Poor boy sandwiches represent bedrock New Orleans. The shotgun house of New Orleans cuisine, Po-boys are familiar but satisfying. The sandwich is as diverse as the city it symbolizes. The crisp loaves have served as a culinary crossroads, encasing the most pedestrian and exotic of foods: shrimp, oyster, catfish, soft-shell crabs as well as French fries and ham and cheese. Comfort food in other cities seldom reaches such heights.
As with many culinary innovations, the poor boy has attracted many legends regarding its origins. However, documentary evidence confirms that your grandparents' stories about one particular restaurant were right.
Excerpt from Streetcar Stories documentary with info and interviews about the history of the Po-Boy [1min 45sec].
View longer excerpt covering the entire transit strike [13min 30sec]
Bennie and Clovis Martin left their Raceland, Louisiana, home in the Acadiana region in the mid-1910s for New Orleans. Both worked as streetcar conductors until they opened Martin Brothers' Coffee Stand and Restaurant in the French Market in 1922. The years they had spent working as streetcar operators and members of the street railway employees' union would eventually lead to their hole-in-the-wall coffee stand becoming the birthplace of the poor boy sandwich.
Following increasingly heated contract negotiations, the streetcar motormen and conductors struck beginning July 1, 1929. The survival of the carmen's union and 1,100 jobs was in question. Transit strikes throughout the nation provoked emotional displays of public support, and the 1929 strike ranks among the nation's most violent.
When the company attempted to run the cars on July 5 using "strike breakers" (career criminals brought in from New York) brickbats and jeering crowds stopped them. More than 10,000 New Orleanians gathered downtown and watched strike supporters disable and then burn the first car operated by a strike breaker.
A highly sympathetic public participated in greatest numbers by avoiding the transit system, which remained shut down for two weeks. Former New Orleans Fire Department Superintendent William Mc Crossen experienced the strike as a teenager: "Dare not—nobody, nobody would ride the streetcars. Number one, they were for the carmen. Number two, there was a danger [in riding the cars]." Brickbats greeted the few streetcars that ran. Small and large businesses donated goods and services to the union local.
The many support letters included one from the Martin Brothers promising, "Our meal is free to any members of Division 194." Their letter concluded: "We are with you till h--l freezes, and when it does, we will furnish blankets to keep you warm." Martin Brothers Letter courtesy of Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University Libraries.
In order to maintain their promise, the Martins provided large sandwiches to the strikers. Bennie Martin said, "We fed those men free of charge until the strike ended. Whenever we saw one of the striking men coming, one of us would say, 'Here comes another poor boy.'"
The traditional French bread's narrowed ends meant that much of each loaf was wasted, so the Martins worked with baker John Gendusa to develop a 40-inch loaf of bread that retained its uniform, rectangular shape from end to end. This innovation allowed for half-loaf sandwiches 20 inches in length as well as a 15-inch standard and smaller ones. The original poor boy sandwiches offered the same fillings as had been served on French bread loaves before the strike, but the size was startlingly new.
By the start of the Great Depression, the carmen had lost the strike and their jobs. The continuing generosity of the Martins as well as the size of the sandwiches proved to be a wise business decision that earned them renown and hundreds of new customers.
In 1931, the restaurant relocated to the 2000 block of St. Claude Avenue—just two blocks from Gendusa Bakery. A couple of years later they expanded their building into a much larger restaurant with an attached billiards hall. As the Depression worsened, many New Orleanians enjoyed the opportunity to feed themselves or their families using the famously oversized poor boy sandwiches.
Clovis and Bennie parted ways by the late 1930s. Bennie held onto the St. Claude location, and Clovis developed several other restaurants throughout the city known as Martin and Son Poor Boy Bar and Restaurant. Their locations on Gentilly and Airline Highways lasted the longest. Clovis died in 1955, and Martin Brother's St. Claude restaurant survived into the 1970s. By then the sandwich name had spread far beyond New Orleans.
Left to Right: Clovis Martin's grandchildren, 2007
Lester Otillio, Necha Otillio Murphy, Marilyn Martin Marino
Michael Mizell-Nelson teaches in the University of New Orleans history department. He also oversees the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank project, an online database documenting the impact of Katrina and Rita upon the Gulf Coast: www.hurricanearchive.org.