Frances L. Mincey, was born in Vernon Parish. When she was 8, Frances lost her father. Her widowed mother moved the family to Ruston so that her children could go to college. She put her children through LaTech by running a boarding house. This was Jan’s family’s earliest known hospitality experience.

While Jan’s mother was at LaTech, she met Clarence. Frances graduated early with an education degree. Later she would earn a M.Ed. from Northeast (now ULM). Clarence left school to enter WWII. For his service, he earned a Bronze Star. When the War was over, they married.

Initially Clarence had a general store in Collinston. Later he worked as a retail clerk and bookkeeper for a Bastrop department store. He and his brother also farmed cotton on land the Masons owned near Collinston. Still later, Clarence became an insurance salesman for New York Life in Monroe. Meanwhile, Frances taught elementary students at several schools. She ended her teaching career at Clara Hall and then Plum Street in Monroe. She also worked at Jefferson College in Natchez as a docent.

The couple had two children, Jan and Ann. “I was a honeymoon accident,” Jan says, laughing. “My sister was born 15 years later – on my birthday!” When Ann grew up, she married Ed Daigle. They live in Wichita, Kansas, with their children. She has been a teacher and Ed has worked mainly in the hotel business.

LOVING LIFE ON A BIKE

Jan loved her years growing up in Bastrop when she was in elementary school. “I rode my hunter green Schwinn everywhere!” Jan says. “I rode it twice a day in summer to the Morehouse Country Club swimming pool.” She was an interesting combination – all girl, but with a little tom boy mixed in. “I spent hours in a 100-year-old magnolia tree, played fort and hide-and-seek, paper dolls, regular dolls, softball, and hop scotch,” Jan says. “Lots of freedom back then. So different from now.”

There were special adventures. Jan and a friend were asked by their dance teacher to do a song and dance duet on the “Happiness Exchange” on KNOE. She also remembers enjoying Sunday lunches at the Rose Inn in Crossett and an especially fun trip to Eureka Springs. When Jan was at Neville High School, two of her best friends’ families had ski boats. The three girls mastered the fine art of skiing the Ouachita River for miles up and down – sometimes on slalom – without getting their hair wet! That, she says, was quite an accomplishment. At Neville Jan was active in Tigerettes and was a leader there. She also enjoyed being selected for Pelican Girls State.

Family holidays were special for the Mason family, especially Thanksgiving. “Food was a huge part of our get-togethers because Mom, her sister, and her mother were all great cooks,” Jan says. “My cousin and I weren’t taught cooking, but they did teach us how to wash dishes!”

Jan’s favorite was Christmas. “My mom always came up with some surprise gift which we weren’t expecting,” she remembers. “The farm money came in the fall so there was always a little extra.” She enjoyed going to Christmas Eve church and then enjoying Mom’s gumbo for dinner. (That same gumbo has been enjoyed for decades at Warehouse No.1.)

Jan credits her parents for giving her a foundation on which to build. “They taught me perseverance, an appreciation for good food, the importance of laughter – my dad was great at telling jokes, and determination,” she says. “I have used all of these as an adult.”

IN SEARCH OF A CAREER

In summers during Jr. and Sr. high school, Jan was a counselor at Y-Day Camp in Forsythe Park. She taught swimming at Swayze Natatorium, crafts, and played games with the younger campers. Jan enjoyed this immensely.

Jan entered LaTech in General Studies because she had no idea what career to pursue. When she was in Mrs. McGee’s class in 8th grade at Lee Junior High, Jan realized that she had an aptitude for math. Her mom, after seeing Jan’s grades (“the worst grades of my life!”) from her first semester, told Jan to decide on something. Jan declared a major in accounting after, as she says, “. . . eliminating everything else!”

Jan pledged Kappa Delta Sorority and found friends for life. She enjoyed the Business Students’ Association and held leadership positions in that and KD. To earn spending money, Jan did general office work for two LaTech professors. She also worked for a local CPA firm one summer doing accounting work.

Although she liked all of her professors, one stands out: Dr. Bob Harrison. She took his beginning marketing at ULM one summer and loved it. “He made his subject matter the most interesting class I had ever taken!” Jan says.

After graduation, Jan held several jobs over the next decade – all but one using her accounting degree. She worked for Humble Oil and Refining Co. (later renamed Exxon) for 4 ½ years, Price Waterhouse CPA Firm for 2 years, and University of St. Thomas for 2 years – all in Houston, Texas. After that much time doing straight accounting, Jan grew tired of doing accounting for people who were having all the fun. A change was in order.

Jan returned to Monroe and took a job with Faulk & Foster Real Estate doing primarily residential sales. She loved learning something new. After two years, she left real estate to work with her mother, and at last found the career that was meant for her.

TURNING CHALLENGES INTO OPPORTUNITIES

Jan’s father died when he was just 56. Her mother received some insurance proceeds, but not enough to retire on. With determination and courage, Frances decided to risk it all on a restaurant venture. She and her late husband had spoken about the need for a new seafood restaurant in Monroe, so she began thinking of that as an option. She was 59 and determined not to be dependent on her two daughters. The result? Warehouse No. 1. When Frances opened it on June 1, 1980, she presented the public a new “face” and “place” for fine dining in the region. 

Jan set up her mom’s books and began working there nights and weekends to help out. Just by chance, between jobs in Houston Jan had worked as a waitress in an upscale restaurant for several months. She was thankful for that experience when her mom opened the restaurant! It was also very helpful to have Ed, Ann’s husband, work some there during those early years.

An important reason for the success of Warehouse No.1 is Duane Humphries, the co-owner. An astute businessman, Duane has a number of investment properties including older structures. He oversees maintaining the building, and – because of his experience with older buildings – he is very familiar with how to keep the building the best it can be while not losing its historical significance. Duane and Jan divided their work so that each could do what he did best. Jan says that Duane is a “big picture” guy while she is details-oriented, especially with the paperwork that he wants no part of. Duane handles day-to-day operations, conducting managers’ meetings every Monday to ensure that operations are carefully planned and carried out.

In the beginning, there were a number of challenges. It took courage to rent a 100-year-old warehouse and convert it into a restaurant. Jan’s mother’s time living in Natchez meant that she had witnessed many old buildings converted to other uses. She was delighted to find that the warehouse offered the open space required, as well as some beautiful construction details. She decided to change only what was absolutely necessary – the warehouse must look like the historic building that it was. The biggest challenge was the overgrown space outdoors. “It took one man a month to hack through and clear the overgrowth!” Jan says. “The levee board wouldn’t let Mother have any machinery on their levee.”

There have been serious challenges. In 1991, a major flood hit and Warehouse No.1 was closed for 7 weeks. Having survived that, the restaurant was hit again – in 2016 – with a fire. Warehouse No.1 was closed for 3 months. As it turns out, that fire was a blessing in disguise. When all of the soot was removed, they saw their chance to make changes. The original royal blue was replaced, new tables purchased, and matching ceiling fans installed. Three spaces – the bar, back serving spaces, and kitchen – were all improved. Duane was instrumental in overseeing these changes.

Experienced with managing crises, when the pandemic hit Jan, Duane, and their team immediately began figuring out what Warehouse No.1 “could do” during a time filled with “can’t do’s.” They started doing take-outs suitable for families. These “Family Take-Out’s” proved very popular. When inhouse dining was allowed again, they carefully followed the distancing rules between tables, took temperatures at the door, etc. “Frankly, the biggest challenge was adjusting to a different set of facts/rules every week,” Jan says. “We had experienced survival before, so we just made decisions and kept going.”

A RICH LIFE BEYOND RESTAURANT WALLS

While Jan is the first to admit that owning and operating a restaurant is extremely time-consuming, she also admits that life beyond those walls can be good, too. The work hours are demanding and can put a damper on one’s free time. “It’s night and weekend work that takes up a lot of time and prevents attending many social events,” she admits. “I’m married to a restaurant! The Warehouse No.1 employees are the children I never had.”

Through the years, Jan has enjoyed a number of pursuits that are not work-related. She has enjoyed learning to play golf through the years. She is also a dedicated jogger, running every other day from age 30 until age 60. She loves to entertain friends in her home during holidays, and has favorite dishes that she prepares for each occasion. Her recipes are heirloom family ones, or ones shared by friends, or ones she finds in The Cotton Country Collection. 

Her most treasured pursuit is travel, and she’s managed to do quite a lot of it. Among her past trips, one to London was her favorite. She learned from DNA testing that her ancestors were primarily from England. That confirmed what her uncles had always said – that the Masons originated in Wales. Jan drove to Wales on this trip and noticed while there a large company sign bearing the name “Mason.” Jan recently booked her next trip – a “bucket list” item. She will travel by train from Vancouver/Victoria across the Canadian Rockies to Jasper, Banff, and Lake Louise in 2024. 

Jan — personally and through Warehouse No.1 — has given back to the community generously and often. Grace Place, Pilots for Patients, the Broaden Horizon kids from First West, and many others have benefited from her community support. She has also given back through her interest in politics. Jan served on the LABI board (Louisiana Association of Business and Industry) and later was named Chairman of NorthPAC – the political arm of LABI. 

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

Jan and her mother always believed in riverfront development. They hoped by opening Warehouse No.1 they could be a catalyst for further development. Sadly, that didn’t happen as quickly as they had hoped. Even so, it has happened. Our area is fortunate to have women like Jan and her mother who are willing to take risks to make life better for us all.