Even before Bryan Batt hit it big with his portrayal of art director Sal Romano in the AMC hit series “Mad Men,” he’d already learned the lesson Sal experienced the hard way: Have a backup plan.
Knowing that the fortunes of an actor are anything but reliable, Batt had already established a rewarding side career. In 2003, four years before “Mad Men,” he and partner Tom Cianfichi opened Hazelnut, a home accessories and gift store, on New Orleans' Madison Street.
“It's something that I always wanted to do," Batt says of his penchant for interior design. The 49-year-old actor was born and raised in the Big Easy and perfected his home decorating skills by helping out friends while making the film, television and theater casting rounds as a young actor in New York.
“I always wanted to be an actor, but I always loved design, and growing up in New Orleans there was such great style, great architecture," he says. "I would decorate my little apartment in New York over and over again, because it only had a couple of rooms. And I did it for friends and family on the side just for fun.”
Batt says he was content to simply dabble in home décor until “the funding fell through on a show that I was supposed to do in New York – I'd put all my eggs in that basket.” He turned to his longtime partner Cianfichi, himself an actor, director and casting director, to craft another strategy to stay creatively engaged – and solvent – when their show-business aspirations would fizzle.
“Tom and I had always talked about opening up a home furnishings design store in New Orleans. When that [job fell through], I said 'Now. The window is open. Let’s jump out and do it.'”
The couple went in knowing the retail business offered no more guarantees than show biz, but Batt says they felt confident the combination of their taste and enthusiasm gave them a solid chance for success.
“It was the scariest thing, because all I had done was acting, and yet I think when you have a passion for something you have to try it,” he says. “Life is an 'and' proposition, not an 'or' proposition. I realized there was an entire world outside of show business.”
To that end, Batt and Cianfichi were determined to peddle something they believed in, filling their cozy shop with a blend of elegant and eclectic New Orleans style, an appealing aesthetic mixing the city’s ornate, old world charms and a chic, modern metropolitan approach.
“It hasn't been homogenized like so many things in malls have been these days. I love mixing old with new, East with West, serious with whimsical.”
The actor says the shop also found a perfect niche in the historic uptown district, where unique, individually owned businesses with a well-defined identity continue to fare well. “Magazine Street in New Orleans is a big bastion of that,” he says. “It's a five-mile strip that's predominantly individually owned shops.”
Hazelnut’s particular charms have also been bolstered by Batt’s increasingly high public profile, and business has thrived for nearly a decade, giving him the financial security to continue to pursue his other passions. “When we opened the store I had a very vibrant Broadway career,” he says. “Part of the deal was I would help open the shop and then, whenever I wanted to go off and do a show that was fine. So we've done that and it's worked out perfectly so far.” The shop employs two full-time and three part-time employees.
“We're not rolling in it, but it's doing quite well,” he chuckles. “It looks like we're going to open up another location, about 30 miles outside of the city. We're working on that right now.”
While his three-season stint on “Mad Men” — along with projects like “Ugly Betty,” the upcoming indie crime drama “Brawler,” and stage performances of “Love Letters” with longtime friend Patricia Clarkson — keep him on Hollywood’s radar, Batt says he spends a considerable amount of time working in the store, splitting his time equally between New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York as acting opportunities beckon.
“I come and go, so it's hard to balance an acting career and the business,” he says. “Tom's the businessman. I'm more concept, and I help go on all the buying trips. When I'm in New Orleans, I’m in the shop.”
And getting a lot of attention. “[‘Mad Men’ fans] can't believe I'm there,” he chuckles. “I'm walking out with the garbage and they're like, 'Really? He's taking out the trash!'"
For “Mad Men” devotees still yearning for Sal Romano’s return to the world of Sterling Copper Draper Pryce, Batt is sorry that he can’t offer any concrete news. “I wish I could say yes or no, but all I've been told is that they don't kill the characters off,” he says. “They said, 'You're not dead,' so that's really all I know.”
Good thing he has a backup plan.