Talking to Wendell Pierce is like discovering a modern-day Renaissance man.
Best known for his starring roles in critically acclaimed HBO shows such as “Tremé” and “The Wire,” the New Orleans-born Pierce is behind a new chain of supermarkets and healthy convenience stores being built in underserved areas of his hometown. He is a major player in the post-Katrina rebuilding of his childhood neighborhood, where his parents still live. Oh, and by the way, he also learns every solo for his trombone-playing “Tremé” character Antoine Batiste.
As diverse as Pierce’s interests are, though, they are tied together by a common theme: his love for New Orleans. “The food, the music, the rituals, the tradition — our culture is so unique, so inventive, so improvisational and so creative,” Pierce says. “And it’s not just something that happens on special occasions. It’s part of everyday life.”
His commitment to that culture and the people who belong to it motivated him to act after Hurricane Katrina left the city severely battered, physically and emotionally. He started the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that plans to build 150 new homes in the neighborhood, long a haven for middle-class African-American families. It proved to be just the beginning. “As I was rebuilding, I just realized the needs that were all around,” Pierce says. “It was an opportunity to step off the sidelines.”
He chose to tackle the lack of supermarkets and access to healthy foods in certain areas of the city. “Even prior to [Katrina], there were a lot of food deserts in New Orleans,” says Pierce, who hopes to change that, little by little, through his latest venture. Officially known as Sterling Fresh Foods, the business plans to operate convenience stores (Sterling Express) that sell fresh fruits and vegetables along with soda and snacks, as well as full-service supermarkets (Sterling Farms) in underserved areas.
It’s not just a Sazerac-fueled dream. Pierce and his two partners already have opened one Sterling Express and have two others in progress. The first 30,000-square-foot supermarket is scheduled to open this fall in Marreo, La., on New Orleans’ west bank, where it plans to host monthly community events and free shuttle service home for customers and their groceries. “We’re working in areas where people walk to the store or take the bus, so if they make it to the store, we’re going to give people a ride home,” Pierce promises.
The experience of being a residential and a commercial developer has been educational for Pierce. “It’s difficult work,” he says. “You have to stay committed.” But the actor is known for his (ahem) persistence. “If you know anything about Wendell, you know that he gets really hard of hearing when you say you’re too busy,” says Troy Henry, one of the Sterling partners, with a laugh. But Henry also adds that he’s been awed by his childhood friend’s performance in their development ventures: “I have been really impressed at his ability to compartmentalize and navigate across the spectrum of business.”
Perhaps those skills emerged out of necessity. Ask Pierce about the post-Katrina discussion in 2005 of whether New Orleans should be rebuilt, and it’s clear that the subject still hits a nerve with the otherwise congenial actor.
“That was insulting to us,” he states firmly. “Did you hear anyone say that after World War II about London, Berlin or Dresden? The one thing I learned from that is that there are those people who do not have your best interests at heart.”
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Who: New Orleans native who currently stars in HBO’s “Tremé.” Also redeveloping Pontchartrain Park neighborhood with new housing and opening full-service supermarkets (Sterling Farms) and convenience stores (Sterling Express) in underserved areas of New Orleans.
Notable: Graduated from New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and New York’s Julliard School, where he studied drama. Has a sound double on “Tremé” for his trombone performances.