MELVILLE — When Grant Cannatella and his five siblings were growing up, they knew that when their parents went to New Orleans for a weekend, they would come back with a muffaletta from Central Grocery.
But it wasn’t until around 20 years ago that Cannatella, the fourth-generation owner of the Chas Store Cannatella & Sons with his brother, Brian, in the small town of Melville, he got the idea to try and replicate the classic New Orleans sandwich in the store.
He channeled his energy into developing bread and olive salad. The item became popular with customers, but it really took off when one day Dave Baker with KATC did a segment about the store – and his muffaletta.
“Anyone who loves a muffaletta is going to chase one down,” he said. “He did a little segment on it, and all of a sudden these people started coming from Acadiana and everywhere. We were never busy like a store in town, but I ended up having to put a little table there for people coming in because they needed a place to sit.
Still, the days of buying a muffaletta or anything the general store has on offer — from produce and breakfast cereals to cat food, soccer balls and keys — will end. this month. The store, which opened in 1923 on a street a block from the banks of the Atchafalaya River, will close permanently.
It will leave the town and most of the northeast corner of St. Landry Parish without access to a grocery store. The nearest full service grocery store will be 30 miles away.
But that’s not the only thing. There is also no gas station in town.
“It will be devastating to this community,” said St. Landry Parish President Jessie Bellard. “Cannatella had been there for a hundred years and had everything you wanted for this little town. Without having a grocery store with meat and all the necessities, it will be difficult for this small town to survive. Not much can be done to help them.
Melville’s future without groceries is similar to the challenges facing other small towns and villages in Louisiana. Tucked away in the northeast corner of the parish, Melville is far from major highways like US 190 or Interstate 49. No one goes through Melville anymore.
The city has lost almost half of its population since 2000, according to census data, and now has just over 700 residents. Today, 52% of the population — nearly three times the state rate — lives below the poverty line. A Lafayette food bank regularly visits Melville to distribute food, which Cannatella says has made it harder for her store to survive.
“The city is falling apart,” he said. “According to my mum, a few weeks ago she said we had kind of exceeded our dad’s expectations. He told her before his death (in 2013) “I don’t think the boys will last two years.”
When Charles Cannatella and his father, Joe, first opened the Landrum Street store, Charles and his wife, Mathilda, built a house next door and raised 10 children there. The store was a vital part of family life, and it was often open to anyone during hurricanes to anyone who needed help.
Years later, it grew from the one-room store to the current 12,000-square-foot store attached to it, and it offered just about anything, including the family’s popular Italian sausage. Cannatella and his wife, Pam, eventually moved on 21 years ago to help run the store — Pam even served a four-year term as mayor of Melville — and they later opened a smaller store along Government Street in Baton Rouge in 2019 as a way to expand into a larger market.
In Melville, the store and the town don’t fare so well. About three years ago, they took out another loan to run the store. The store could not operate profitably, he said. In late May, the Cannatellas, citing the city’s business environment over the past two decades, announced they would be closing the store.
“The old customers are gone,” Cannatella said. “We buried them for the last 20 to 30 years. He was a reliable customer. He or she did all their shopping with us. They wouldn’t just pick us for a deal. The young buyer simply buys differently now.
Marie Deville said she had been shopping at the store for 44 years. The Cannatellas, she said, have been like family to just about everyone in town.
“With gas prices now, it’s going to be very difficult for people to go out and buy groceries,” she said. “I will probably give my business to another local family business. I like to buy local. I don’t care too much about the big chains.
Talk to people who have been in Melville for years and they will tell you what was there. Banks. Movie theater. A high school (actually two before integration). Perhaps most important was the ferry that carried vehicles across the Atchafalaya River to the parish of Pointe Coupee.
Citing high costs and low usage, former Governor Bobby Jindal disconnected the ferry in 2010. Residents were so opposed to the move that they gathered on the steps of the capital and demanded to see it.
Residents have used the ferry for decades and brought people to Melville. The city never had a bridge because, according to local lore, city officials had snubbed Governor Huey Long during a campaign stop. Long was so offended that he was determined to “turn Meville into a frog pond,” Cannatella said, and ordered a bridge to be built at Krotz Springs.
“That ferry was the big part of the soul of Melville,” said Bill Rodier, general manager of the St. Landry office of economic development. “It is in a heavily agricultural area of the parish of Saint-Landry. As I understand it, the city has kind of struggled since the ferry closed. The population left, and it’s been kind of a slow degradation since then.
Mayor Velma Hendrix, now 84 and whose term as mayor ends this year, has lived there for decades. She taught for 30 years and was the first black teacher at White Melville High School before integration.
The city also had its struggles. A sawmill that employed dozens of people has closed. The city’s struggling water system had issued boil water advisories. And now, without gas stations or grocery stores — the city has a Dollar General — sales tax revenue for the city will decline.
“At one time, we had three gas stations. Now we have none,” she said. “It (closing the ferry) hurt. It was also a loss of jobs. Everything stopped. It’s amazing how everything just closed.
Bellard noted that there are federal grants that address food deserts. One program, The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, aims to improve access to healthy food in underserved areas, create and maintain quality jobs, and revitalize low-income communities.
Rodier said others have shown interest in the Cannatella building, but finding a store to open there and make it successful will be a challenge.
“We try to do everything we can,” he said. “We were up there (two weeks ago). Many of our small towns face similar types of circumstances in Louisiana and Acadia. It’s a big challenge, but it’s a challenge we can meet for sure.