Photography by: Katie Ostarly
I went through a period where I was absolutely obsessed with our local farmer’s markets. I suppose that hasn’t really changed, but my attendance definitely tapered off once the pandemic hit. Pre-COVID I was living in Bush so my nearest location was the Abita Springs Market, held every Sunday under the big event gazebo. I attended religiously, posting on social media about my finds as some type of weekly ritual. It was during this time in my life when I ran into Katy Bridges. Literally. I almost physically ran into her one Sunday as I was weaving in and out of the market crowd. She has that type of energy that often sets one apart as “the person in charge”. It is a combination of her bursting personality and the fiery determination of will that makes her a natural born leader. That’s basically how I knew she was a person of importance there. That and she was carrying a clipboard. As I nearly collided with her she laughed, spun around, and engaged me in what felt like a very personal conversation about my day. She asked me how I was enjoying the market and even though I could tell she was very busy, stopped to make sure that we felt welcome. I thought to myself, “this is literally one of the friendliest people I have ever met in my life.”
Since then we have maintained a connection over social media that has helped us keep up with one another. Katy is no longer with the Abita Springs Farmer’s Market and has since moved on to different pastures. I happened upon her one morning while I was having breakfast at the Abita Roasting Company. She was dressed in her Sunday best, sun hat and all, maintaining the outside courtyard eating area. “What are you doing here?” I had asked, excited to see my farmer’s market friend. “I’m all over the place!” She laughed in her typical sunny disposition. This is how I came to learn about Katy’s recent endeavors and her involvement in the local restaurant scene.
Originally from Port Lavaca, Texas, Katy came to the Northshore to start her family eight years ago. In an attempt to find her footing in a new place, Katy immersed herself in the community. “There was a time that I really wanted to move back to Texas. It was home. But I’ve just tried to embrace the Northshore and Louisiana as much as possible and that’s probably why you’ve seen me kind of have my hands in so many different things. This is just me trying to be happy and figure it out here.” Once her two daughters were born Katy raised her focus back to the work force. It was during this time that she found the Abita Springs Farmer’s Market. “It was one day a week, I was like, I can do this mom thing AND work and it will be fine. But I found myself itching and craving for more. There was A LOT to learn from that job and it’s actually MUCH, MUCH harder than just one day a week. You kind of have to balance your integrity with the pay you’re getting and you’re managing all these different people. I really didn’t know how to manage all these businesses.” Through her market connections she met many friends, whom have served as mentors for Katy during this process. Two such people were Brent Belsom and Kyle Ross, owners and operators of the Abita Roasting Company with it’s multiple locations across town.
“When COVID happened, I noticed that they didn’t have an online presence and I had done some research and learning through the farmer’s market. So basically on day one of the shut down I insisted, ‘give me the codes! Give me the codes to your Facebook and Instagram!’ He instantly gave me a lot of power even though he barely knew me.” Katy was determined to create a strong social media base to help the restaurants ride out the pandemic. “I wasn’t getting paid at first but I also wasn’t working the farmer’s market anymore so I had some time. When everything began to open back up they came to me and said, ‘You’ve made such an impact on this company just in the two months you’ve been here’.” In managing the company’s social media during the shut down, Katy became the eyes and ears for the public opinion of the Abita Roasting Company. When a customer was dissatisfied and voiced concerns on Facebook, Katy was the first person to hear about it. “For a short time I became the Director of Operations without any restaurant experience.” She found that with that role she was able to communicate inconsistencies and complaints before they became problems. “It took a lot of the load off of Brent and Kyle, you have to imagine they’re running three different locations during a shut down. They’re only two people.”
It’s been about a year since Katy began working with the Abita Roasting Company full time. “I’ve learned A LOT. The only prior food and beverage experience I’ve had was working in a country club, Austin Country Club, and I feel that experience has helped me a lot.” Apart from being a fresh set of eyes that can see beyond a restaurateur’s point of view, Katy has used her country club skill set to provide excellent customer service and an elevated dining experience. Currently Katy occupies a Director of Marketing, Events and Catering, and Guest Experiences role at the restaurants. Katy also has a unique educational background that she feels helps her fulfill her duties. “I have a BA in dance from the University of Houston. It covers the four cornerstones: creating, analyzing, history, and performance. I also have a minor in health communication. I’ve been a certified health coach. I do have a certain behavioral education, such as changing behaviors. So that applies to a restaurant when it comes to training and identifying problems and breakdowns. Why are we not getting the results we want? If we want those results we need to take the proper steps to get there.” Using her ability to run a tight ship and her decisive, driven personality, Katy is able to create a smooth sailing environment.
At times she laments being in a small business setting that lacks major resources that corporate competitors like Starbucks and PJ’s have at their disposal. But she also recognizes the merit and the charm that Abita Roasting Company brings to the local scene. “The owners, they have their hands on the people. They know the community. We are…always giving back to our community. A lot of businesses, once they get to a certain success level THEN they are ready to make those moves but that local spirit of giving has been engrained in this business since the beginning. I don’t see that changing.” Katy recalls last Easter when the Abita Roasting Company fed the hospitals during the pandemic, just one example of the ways that ARC keeps their hearts in the community.
Diving head first into an unfamiliar industry takes courage, adjustment, and a lot of hard work to combat a major learning curve. Katy feels that this is definitely a part of her personality that serves her well. “I feel like people don’t know what hard work is these days. People think that when they start to feel stressed that’s when they’re working hard. Sometimes you have to figure stuff out for yourself. And I feel like that may be a new lesson for me. Coming from a dance background I’ve always had an instructor, someone to show me how to do things. You get that immediate feedback and criticism. But you can’t necessarily wait for someone to tell you how to go about something. You need to see what needs to be done and do it.” It’s this type of work ethic that Katy not only carries with her in her professional life, but also her life as a mother.
When Katy isn’t working with the restaurants she’s hard at play raising her three-year-old and six-year-old daughters Willa and Presley. Now more than ever women are finding themselves in work roles in tandem with raising their families. It is a classically difficult dichotomy to manage and one that can often cause feelings of guilt and despair in mothers when they ultimately have to choose between and prioritize those roles. But Katy feels it’s important to not only set the example of a strong woman, whatever that may look like for you, but to also live your own truth. “They’re amazing. I worry about being a good mom ALL THE TIME. But you got to figure it out and you have to balance what you’re capable of doing with what needs to be done.” She recognizes that in being a working single parent she is often faced with unique challenges of prioritizing teachable moments and task execution. “Now more than ever I can’t stop and make everything a lesson. That’s been pretty tricky and hopefully one day they’ll grow up and look back and realize that mom just did what needed to get done. I think at the end of the day we all love our parents and we all wish they would have done something differently but they cared and they tried and they did their best.” Katy also recognizes that managing your work/life balance is a lifelong lesson. “Sometimes when I feel that I’m kicking butt at work I notice that the laundry is piling up. Or maybe I’ve had a short temper with my kids because I’ve been stressed out at work. I’ve had to troubleshoot all of that. At the end of the day where I kind of draw the line is if I’m bringing home my stress from work, that’s when changes need to be made immediately.” She recognizes the value of stating your needs and honoring your boundaries. “Awhile ago I went to Brent and I just told him that I’m going to be taking these exercise classes these days a week at these times and I kind of need that for my mental health. It doesn’t seem like much but it was a big deal to me. Like I’m NOT going to work within these two hours. I try to make sure I’m incorporating exercise for my mental health and eating well for my physical health.”
Thinking back, Katy realizes that much of her strength as a working mom was modeled for her by her own mother. As we discuss the importance of young girls seeing women in positions of authority and power, she reflects on her childhood. “I grew up with a mom like that. So in my hometown my mom is the city manager. She is running the city essentially. She sees what needs to be done and she does it. I guess that’s where I get that mentality. I remember as a kid going to city council meetings with her and watching her work and it did feel like a hectic life. Thinking back, we didn’t spend as much time at home, so now I make sure I have adequate time with my kids, because my mom did work a lot. But you know…I kind of did the stay-at-home mom thing for a while and I realized it wasn’t for me. And not only that but my kids wanted to go to school, they wanted to socialize. They were fine without me for a few hours. When I realized they didn’t need me as much, I felt like it was time.” She recalls. “Being a strong woman is in my blood so it’s not something I really have to reach for,” she says with a laugh.
I feel that we are fortunate to have someone like Katy with eyes on our community. She is someone who not only understands and appreciates what we do here but also embraces it fully. Through her time spent with local businesses in the farmer’s market to her current effort helping manage one of our crown jewel restaurants, I feel that she really gets us. “I love the culture here, it’s awesome. All of Louisiana has great culture. The festivals, different things going on, but it’s also that small town feel with big city amenities. It’s not so small to where literally everyone knows your business but small enough to where you can have a personal conversation with others. I’m from a town of 12,000 people. There weren’t a lot of cultural activities going on in rural Texas. The closest town was 30 miles away; the closest city was two hours. It’s nice to have the best of both worlds.” Being so intertwined with the community has helped her see not only what St. Tammany and the surrounding areas are, but what we could become. “My hope is that we will embrace the growth that is happening here on the Northshore because we’re not going to be able to stop it. If we don’t embrace it now and embrace the newness, the trickling in of diversity that’s happening, we’re missing an opportunity. Even with the restaurant, you know. We’re still figuring out who we are and we’re just trying to embrace the individual. Instead of having this big overbearing brand, we’re honoring the quirkiness and the soul that comes with being local.”