Kopp carries on in building where grandfather had store

Monroe Street spot is all in the family
Kopp carries on in building where grandfather had store

It is altogether possible to enjoy the Cajun food at New Orleans Take-Out on Monroe Street without realizing that the proprietor, Ken Kopp IV, is heir to two Madison culinary legacies.

For those with a sense of history, however, Kopp’s story may add some spice to their red beans and rice.

Kopp, 37, is the grandson of Ken Kopp, the grocer, who for two decades, starting in 1980, operated Ken Kopp’s Fine Foods on the near west side. Kopp called his grocery “the second most exciting place on Monroe Street,” and he might have been right. People flocked there for fresh meat and lively conversation.

Since 2003, Ken Kopp–the grandson–has operated NOTO across the road and down a few blocks from the grocery store, which closed in 2001.

NOTO has a rich history of its own, having originated across town, in the Fordem Avenue location launched by John Roussos in 1985. Roussos, a colorful character who once ran for mayor, still runs that one. Kopp owns the Monroe Street location and pays Roussos a royalty for the name and menu.

To complete the circle, it was Ken Kopp, the grocer, who found the Monroe Street NOTO location for his grandson. There was a “For Rent” sign in a building that had housed a tattoo parlor. It was next to Stadium Barbers, where the elder Kopp got his hair cut.

Ken Kopp IV has been working in the food business for as long as he can remember. His grandfather started Ken Kopp’s Fine Foods when Ken was a year old. By the time he was 8, Ken would show up at the store after school.

“You know how to run a vacuum, right?” his grandfather would say. “There’s $5 in it for you.”

Employees and regular customers smiled when they saw the young boy.

“I looked up to all the guys,” Kopp says. “Especially back in the meat department. It was almost like being raised by them. They were buddies of my grandfather who liked coming in and cutting meat.”

Young Ken’s father and mother worked at the store, too.

“Saturday nights,” Kopp says, “we would take all the meat out of the display case, put it in the walk-in cooler and clean the meat case. They’d bring sleeping bags and a little black and white TV for my younger sister and me.”

The Monroe Street area was shocked in December 2000 when Kopp’s grandfather announced at a neighborhood meeting that he intended to close the grocery store. It was a hard decision. Kopp was a graduate of Edgewood High School up the street, and first worked at the grocery store location when it was a Kroger’s in the late 1940s. That’s a lot of history. But he had health concerns, and competing as a small business–as much a meat market as a grocery store–against large food stores was never easy.

By 2000, Ken Kopp IV had been working for two years full-time in the meat department at Kopp’s. He also had several years’ experience at the NOTO location on Fordem Avenue.

Kopp attended Malcolm Shabazz City High School, not far from the restaurant. While in school he got a job at NOTO washing dishes.

“I liked working there,” Kopp says. Being around Roussos was never boring, and, of course, there was the food. For a kid who grew up eating a lot of German cuisine, it was a revelation.
“Red pepper? Shrimp on a sandwich?” Kopp says. “I fell in love with it.”

Out of high school, Kopp continued to work at NOTO, moving up to cook and manager. In 1998, his grandfather’s health problems (his grandfather died in 2006) led Kopp to have a conversation with Roussos.

“I told John I really wanted to get over there,” Kopp says. “Both to help out and see the meat business.”

When Kopp’s closed more than two years later, Kopp got back in touch with Roussos across town at NOTO.

“If you need help, let me know.”

Roussos said, “How about now?”

Kopp eventually brought up the idea of a second location and Roussos was game. “I had supreme confidence in him,” Roussos wrote on the 25th anniversary of the original NOTO.

It was hard work, especially early–the Monroe Street space needed extensive remodeling–but Kopp liked the vibe.

“I knew the Monroe Street area,” he says. “I knew I would end up seeing a lot of the old regulars from Ken Kopp’s.”

More than a decade in, Kopp is still
enjoying it. He and his wife, Sajia Hall, live a short walk from the restaurant. Hall’s grandmother is a Louisiana historian who gives NOTO a thumbs-up. There are deft little touches, like the bags of Louisiana-made Zapp’s chips near the cash register.

Savvy Cajun diners see them and smile.

“It’s like a comfort blanket,” Kopp says.