LAFAYETTE, La. — He’s the first person you see when you walk into the store.
He knows your name, what your kids are doing this weekend, and might even know what’s in your bank account.
Some customers get pretty personal with him — and he welcomes the conversation.
“They found out I can run my mouth pretty good,” says Stephen Kinzel, better known as the Crawfish Guy, who holds post Friday through Sunday at the entrance to Rouses on Bertrand Drive in Lafayette, Louisiana.
“I just like people,” the 64-year-old explains. “I don’t think I ever met a stranger.”
Kinzel has been a fixture at the popular grocery store for the past four years, enticing customers to buy boiled crawfish — and bring him up to speed on what’s going on in their lives.
If you ask most people around Acadiana and beyond, the Crawfish Guy needs no further introduction. But how much do you know about the man behind the apron?
A simple Southern boy
“I grew up right down I-10, in New Orleans,” Kinzel says. “My grandmother and grandfather raised me.”
He recalls his excellent childhood, in much simpler times, and can’t say enough about his incredible upbringing.
“There’s nothing like a gram,” Kinzel says. “Her cooking . she was everything a child would want. My favorite meal was her oyster dressing on Thanksgiving. She always made it ‘specially for me. She was everything.”
As a boy in the deep South, Kinzel enjoyed playing pool with his friends and started saving coins and stamps, which he still has today.
After graduating from the University of New Orleans with a business degree, Kinzel moved to Houston and got a job with Getty oil before it was bought out by Texaco. During that time, he was married, divorced and became a father to Stephanie, his only daughter.
“She was named after me,” he says. “My daughter is everything, she graduated from Tulane Law School, and she lives in Houston. She calls me every Friday. We’re very close. She makes sure everything’s fine with me.”
Kinzel eventually retired from the oil field and settled into a slower-paced life in Lafayette, about two blocks away from Rouses.
“I started staying home, not doing anything,” he says. “Then, they built Rouses, and a year later, I said to myself, ‘Why not go over and see what happens?’ “
That’s where his journey began — but he didn’t earn the title of Crawfish Guy just yet.
“I started as a service clerk,” Kinzel explains. “Basically, I just sacked groceries.”
His outgoing personality, however, was one thing that couldn’t be bagged.
“I think of this place like the mom-and-pop grocery stores in New Orleans,” he says. “Where everyone knows everybody’s name, and what’s going on. That’s what I do here. People confide in me.”
Sometimes, he says, conversations get emotional, as customers delve deep into their personal lives.
“We talk finances,” Kinzel says. “A doctor told me he has a million in the bank, people have told me they have cancer. The little kids, I know them all. There are three or four little girls, I treat them as though they’re my grandkids. I get them stuffed animals for the holidays — things like that.”
Management quickly caught onto Kinzel’s ability to draw people in.
“They noticed I could talk,” he explains. “So they asked me to stand up front selling crawfish. I eventually came on full time.”
Kinzel, who’s on “crawfish duty” from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, points out his ability to get along with people from all walks of life, from the “silent generation all the way down to infants,” he says.
“The silent generation, before the boomers, they talk about health and things like that,” he explains. “That gets a little sad. The kids talk about what they’re doing — going to the zoo, the park with mom, that kind of stuff. Those in the middle, they talk to me about finances, how the interest rates are affecting our income — we have money in the bank, but we’re not getting paid for it like we used to. Things like that.”
Because Rouses is located across the street from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Kinzel has become a trusted ear for dozens of students who work or shop at the store.
“I give them motivation,” he says. “I tell them, ‘You’re getting the opportunity to go to college and pay for your tuition by working. Your future is your education. Don’t forget that.’ Education is everything. I talk to them like they’re my kids.”
Kinzel encourages the younger generation to focus on a positive path in life because “your stupidity can cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars and follow you for the rest of your life,” he emphasizes. “Is it worth it? All that income is lost because you couldn’t get the job you wanted. Once they hear that, they will say, ‘Gee whiz, come to think about it.’ “
He credits his grandmother with teaching him to do the right thing.
“She kept me straight as an arrow,” he says. “She’s the one who got me going with education and everything else.”
‘The last of a breed’
Kinzel, who emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interaction, has an interesting perspective about today’s reliance on social media and technology.
“I’m kind of a boring guy,” he says. “I watch the old-time TV, it has tubes in it, I don’t keep up with technology. I have a cellphone my daughter bought me, but I only keep it with me if I am driving. She was worried for me. I have a landline; I don’t have a flat screen, no computer — that’s why people think of me as dinosaur, the last of a breed.”
On one hand, Kinzel feels that too much technology is keeping kids tied to their phones, resulting in far too little time spent playing outside, “like we used to.”
However, he believes that if parents don’t keep up with the times, they’re putting their children at a grave disadvantage.
“Nowadays, you have to keep up with it,” he says. “I don’t have to, but if a parent can’t afford a computer, your kid can be behind in first or second grade.”
Kinzel sees human interaction on the decline all over the place, a big reason he fights to keep it alive and well at work.
“I see people standing in line, waiting to check out, and they’re on their phone,” he says. “Sometimes they forget where they are. I see that a lot. People are standing there in the middle of the aisle like that — you must have seen them, too.”
Kinzel stresses that we can’t lose the skill of face-to-face communication.
“A lot of people do,” he says. “It just so happens, mine comes naturally.”
So naturally, in fact, that Rouses has tapped him for much more than selling crawfish.
“Oh lord, you have to see me,” Kinzel says. “I was Santa for Christmas, the Cat in the Hat for Halloween. For Mardi Gras, they gave me a costume. I just go around talking to people, giving out candy. They look forward to seeing me, and vice versa. These customers are my friends.”
Kinzel, who brags about the friendliness and importance of the “everyday people,” has made some very interesting friends throughout his years up front at Rouses. He can’t think of the most fascinating story he’s ever heard, but does point out an interesting encounter with one of the zoning commissioners.
“I saw him on the news talking about the moratorium on downtown bars,” he says. “We were talking about that. Very friendly.”
Kinzel, whose main source of news is the daily interaction at his job, never gets bored because there’s always someone new walking into his life.
‘When I’m here, I’m satisfied’
His world revolves around Rouses — and he’s perfectly content with that.
“I don’t do anything outside of work — that’s why I’m here,” Kinzel says. “I don’t do a thing. When I’m here, I’m satisfied. I get everything I need throughout the day. I’m financially secure. The customers are like family, they’re my friends.”
So, what’s next for the Crawfish Guy?
When Kinzel walks out those doors for the last time — and don’t expect it to be anytime soon — he wants to be remembered as someone who made a difference to the young kids around Lafayette. “I’ll go to Houston to be closer to my daughter and grand-daughters,” he says. “My daughter is the thing in life that I’m most proud of. She’s like me — friendly, outgoing.”
“I want them to do the right thing because that’s our future,” he says. “If I can have an effect on just one kid who might have gone astray, I would be happy.”
Kinzel has definitely found his sweet spot in life, and thankfully, it’s right here in southern Louisiana.
“This is something I thoroughly enjoy,” he says. “I don’t call this work. It’s easy for me to talk to people — and easy for them to talk to me.”
Kinzel is off on Mondays and Thursdays. Other than that, you can expect to see him striking up a conversation — or selling some boiled crawfish — right up front or down one of the aisles at Rouses.