Michael Defreitas, of Defreitas Construction, and his fiancee Vicki Thompson-Burgess, a local preschool teacher, are trying their hand at owning and operating a restaurant otherwise known as the Whodat Shack.
The new restaurant is hard to miss at the corner of Markham and Mill with a New Orleans theme that starts with yellow, purple and green paint outside and follows through to a full offering of New Orleans cuisine inside.
Defreitas was born in Brooklyn, but 19 days later, his family picked up and moved to New Orleans where he spent the next 25 years before moving to Central Arkansas.
"I love New Orleans," he said. "My sisters still live there, so I go back to visit a lot."
Thompson-Burgess said the menu is a fresh take on the best of the Defreitas family recipes.
"We’ve taken his childhood recipes and tweaked them here and there to make them our own," she said.
The menu lists authentic New Orleans style Po-Boy sandwiches, red beans and rice, gumbo, jambalaya and more — all with the option to smother in the Shack’s signature Whodat sauce.
"Who Dat?" Thompson-Burgess says originated in 19th century poetry; then lent itself to jazz music before becoming the popular chant for the New Orleans Saints.
The origin may be debatable, Defreitas said, but the phrase is distinctly New Orleans.
With no experience working in the restaurant industry, Defreitas hired experienced waiters and chefs who knew their way around a Creole kitchen.
Several of his cooks evacuated to Central Arkansas from the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit the city in 2005.
With 20 years of experience in the tile and commercial flooring business, Defreitas renovated the restaurant himself.
"I painted everything yellow, purple and green to create a vibrant atmosphere for families," he said.
The illustrated Po-Boy on the sign outside was even hand drawn by Defreitas.
It took him about six months to get the Whodat Po-Boy just right, he said, and when he took his drawing to the print shop, the shop owner ended up duplicating one of each eye and leg for symmetry.
"My granddaughter calls him the Whodat boy," Defreitas said.
Defreitas said he learned about the City of Conway’s revitalization efforts for Markham Street after he began leasing the building.
"I knew Hendrix was coming in that way and the City on the other side — with the clean up of the scrap yard — we’ve got a good place here in the middle," he said.
The Whodat Shack will celebrate its grand opening Friday and Saturday with jazz music on the radio and authentic New Orleans food on the table.
The Whodat Shack opens Monday-Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and is open Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. visit them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheWhoDatShack.