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Forced to flee Katrina, one family found a welcoming city in Charlotte

The day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Lucius and Martine Johnson awoke in their New Orleans house and found Martine’s mother had packed her bags.

No questions were asked – it was clear MawMaw had made up her mind. They were leaving. So the Johnsons woke up their son, Lucius Jr., and daughter, Alix, packed clothes for three days, and three generations piled into a beat-up Ford Windstar van and fled the only city they’d ever known.

Surely, they’d be back to their home and their uptown Bite Your Tongue restaurant on Magazine Street as soon as the storm passed.

“When you grow up in New Orleans, you come face to face with storms every year,” Lucius Johnson Sr. said. “We’d experienced so many false alarms over the years. We thought we’d go visit relatives and be back in no time.”

Instead, as much of New Orleans headed for Texas, they chose to go in the opposite direction. On the way to Atlanta, Martine’s friend Regina Cooper in Huntersville called. She invited the family to come there.

“Our lives were literally yanked from under us,” Lucius Sr. said. “For the first time, I didn’t have an answer for my family.”

Martine was head chef at their restaurant; Lucius ran the kitchen. Bite Your Tongue had a following – but also a lot of competition. “Everywhere you go in New Orleans, the food is awesome,” Lucius said. “We began to think, ‘Let’s take our concept someplace where we can monopolize what we do.’”

They decided to stay and make a new life in Charlotte.

A mission group at Covenant Presbyterian Church adopted them. They found them an apartment. They donated more furniture than the Johnsons could use. They donated gift cards and clothes, and they committed to paying the Johnsons’ bills for a year “so we could get re-established.”

“We knew it was God operating in our lives,” Lucius Sr. said. “I appreciated everything that the church was doing for us. But I’m the type of guy who wants to pay his own way.”

In their apartment kitchen, they started cooking dishes they’d served in New Orleans – red beans and rice, jambalaya, gumbo and their signature white chocolate bread pudding – and selling it out of their car at nail salons, barbershops, anywhere there was a crowd.

“We have a niche here with authentic New Orleans cuisine,” Martine said. “Back home, everybody has red beans and rice, gumbo and jambalaya. Here only a few places serve it. We knew we couldn’t go back. We weren’t financially in a position to rebuild.”

She and Lucius asked the church for another favor: Could they find them a spot for a restaurant?

The church found the lobby of a medical building at 1928 Randolph Road, and Bite Your Tongue was resurrected in June 2007. They operated there for four years, built a following, then moved the restaurant to Bland Street in South End.

It turned out to be a bad decision. Parking was scarce, and the restaurant was hard to find. After a year, they moved back to Randolph Road.

That building was sold in April, and they had to close again. Now, they’re in the midst of building a new restaurant with two other couples. When it opens in mid-November, BluNotes on David Cox Road in northeast Charlotte will serve up jazz, blues and Martine’s New Orleans food.

Charlotte is nothing like New Orleans, but “we’ve felt the love here,” Martine said. “This city embraced us. Do I miss New Orleans? I do, I miss it bad. The city lives inside me. But my home is here in Charlotte. My kids have a great life here. We’ve been successful. This city gave us the opportunity to rebuild our lives when we truly needed it.”

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