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
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
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
- Cultural Centers Four notable New Orleanians from the worlds of music, drama and food share their stories, offering an exclusive taste of life in this vibrant
- Wendell Pierce: Hometown Hero The talented actor assists fellow citizens still recovering from Hurricane Katrina
- James Andrews: Family Tradition This jazz trumpeter/vocalist is a star in his own right
- Sasha Masakowski: Musical Life A fearless young jazz singer is making a name for herself
- Susan Spicer: Resilient Restaurateur An award-winning celebrity chef creates extraordinary eateries
- The Grand Tour When it comes to tours, no one does it better than New Orleans
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.