It’s lunchtime on a busy payday Friday. At Mackey’s Munchies, owners Brian and Brandye Mackey sing “Happy Birthday” to Miss Bonnie, an 80-year-old customer whose smile broadens at the sight of her festive balloons—courtesy of the proprietors. At first, the warm gesture seems at odds with the simply decorated eatery, located in a nondescript strip mall off Blanding Boulevard in Orange Park. Then “Miss Mackey” notices someone new has entered the restaurant.
“Hey, Honey,” she beams with a genuine smile that courses through her entire body and escapes through her cheerful, singsong voice. “Welcome!”
Then it becomes clear; that’s what Mackey’s Munchies is all about. The heart of the family-owned eatery, Brandye serves up love and kindness while Brian, the soul of the operation, supervises the creation, execution and service of mouth-watering Louisiana-inspired dishes.
“My wife and I complement each other,” Brian told Folio Weekly. “She has a gift for conversation.”
Both U.S. Navy veterans, the couple met while serving in Virginia. In the Navy, Brian was a Mess Management Specialist (MS) while Brandye provided ground support for Navy aircraft. When it comes to cooking, the Mackeys turn traditional gender roles on their head. Brandye admits to marrying Brian (“a little bit”) because he was such a good cook, and she confesses he didn’t “marry Miss Mackey for her cookin’.”
“I’m his muse,” she said. “I tell him what I like to eat, and he cooks it.”
Growing up in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, Brian had a front-row seat to some of the most unique cuisine in the U.S. Though his mother and aunt (the cooks in his family) did not let him in their kitchen until he was about 30 years old, the aromas and flavors of his native land were rooted in his soul.
Louisiana was claimed by the French in 1682, and though the territory was passed on to the Spanish in 1763 and to the United States in 1803, the region still maintains a heavy French influence. The migration of French Canadians in the mid-1700s changed the region’s culture irrevocably. Today their descendants, known as Cajuns (from the French word, Acadian), make up a significant portion of south Louisiana’s population.
Historically, Louisiana residents of Acadian descent were also considered Louisiana Creoles, but today, Cajuns and Creoles are distinct. Though Cajun food is spicier, and Creole dishes incorporate more tomatoes and okra, Brian said the main difference is rooted in economic status.
“Cajun is mostly cooking off the land,” Brian said. “They will take one chicken and feed 10 to 15 people. Creoles are the aristocrats. They are the fancy, schmancy Spanish and French. Their dishes are more refined, with a lot of sauces.”
As a southern Louisiana native, Brian embraces both cultures and uses their influences in his culinary creations. The menu at Mackey’s Munchies reads like a stroll down Bourbon Street with classic N’awlins favorites including gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, red beans and rice, po’ boys, muffulettas and beignets.
A guest at any house in Louisiana might be served one of these local favorites, but Brian is quick to point out that they would all be different.
“Cooking in Louisiana is basically regional,” he said. “Everybody makes gumbo differently; there are so many variations you can’t even count.”
And that’s how it is at Mackey’s Munchies. When you walk through the doors, you’re not a customer; you’re a guest. As a guest, you are treated to made-from-scratch dishes served with a side of nice. And though you will recognize many of your Louisiana favorites, they will be made with a Mackey twist.
“We serve what we like to eat and share it with the ones we love,” Brandye said.
Since the Mackeys do not eat pork, they use turkey Andouille sausage in their Cajun recipes. The collard greens and red beans and rice are made with smoked turkey, and on “Soul Food Wednesdays,” Brian has been known to add ox tails to the menu.
“We’re African American, so we do soul food,” Brandye said. “ox tails are not a traditional New Orleans dish, but again, we serve food that we like to eat.”
There are some exceptions to the “serving food we like to eat” rule. As the Mackeys have gained loyal customers, first in their Fleming Island location and now in Orange Park, they have made some menu adjustments to accommodate their patrons. Brian added a muffeletta to the menu because “Mr. Brown,” a regular customer who lived in New Orleans for many years, requested it.
“That’s a hard one for me because I hate olives,” he said. “But, we do a pretty good job.”
In addition to creating new menu items for regulars, Brian has modified some of his recipes to suit local tastes. When many of his Fleming Island patrons said they avoided flour, Brian experimented with the base for his red sauce. Now, he uses sautéed vegetables to thicken it.
“It makes the sauce smooth, and the added bonus is it’s gluten-free,” he said.
By far, Brian’s favorite menu item is a shrimp po’ boy.
“I think shrimp po’ boy goes hand-in-hand with New Orleans,” he said.
A traditional sandwich from New Orleans, the po’ boy’s origins are unclear. What is known is that the dish became popular with farmers, dock workers and other “poor boys” who frequented restaurants around the French Quarter. Louisiana dialect being what it is, the name was eventually shortened to Po’ Boy.
Though traditionally stuffed with fried shrimp or oysters, the po’ boy can technically be served with any type of filling because as Brian says, “It’s all about the bread.”
The couple delayed opening their restaurant for three weeks while they waited on a shipment of authentic French bread from Leidenheimer Baking Company, one of two primary sources for po’ boy bread in Louisiana.
“I had a guy who tried to make me some bread locally, but it’s just not the same,” Brian said. “It’s about the water. Our water’s different.”
Though Brian has help in the kitchen, he still cooks all the dishes made in his restaurant. For him, time spent in the kitchen is relaxing, and when he cooks, he’s fulfilling his destiny.
“I understand why I’m here; I’m here for service,” Brian said. “That’s what God created me for.”
Anyone walking into Mackey’s Munchies expecting to be served delicious Louisiana-inspired food will not be disappointed, but they will walk out with more than a full stomach because the Mackeys have a vision that goes beyond owning a successful business. Brian wants people to feel like they’re dining with family as soon as they walk through the door, and Brandye likes the challenge of turning a surly customer into a smiling friend in minutes. It’s the couple’s own little protest against all the strife and division in the world today.
“I’m gonna love the hell out of these people,” Brandye said. “Love is infectious just like hate is.”