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Rats Caught Crawling on Counter at Willie’s Pizza Joint in French Quarter

NEW ORLEANS (NOLA.COM) – Visiting the city for a photography project, Chad Davis did what many tourists do while in New Orleans: take in the sights and oddities of the French Quarter during the early morning hours.

But as luck would have it, the Minneapolis man caught an unappetizing — and unfortunately somewhat common — sight Monday morning. Inside Willie’s Pizza Joint in the 600 block of Bourbon Street, at least five rats could be seen scurrying across the counter and floor around 2:15 a.m.

In a video posted to social media, the rodents can be seen nibbling at plates and napkins before dipping in and around the serving areas and dropping behind the counter. Two more were on the floor by the stairs.

“I hope this isn’t the norm for restaurants on Bourbon Street,” Davis said in an email. “Had the place been open as I walked by, it’s possible I would have stopped in for a slice.”

The rats in Willie’s are only the most recent instance of rodents spotted in the French Quarter, which has long struggled with the high concentration of food and drink establishments squeezed into a small area filled with centuries-old buildings. Last year, a video of frolicking rats in the window of a Decatur Street restaurant went viral.

The restaurant shares the Willie’s name and logo with Willie’s Chicken Shack, located next door. But the chicken chain’s owner, Aaron Motwani, said the pizza restaurant is not affiliated with his company.

Motwani is listed in the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office database as the sole officer of Voodoo Bar & Pizza LLC, the corporate entity associated with Willie’s Pizza Joint. Motwani said he wasn’t sure why that was the case, adding that Willie’s Chicken Shack, which has eight locations, only licensed the “Willie’s” name to the pizza restaurant’s operators.

Robert Mouton, an attorney representing Willie’s Pizza Joint, released a statement attributed to the Voodoo Bar & Pizza Management Team.

“We are aware of the video at the Pizza Joint on Bourbon Street, which was brought to our attention by Willie’s Chicken Shack,” said the statement. “The restaurant was closed at the time, and after viewing the clip, we have decided to keep the restaurant closed until our pest control services have effectively addressed the issue.”

It continued: “Situations such as this have ensued at many restaurants on Bourbon Street in the past and (have) recently gotten worse due to the construction taking place in our area. We want to stress that this footage is not representative of our brand or our standard of operations. We pride ourselves on being a place people can trust to be a clean, easy-going, fun environment. We want to assure the public that we are taking immediate action to ensure a situation like this never occurs again.”

Willie’s Pizza Joint was closed Thursday afternoon, its windows covered by black plastic sheeting from the inside.

A scan of recent inspection reports for Willie’s Pizza Joint did not turn up any rodent-related citations, though state inspectors visited the restaurant Thursday after seeing the video and filed a report saying that “openings aren’t protected against the entry of rodents or insects.”

State Department of Health spokesman Robert Johannessen said inspectors will work with the owners to bring the restaurant back into compliance so it can reopen.

In June 2018, French Market Restaurant & Bar on Decatur Street had a similar experience after a tourist posted a video of rats running around on the oyster bar there. This came four years after comedian Hannibal Buress performed a bit on “The Tonight Show” in which he talked about seeing a rat in Coop’s Place on Decatur, and how it didn’t seem to alarm the staff.

Most rats in the French Quarter are so-called Norway rats — large, burrowing creatures that live along the banks of the Mississippi River and tend to raid nearby neighborhoods in search of food. Rats can fit through a hole the size of a quarter, which makes it difficult to keep them from finding their way to food sources.

The city’s Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board, which regularly baits the sewers to poison rats, handles reports of rodents out-of-doors and in public buildings and spaces, while the state Department of Health is responsible for the regulation and inspection of businesses.