By Johnny Griffith
Springtime, more than any other season, brings memories of my younger days flooding back. I’ve always had chronic spring fever and was more prone to skipping class, taking off on road trips, and just generally doing anything where I could soak up the sun waking from its winter slumber. Some of the most memorable of those memories center around crawfish season back in my home state of Louisiana. Spring is synonymous with the rainy season, which in turn meant the Dugdemona would swell and escape its banks bringing with it the promise of pounds upon pounds of the lobster of the swamp. We would skip school on a Friday, spend all day running crawfish traps, and afterwards gather at one of our houses to finish the rites by the boiling of the mudbugs. Crawfish boils always meant lots of food, lots of laughter, and great conversations with friends over a picnic table and perhaps some beer we snuck away from our dads.
Luke Parrish, owner and head Crawdad Wrangler over at Claw Daddy’s in Mineola, grew up with many of those same memories, and it’s obvious he intended to share those memories with his customers at one of the restaurants at the forefront of Mineola’s downtown revival. Born in 1979 in West Monroe, Louisiana, Parrish would travel a path that would eventually lead to downtown Mineola, and the rest is quickly becoming history, but that’s a story we thought he could tell better than us.
Johnny: So I’ve heard there is a great story about how you came to be the proud owner of what is now Claw Daddy’s. Would you mind taking us briefly about that day?
Luke: I was working in the IT/oil and gas field and having to travel to find work. I was tired of the travel and having to leave my family and decided to find something locally. One weekend in February we were having a family crawfish boil and decided to bring a few extra sacks of crawfish back to Mineola from Louisiana to sell on my deck in town. That way I could use the profit to pay for the boil we were having. Well, word spread, and I had 150lbs of crawfish sold before I made it in town. The next weekend it was 250. People would pull up to my house and buy them right off the deck. At that point, I knew I was onto something.
The first weekend in March I drove past an ice cream stand located in between two buildings in downtown Mineola. It had a courtyard that would hold 8 picnic tables, I knew it would be perfect. I talked to the owners, and they leased me the spot. I built the picnic tables, brought the facility up to health and fire code, and opened 12 days later. I had about $9,200 dollars saved up at the time. It cost me $8,800 to open with basically no backup plan. Opening night we had a line out the door, and it has been there ever since.
Johnny: You had admittedly no restaurant experience prior to taking over the lease on the ice cream stand that day. Why open a restaurant of all things? Was cooking a hobby prior to then?
Luke: I’ve always been a part of a cooking family. I learned to cook a little in my late teens, but then fell in love with the kitchen in my early 20’s. Cooking has always been my “thing” I guess you could say. I’ve always had a passion for accommodating, serving, and hosting people. It comes naturally to me to the point that even at dinner parties, I’ve always wanted to stay one step ahead of the guests. Service comes natural for me.
Johnny: As someone who grew up in the same neck of the woods you’re from, the struggle is real to get that real back-home experience. Was it that same type of nostalgia that led you to open Claw Daddy’s with the atmosphere you did?
Luke: I basically built a place that would make people feel like they were sitting in a Louisiana backyard. Back home we would bring an ice chest full of beer and eat crawfish on a picnic table, take our time, hang out for a bit, visit, laugh, and eat some more. It’s always about the experience, not getting in a hurry, keeping it casual, and just having a good time. I wanted people to feel like they were visiting my house and attending a family-style crawfish boil.
Johnny: What drew you to Mineola?
Luke: Originally because that’s where my girlfriend and her family lived, but after that relationship ended, I had the chance to relocate, but I decided to stay here. We are striving for downtown Mineola to have an Austin feel – with live music and people walking around downtown eating and drinking at different establishments.
Johnny: It seems as if the response has been great so far. Has it exceeded your expectations, or did you have an idea of the success you’d enjoy your first year?
Luke: I had no idea it would take off like it did. People really responded well. Good food with great customer service has turned my small venue into something that I could have never predicted.
Johnny: What were some of the immediate challenges you faced as well as some you’ve faced since then?
Luke: The challenges were all based around being able to scale. It’s easy cooking for ten friends at the house, however, taking that same model and scaling it to make a few hundred people feel that way without sacrificing quality, price, or timeliness is a different story. All I knew was that from the beginning, we weren’t going to sacrifice quality of service just to make more money. My staff knows service is our game and also knows they don’t get many chances when it comes to service. I preach to them from day one: customers don’t mind waiting; however, they do mind bad service or errors on their order. So even when there is a line of hungry customers, I always watch and make sure that every customer feels exactly like that: a customer not just a number that we are trying to push through the line with a dollar sign attached to their name.
Johnny: So how did you come up with the boil recipe? Family secret or just trial and error?
Luke: Trial and error. In my opinion, if you want the crawfish meat itself to have the flavor of the boil you have to soak them after cooking them. We have a system that involves six pots of different temperatures that get the crawfish seasoned while not over cooking them. It works well and most importantly it scales well for when we are slow and when we are slammed.
Johnny: What’s been your favorite memory so far?
Luke: Two things. First, we had our cash box stolen last year during a festival with about $400 dollars in it. Within two days, my customers replaced all the money that was stolen in the form of donations.
Second, at Thanksgiving last year, I decided to cook a free Thanksgiving meal for the community. Within a few days of announcing it, I had over 40 volunteers to work that day and offers from just as many people to cook food and bring supplies. I think it’s a true testament to what we have built in this community.
Johnny: Are there any expansion plans in the near future to accommodate demand?
Luke: Our only options are to build up. We will eventually build a 16-foot deck over the top of our seating that will double our capacity and give customers the experience of rooftop dining.
Johnny: What do you guys serve in the “offseason?”
Luke: Fried fish and seafood – there is no question that we have the best catfish. We hand batter every filet with our own cornmeal based batter and use great quality French fries that stay crunchy all the way through your meal.
We also serve shrimp pasta, which is a crowd favorite.
You can catch Luke Parrish slinging the mudbugs at Claw Daddy’s located at 120 Johnson St., Mineola. For more info find them at facebook.com/clawdaddysboiledcrawfish.