Bringing Business To The Table
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is using its kitchen and connections to feed a growing appetite for entrepreneurship in New Orleans, while also looking at new ventures itself.
Photos by Cheryl Gerber
When Liz Williams went to museums, she always saw the same gap. While there always seemed to be displays of things like spearheads and clay pots from hunter-gatherer societies and the embellished bone china of nobility, there was never anything that chronicled the eating habits of everyday people — things like kitchen implements, recipe collections and restaurant menus.
And what better city to make this dream a reality than New Orleans?
In 2004, with the help of some like-minded colleagues, Williams co-founded the National Food and Beverage Foundation (NatFAB). In 2008, the organization launched the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB), which began as a series of pop-up exhibits at the Riverwalk (now known as The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk) before moving to its current space on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in 2013.
In the decade since its founding, SoFAB has built an extensive collection of culinary artifacts and memorabilia designed to educate visitors about the South’s unique culinary traditions (there’s even a section on the history of Popeyes). The museum is also home to the New Orleans collection of the Museum of the American Cocktail, La Galerie de l’Absinthe, the Rouses Culinary Innovation Center by Jenn-Air (a state-of-the-art commissary kitchen), and the John & Bonnie Boyd Hospitality and Culinary Library.
Within SoFAB’s walls, visitors can learn how Texas’ barbecue differs from North Carolina’s, explore the rise and fall (and rise again) of absinthe, and read correspondence from Julia Child about her visits to Galatoire’s in the 1970s. What many don’t know, however, is that SoFAB brings more to the table than impressive exhibits.
A Test Kitchen for Talent In recent years, SoFAB’s mission has grown from simply documenting the South’s culinary history to serving as a vibrant showcase for the region’s evolving talents and tastes.
A glance through SoFAB’s event calendar finds a full plate of programming for all ages — from cooking classes for kids to weekly demonstrations by visiting chefs to lectures and informational sessions – all helping illustrate and support the South’s diverse culinary traditions, past and present.
“We wound up filling a niche that we didn’t even realize was there,” says Williams.
That’s not the only niche SoFAB grew to fill. Given the entrepreneurial nature of the culinary industry (every recipe, restaurant and product starts out as someone’s dream), SoFAB has embraced its role as a breeding ground for new talent, helping would-be chefs and culinary entrepreneurs explore their ideas and learn about the industry through SoFAB’s broad network of professional connections, as well as its physical space – especially the kitchen.
Williams believes SoFAB’s unique resources can play a vital role in helping entrepreneurs.
“What we offer entrepreneurs is not abstract,” she says. “This is about your business, how our kitchen can help your business, how our staff can help your business.”
In recent years, SoFAB’s hands-on approach to professional development has helped kickstart the careers of a cupcake baker, jam maker, Senegalese chef and many more, demonstrating the diversity of a regional culinary tradition that’s evolved far beyond hot sauce and gumbo.
Helping Entrepreneurs Develop a Recipe for Success SoFAB has focused its efforts on early-stage entrepreneurs and chefs just beginning to explore an idea.
“We want people to get so successful that we’re not big enough for them,” says Williams. “That’s really the way we see ourselves. We are the beginning. We also know that there are many places in town, whether it’s Propeller or one of the small-business development centers, where you can learn how to read a spreadsheet, about generalized marketing, logo building... We don’t need to teach that.”
Instead, SoFAB focuses on what they do best: connecting entrepreneurs with professional networks and affordable, high-quality kitchen and event space [see sidebar]. Through the museum’s Paul C.P. McIlhenny Culinary Entrepreneurship Program, SoFAB hosts regular sessions where a group of grocery buyers might evaluate new product ideas, or where established culinary entrepreneurs (such as Kristen Preau, aka Jambalaya Girl) share their experiences in building a brand.
“We have created a reputation,” says Williams. “It’s easier for a place like a Rouses Market to bring their buyers to a session here rather than having them pick up the phone for every [aspiring product developer] who has a question. It’s a way for them to get the word out about what they need and is something important that we can offer.”
Williams believes that these kinds of informational sessions are some of the most valuable services SoFAB provides to people considering a culinary venture, even when the information steers them away from an idea.
“We’ve had a lot of people come out of those sessions and say, ‘I don’t want to do it. I’m so glad I came to this because it saved me lot of money and time.’ And other people get more excited and say, ‘Yes, that’s what I want to do!’ Then we can direct them to Propeller or other business development programs.”
And unlike some other programs in the area, SoFAB’s entrepreneurship sessions are open to anyone – there is no application process or cohort of entrepreneurs moving through a structured program. The flexibility is designed to make it easier for an entrepreneur to explore an idea in its early stages without any commitment.
Advice for Aspiring Culinary Entrepreneurs Over the years, Williams has seen scores of entrepreneurs succeed and fail, and she feels those experiences have taught her what can make or break an enterprise.
“The thing we see the most is somebody who really cooks well but thinks they’ll make it on taste alone,” says Williams. “Just because your friends think it’s the best barbecue sauce they’ve ever tasted doesn’t mean it’s going to sell. You’ve got to be rational and approach your idea in the most businesslike way. It’s not enough for everybody to tell you you should open a reastaurant or a bakery because your banana bread is the best they’ve ever had. First you have to get people to taste it!”
So, what’s a talented person with a tasty product to do? According to Williams, the key is developing focus and discipline to underpin the enthusiasm.
“I have found that the thing that works best is for somebody to have to explain their idea to a skeptic,” she says. “If you can convince the negative person because of your rational approach that this is going to be a success, they’ll be your biggest supporter because they’ve been convinced. That’s the best way to get that focus.”
A measured approach to growth also helps.
“People sometimes want to get big right away and succeed overnight,” says Williams. “Have a plan. Write it down. Sometimes it means you grow more slowly, but it means you’re more stable as you grow. You can learn how to read a spreadsheet, you can get a good lawyer who’s going to help you obey the food laws, but for you to say, ‘I’m going to be disciplined about this and make this work’ – that’s the hardest thing.”
Room for Plenty of Cooks in the Kitchen In a city obsessed with entrepreneurship, there are many options for people looking for startup assistance.
In addition to incubators and accelerators like Propeller, Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business has just launched a program in entrepreneurial hospitality. But Williams believes there is more than enough room for all – and that collaboration is important.
For Williams, that might mean participating in Propeller’s review process for food-related entrepreneur applicants, or accepting invitations to speak at events like the Barpreneurs Power Lunch.
“I try to cooperate with everybody who’s doing things because I truly believe rising tides float all boats, she says, “and we want to have a robust industry here.”
Forging a New Museum Model The SoFAB model has caught on far beyond the South. The American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums has called SoFAB the first “national, distributed” museum.
“They have given what we’re doing a name,” says Williams. “There isn’t one monolithic place about American food, but regional places connected by this network of specialty museums.”
In 2018, NatFAB opened the Pacific Food and Beverage Museum in Los Angeles, with other regional hubs in the works. Williams’ expertise in this unique niche is recognized worldwide. She is frequently invited to speak to groups about her experience with food museums, most recently to a consortium of universities in France.
Here in New Orleans, SoFAB’s mission continues to expand. The facility is a draw for visitors and locals alike, and Williams and her team strive to create an exciting range of programming that not only showcases the food culture of New Orleans and the South, but connects it to the wider world by hosting visiting chefs from a broad range of cultures – from Canada to Saudi Arabia.
What’s next on the menu for SoFAB? In the near future, the museum will unveil an outdoor space to help visitors explore Southern-style outdoor cooking (e.g., boiling crawfish and smoking meat). Williams also dreams of creating a space to display photographs of New Orleans food and possibly a children’s gallery.
“We’re very ambitious,” says Williams. “We’re always trying to get bigger and better and have more and better programming. Our eyes are probably bigger than our stomachs.”