Spectacular Tubers

The planned opening of two regional locations of baked potato eatery Spectacular Tubers will be milestone occasions for the restaurant’s founder, who has nursed the idea of a franchise for decades.

Gary Ricks opened his first deli-style restaurant with baked potatoes on the menu in Metairie in 1980.

Business boomed, and a franchise location opened in LaPlace in the early ’80s. Shortly thereafter, fast-food giant Wendy’s rolled out its 99-cent baked potato program.

“That tanked us,” Ricks said.

By 1985, Ricks was out of the baked potato business, at least for the time being.

Fast-forward to 2013. Franchise locations of Spectacular Tubers are being planned for Gonzales and Baton Rouge over the next two to three months. There is already a one-year-old franchise in Scott, and Ricks said he is in discussions about a possible franchise in Colorado.

Ricks owns the original Spectacular Tubers that opened in LaPlace in 2009, along with a location off La. 3125 in Gramercy that opened in 2011. He said he hopes the recent momentum signals something far bigger to come.

“We want to go national,” he said.

Spectacular Tubers lists more than 30 oversized baked potatoes topped with items from crawfish étouffée to Philly cheesesteak, chicken Parmesan, meatballs and taco fixings.

Prices range from $4.95 for a Plain Jane Tuber served with butter, sour cream and traditional extras like chives and bacon bits to $10.95 for the Crawfish étouffée Tuber topped with one of Louisiana’s favorite comfort foods.

The menu changes according to customer suggestions and ideas that Ricks develops eating out at other restaurants.

The restaurant describes its spuds as “A meal in a baked potato,” and they are indeed big, at more than one pound each before baking and topping.

Spectacular Tubers also serves sandwiches, burgers, soups, salads and ice cream. The potatoes are baked fresh in their skins and served hot on ceramic platters.

The human story behind the restaurant is as unconventional as the menu. As both a man and an entrepreneur, Ricks has fallen and gotten back up — literally and figuratively — many times since he opened that first restaurant in Metairie in 1980.

Pushing through adversity is another theme in Ricks’ life. He grew up in the 9th Ward of New Orleans as one of 11 children. His father died when he was 9. He said he still recalls being carried on the back of a Louisiana National Guardsman after the monster storm Hurricane Betsy made landfall near New Orleans in 1965.

He said he has owned everything from a Corvette to nothing more than the clothes on his back and a motorcycle. He has always been in the food and beverage business, but his work has taken many forms. Over the past more than three decades, Ricks, 64, has operated convenience stores and restaurants in Louisiana and Texas, run the food and beverage operation at a country club and lost almost everything, more than once.

Maybe what is just as unusual is that Ricks seems just as comfortable sharing the downs as the ups. He will tell you about how big spending and drinking in the ’80s undermined his early success. He has stuck by menus that favor potatoes during low-carbohydrate diet trends. He credits his religious faith with helping him overcome drinking and rebuild a family life undone by divorce three times.

“It’s been a series of God opening and closing doors for me,” Ricks said.

One of those open doors included a job at a restaurant-supply business after he sold the Metairie restaurant in 1985 to stay afloat financially.

Over time, Ricks rebuilt his operations to include six different restaurants, only to lose much of his holdings in a subsequent divorce.

A turning point in his business and professional life came in 1993. He had a copy of James Dobson’s book, “When God Doesn’t Make Sense,” sitting on a coffee table in his living room, “mostly because it looked good,” Ricks said.

One afternoon he picked it up and began to read. He said he felt himself transformed by the message, and he got down on his knees and started to pray. He said at the time he did not know the term “born again” applied to his religious awakening.

He started to rebuild his life and his business, including marrying for the fourth time within a year. He and his wife, Nicole, have five children ages 11 to 18 together, and he is the father of four adult children from past marriages.

The task of rebuilding his business operations has not been without setbacks, including loss of a major power plant food contract in 1998. A pivotal point for Ricks was the 2003 acquisition of a Gramercy fried seafood diner that he now owns and operates as Aunt Ellie’s.

But baked potatoes have frequently had a place on the menu of the restaurants Ricks has operated for the reason that he likes them, and his customers do, too.

He has strong opinions about which type of potato tastes best baked. The ones served at Spectacular Tubers are Russett Burbanks grown in Colorado and New Mexico, which are creamier than the same variety grown in Idaho, Ricks said. The same variety grown in Idaho soil is harder, he said.

Success at Aunt Ellie’s encouraged him to return to the potato theme. He had trademarked the Spectacular Tubers name around 2003, the same year Aunt Ellie’s began operating under that name. He said he met with skepticism that a potato-focused restaurant would prosper amid national diet trends that minimize or cut out carbohydrates all together.

Ricks shrugged off the doubters, including the minister at his church.

“People still have to eat,” he said. “My pastor told me later I should be sure not to listen to any advice from him again.”