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Making Groceries, and Progress 

Local brand names struggle to return to a grocery near you.

On Aug. 28, with Hurricane Katrina raging toward the Gulf Coast, the owners of Hubig's Pies baked 10,000 pies to distribute for free around town in the storm's wake. Drew Ramsey, an owner of the historic Faubourg Marigny bakery, says his grandfather had done the same before Hurricanes Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969, giving residents and relief workers some sweet sustenance as they rebuilt in the days after the storms.

But Katrina and its aftermath were nothing like those earlier storms, and that batch of oblong, fried fruit pies produced the day before the hurricane were the last ones to come out of Hubig's in the months that followed.

"We will be back, definitely," says Ramsey. "We're moving in the right direction, but there are a lot of issues to deal with" -- including structural problems and delays in insurance payments for the company's building.

Nevertheless, Hubig's employees field calls daily from locals and displaced New Orleanians living around the country who want to know when the pies will be available again, a date Ramsey pegs sometime in January (see related item in "Food News").

When Katrina all but shut down New Orleans, it took with it the ability of local companies to provide food products that in many cases are as vital a part of the city's culinary culture as the restaurants they help supply. As these companies come back to life, they face many of the same challenges besetting their peers in the restaurant industry, especially staffing, facility repairs and insurance payments. But the road to getting these large, usually generations-old businesses back in action again presents its own unique twists, even as grocers and consumers clamor for their products.

Thanksgiving in post-Katrina New Orleans was different from years past by any measure, but for some families the scarcity of hams from the Chisesi Bros. Meat Packing Co. stuck out like an empty chair around the holiday dinner table. Prized for their high-quality and distinctive seasoning, these local hams were available in only very limited quantities in late November. Both Chisesi's main production house near the Louisiana Superdome was damaged in the storm, and only about a quarter of its 100 employees are back at work, says Nicholas Chisesi, a fifth-generation owner of the family business. However, Chisesi has since ramped up production and is focusing almost exclusively on hams to make them widely available for Christmas celebrations, he says. Demand has been frenzied.

"By the time we make a ham and package it, it's already sold. There's no inventory in stock," Chisesi says.

The company's delivery trucks were destroyed in the flood, and it's proof of the value local grocers place on the hams that they are willing to dispatch their own employees to pick them up from the source. However, one delivery the company is committed to fulfilling even now is to supply lunch service at the single school in devastated St. Bernard Parish that reopened in November.

"Anything we can do to get some normalcy back to the city with our products, we're going to do it," Chisesi says.

The delivery fleet at Leidenheimer Baking Co. was also decimated after the storm. Many of the trucks, decorated as rolling murals with local artist Bunny Matthews' Vic and Nat'ly characters, were stolen and turned up abandoned across south Louisiana and Texas. Nevertheless, Leidenheimer's Central City bakery was turning out po-boy loaves by Oct. 9 and making deliveries in the surviving trucks.

"The only reason we're operating is because of a group of employees who really answered the bell," says Sandy Whann, president of the 109-year-old company. "They understand the importance of what we're doing here for the businesses that rely on po-boys. There are hundreds and hundreds of mom-and-pop businesses that simply can't open without us and our people get that."

Baumer Foods, maker of Crystal brand hot sauces and Creole mustard, is located in a part of Mid-City hit hard by flooding after Katrina. An employee at the company confirmed it was still in business, but its management could not be reached for an update on production status for its distinctive sauces. Nearby in Broadmoor, the huge neon sign that once lit up the night sky above the Blue Plate Mayonnaise factory, remains dark, but the product is still widely available thanks to out-of-town production. Five years ago, New Orleans-based food maker Wm. B. Reily Co. moved production of its Blue Plate brand to Knoxville, Tenn.

Timing was the key to business restoration for Zatarain's, which has been in business since 1889 but only in the spring of 2005 devised a disaster-recovery plan. "We certainly picked the right year," says company president David Darragh. Once Katrina hit, the company gathered its formula books and other vital files and moved operations from its Gretna plant to Irving, Texas -- just outside Dallas. There the company borrowed plant space from McCormick & Co., the food company that purchased Zatarain's in 2003. By Sept. 12, two weeks after Katrina, Zatarain's was able to make Creole mustard, fish-fry mixes, seasonings and many of its other distinctive Louisiana products again in these and other facilities. The company returned to Gretna and resumed operations on Oct. 3.

Immediately after the storm, Zatarain's emptied its Gretna warehouse and donated 100,000 packaged meals to FEMA for disaster relief. In the months ahead, the company hopes its products will be consumed less for sustenance and more for celebration across the recovering region.

"We're crossing our fingers for a good crawfish season," says Darragh, whose company makes seafood-boil seasoning. The season begins at the end of the month. "Not just in terms of having good crawfish but also in having the people who love to do crawfish boils back home again."

click to enlarge Product placement: Zatarain's devised a disaster-recovery - plan last spring, just in time to handle the storm  missing - only two weeks of production and returning to Gretna for - business by Oct. 3. - IAN MCNULTY
  • Ian McNulty
  • Product placement: Zatarain's devised a disaster-recovery plan last spring, just in time to handle the storm missing only two weeks of production and returning to Gretna for business by Oct. 3.
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