“I think the boudin is a growing business, but it is not one of the mainstays for the Creole foods and Creole restaurants around the country, because people don’t understand it. Once they taste it, I think they enjoy it and they come back and buy it, but what you’ll find is at first the restaurants carry it, and then people in the area start asking for it at the grocery stores." – Larry Avery
French Market Foods might not be a household name in Louisiana or beyond, but the brand under which most of the company’s products are marketed—Tony Chachere’s—most certainly is. Grocery store aisles and meat markets brim with Creole and Cajun seasoning mixes, but Tony Chachere’s seasoning in particular is as abundant in households across Louisiana as dark-roast coffee and cane syrup. The alliance between the two companies ensures that every French Market Foods product sold under the Tony Chachere’s label is seasoned with Tony Chachere’s blend (thereby feeding the co-dependence between so many Louisianians and the spice mix born in Opelousas). Among the Tony Chachere’s goods prepared and packaged at French Market Foods’ grand facility in Lake Charles are three styles of boudin (pork, crawfish, and shrimp), and two gumbos (seafood, and chicken and sausage). Larry Avery, the company’s president and CEO, and a native of Sulphur, sat down to discuss the ins and outs of production, as well as the heat-and-eat retail market.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Larry Avery
Date: September 10, 2007
Location: Lake Charles, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen with the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Monday, September 10, 2007. I’m in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at French Market Foods and I’m sitting here with Mr. Larry Avery. Could I get you to pronounce your first name yourself and tell me your birth date?
Larry Avery: Larry Avery, and my birthday is January 10, 1952.
What is your position here at French Market Foods?
President and CEO.
What is your history with the company? How long have you been here?
Well I’m—I am the owner also. So we started the company in, back in 1999. We—by putting small food companies together, and now we’ve created a much larger food company.
Most of your product is sold under Tony Chachere’s?
That’s correct. We did a licensing arrangement with Tony Chachere in 2003 where everything that we manufacture gets branded the Tony Chachere name. It’s worked very well for both companies.
So—so I was pronouncing it wrong. It’s [Sa-cher-e], huh?
Was he [Tony Chachere] involved in this company ever?
No, they have their own company. Tony Chachere Company is actually located in Opelousas, Louisiana; like I said, been around almost 40 years. It’s still run by Don Chachere, the grandson of Tony Chachere, and they are the premier manufacturers and sellers of the Tony Chachere seasoning, and they—they’ve been doing it for 40 years and do a really good job at it.
Okay, and so the seasoning then—it’s separate from your line of products?
That’s correct. Although we use their seasoning in all of our products, it is a totally different company than what we are.
So Tony Chachere isn't alive anymore, right?
No, he did die back in the ‘90s at 90-something years old. He was—he had a good life, but this was not his first success story. He actually started as an insurance man and had a lot of success there, but did a lot of cooking, and took his clients and cooked for them and things like that—and very, very successful in the insurance business. And in his next career he began the food, the seasoning business, and went on to have great success with that.
What was your background before you started this company in ’99?
I actually had an environmental engineering company. [Laughs] And we—although we were located here, we had offices in 12 different cities around the country. [I] sold the company in the late ‘90s, retired, and then began a second career of this—food business.
And why did you choose this—this sort of business—food business?
Well I find that 90-percent of business is transferable. You only—you know, I know all about customers. I know about costs and things like that. What I didn’t know is part of the food business, so actually began learning that and got together with a partner of mine, Mark Abraham. He had a small company, a boudin company in Sulphur that he acquired a couple years earlier. And I had a production background, and so we got together as partners and I told him the way I grew my environmental company was to acquire small companies and putting them together and then sold it and looked to do something like that with this company. But kind of fell in love with it, and now we’re just growing it and having a good time doing it.
I’ve just been on a tour of your facility, which is very exciting because I didn’t think I’d ever see where Tony C’s did its thing, but for the record can you give me sort of an overview of what happens here at French Market Foods?
Well we—we bring in the raw materials, whether it be the chicken, the turkeys, or the pork, and then it’s—in the case of the chickens we of course de-bone it, season it, stuff it with our stuffing that’s made out of the rice dressing that we manufacture right here, and—and we package it up and get ready to freeze it and prepare it to ship out. The boudin is brought in in big pork combos, 1,000-pound pork combos. We grind the product, we cook our rice, we mix it with the seasoning and the rice, and then we push it through our stuffing machine that fills the casing, the natural casing, sausage casing that we—that’s how you make pork boudin. And then we put it in our smoker for a short time and package it and it’s ready to ship also. So—.
So your boudin is smoked?
It’s only smoked just a little bit to get the—bring the moisture content down some, uh-hm. Not really to give it a smoked taste.
The turkeys, we start with the whole turkey, de-bone it, and then we stuff it with chicken that’s completely de-boned, and then we stuff the chicken with the duck, and we end up with the turducken, and we do roughly 700 turduckens a day—is a normal turducken [day]. We do somewhere around 3,000 de-boned stuffed chickens a day, and we do about 30,000 pounds of boudin a week. So we—and then of course we also have the Tony Chachere sausage, the—the smoked dinner sausage, which we manufacture here too.
And also some entrées, right, such as gumbo and—?
That’s correct. We do [Laughs]—we make, yeah, we start with our own ingredients, which includes Tony Chachere seasoning, cook it down—. We make—we also cook the rice and then we put the two together, package it up and freeze it, get ready to ship it. It’s in single-serve entrées, and also two-pound family-style, fully cooked just heat-and-eat entrées. And we do chicken sausage gumbo; we do crawfish etouffee; we do shrimp gumbo and several other entrées.
Who developed the recipes?
Okay, I should have said up front that I’m not the cook, okay, but we have cooks working for us. And what they do, they—they make and prepare the products for us and we taste it, and if we like it then chances are we believe other people will like it, and that’s the way we do it. We develop it with cooks in our plant. We also get Tony Chachere ‘s food scientists and their people to try it, okay. If their Board of Directors like it and we like it, then chances are the public will like it, and that’s how it really works.
Did the boudin recipe come from your partner, if he had a boudin shop?
Yes, he had—yeah, the recipe that was started several years earlier than that. Now he—he acquired that shop also, okay, so the boudin recipe has been acquired from way back, so nor I or my partners did the—did the first origination of the recipe. [Laughs]
How does a product like boudin, which is so tied to this—not just this part of the country but this part of the state—does that sell well in other states?
I think the boudin is a growing business, but it is not one of the mainstays for the Creole foods and Creole restaurants around the country, because people don’t understand it. Once they taste it, I think they enjoy it and they come back and buy it, but what you’ll find is at first the restaurants carry it, and then people in the area start asking for it at the grocery stores, and that’s how we developed the field.
So the restaurants sort of become the trend-setters for home cooks.
Right, that’s the way we found that it works. You have good—Emeril has done it very well—good job of showcasing the Louisiana cooking across the country, and there’s a lot of it. Paul Prudhomme and a lot of the famous chefs in this area have done a good job of promoting the Creole foods, and that’s where that developed a following that pushes on into the retail segment of the market; so it’s where we come in.
Do you know offhand what part of the country besides Louisiana and Texas, say, is—where does boudin sell the best?
Well we—our markets—our strongest markets of course are the eight states that start from Texas and Oklahoma and just go eastward across Kentucky and Tennessee and Alabama and Mississippi on over to Florida. That’s our strength, but we have a really good following in the California market; we have a real good following in the Chicago market, so it’s really a good. I guess a lot of misplaced Louisianans have showed up over there.
You said that you make a shrimp gumbo here, and a chicken and sausage. Is that right?
That’s correct, uh-huh, and a shrimp Creole. And a lot of our products are made with shrimp because one of the other companies is a shrimp company. We make—we process about 8,000,000 pounds of shrimp. Here we sell a lot of it under the Tony Chachere shrimp in retail grocery stores, and we also use the shrimp in our recipes. So it’s all wild, called American shrimp, and it’s the best out there.
So you use all, you know, local shrimp in your products?
That’s correct. Only raw caught domestic shrimp are used in our products—all from my plant.
And where is your plant?
It’s in Dulac, Terrebonne Parish, just south of Houma on the water.
How many employees do you have there?
There we have about 85, so—I counted that when I said we had 200 people in our food company, okay.
Does that include the people who catch the shrimp?
No, we-—those are all independent contractors. And we have three docks, and we buy from the boats but we don’t own the boats.
Can you tell me a little bit about what happened here at the facility, and also the business, when Hurricane Rita happened?
Wow, that was—here we had some damage to our plant, but the biggest problem we had, because we had all the holiday products ready to ship, was that we didn’t have electricity for two weeks. So we had to come back the next day, and we had already arranged to have a big tractor-trailer generator meet us here. We—but the problem was, that I didn’t think about, was that there was no electricians to hook anything up. They were all evacuated. So I called Tony Chachere in Opelousas—remember, they were out of harm’s way—and see if they could help me. They actually sent all their plant electricians over here and got us hooked up, and we ran on generator power for about 13, 14 days, and kept the freezers going. And after about a week we started the plant back up, once we got more of our people back.
I saw the—the freezers and the refrigerators. I can't believe that there’s a generator big enough to keep that all running.
Oh yeah, it’s a big generator. I can't remember the size, but it—it arrived on a big tractor-trailer. It was huge.
Where did that come from?
Actually it came from La Place, which is down close to New Orleans, and we had put it on a retainer before any of the storms—before Katrina, before Rita hit. Now understand our—although our shrimp plant is just south of New Orleans, it was actually on the west side of the storm, so it actually—we got no damage during Katrina at all. But Rita, which hit over in—over here on this side of the state, we got six-foot of water throughout our plants and our homes and everything down there and caused quite a bit of damage. But again we—you know we got it cleaned up, replaced our motors, replaced everything that was harmed and went back to work.
So you didn’t lose any product here, but did you lose product in the—at the shrimp facility?
Oh yes, millions of dollars worth of product.
How did you possibly clean that up?
Well we have—well it was still in cases, of course, so I mean it was frozen in cases, so of course if it thawed out, a lot of it—we just put roll-off dumpsters there—many, many roll-off dumpsters—and just loaded it. And they took it away and put it in a landfill.
I think that I learned today that you make turducken year-round.
We start turducken work production basically when our labor [migrant workers] gets back from Mexico. So that’s around the first of March that we start making turducken and—for the holidays.
For the record, could you explain what a turducken is?
Sure. That’s—it’s kind of a specialty Louisiana food that takes a whole turkey and de-bone it; take the carcass out, leaving the drumsticks and the wing bones for the shape. We take the boneless turkey and we stuff it with a boneless duck, and then we stuff the duck with a boneless—I’m sorry—boneless chicken goes first, and then the boneless duck, so—. And then we put our dressings and seasonings around those products--meat products, so you have this 15-pounds of almost 100-percent edible product, and it’s just a great flavor. It’s ready-seasoned, ready-to-eat—I mean seasoned and ready to cook, and we just—and we sell tens of thousands of them for the holiday season, so—.
Do you also sell them, say, in April, or not?
We sell them—all the sales spike during the holiday season, whether it be the Super Bowl, whether it be Easter, whether it be Thanksgiving, Christmas—all those are good holiday—those good holiday days are good turducken days. So any time you get a large group together, turducken makes a good fit.
Is turducken at all a tradition in your family?
We have it probably every other year; we don’t have it every year. We like to just have gumbo and things like that. I mean, because I get enough tourists through here where I get a chance to eat it on a regular basis anyway.
Well now that you mentioned a home gumbo, who is the cook at your house—the gumbo cook?
Well it’s definitely not me. My wife is the cook, so I don’t cook at all. She’s an excellent cook, and she’s also on our tasting panel here, so it must pass her taste test before it goes out to the retail.
If she’s going to make a gumbo at the holidays, what will it be?
Well the way she did it a few years back, of course, is start with the roux and her own raw materials and build it from scratch. But now, it just so happens we own a food company and we just bring it [from] here—heat and eat.
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