New Orleans Food and Beverage Companies Are Having a Moment

245672381 4633926506630835 1824438872825255314 N
Image courtesy of Big Easy Bucha

This is the first in a series of stories about the city’s growing food and beverage industry.

NEW ORLEANS — The sale of New Orleans-based healthy drinks company Big Easy Bucha to Latin American beverage company Beliv is the most dramatic evidence to date that the local food manufacturing industry is having a moment.

Seven years ago, husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Austin Sherman and Alexis Korman started the company in the kitchen of their small apartment near the French Quarter. Since then, Big Easy Bucha has grown into a thriving business headquartered on Euphrosine Street that sells millions of drinks annually at Publix, Whole Foods, Costco and other major retailers. After the recent acquisition, Sherman and Korman said they plan to add another 50 local jobs as they continue to expand.

But Big Easy Bucha is not the only notable food-and-beverage startup in the city with a promising future.

Matt Wolfe, vice president of communications at the economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc., said there are more than 110 companies in New Orleans that are operating in the local food manufacturing space. More than 35 support organizations are assisting them with various aspects of their growth, whether it’s co-packing, distribution or business coaching. 

Some local food and beverage operations have been exporting the flavors of New Orleans for decades. These include L.H. Hayward & Company, maker of Camellia beans; Reily Foods, known for Blue Plate mayonnaise, Luzianne tea and more; and Baumer Foods, creator of Crystal Hot Sauce. But for every established business, there are dozens of startups on the scene that are bringing new ideas and energy.

Wolfe said there are two main reasons why he’s excited about the future of this category. The first, he said, is the type of companies that are setting up shop.

“Historically, food manufacturing in New Orleans was really focused on brands that captured New Orleans cuisine – brands like Zatarain’s, Blue Runner, Crystal Hot Sauce,” he said. “While these products are popular around the world, they all focus heavily on New Orleans flavors, so we have a new opportunity to create everyday staples that people fill their fridges and pantries with. The companies that are in this industry now are all over the map in terms of what they produce.”

Examples include Brass Roots, which makes healthy snacks using Sacha Inchi seeds and other natural ingredients; El Guapo, maker of cocktail bitters, syrups and mixers; and Hola NOLA (actually based in Baton Rouge, despite the name), known for all-natural tortillas.

“It’s honestly just a different breed of company, and they’re functioning more like regular startups than just food companies,” said Wolfe.

The second thing that’s changed, he said, is that there’s a support network that allows these companies to thrive.

“One area that was really lacking was resources for packaging and distribution of their goods,” he said. “In a more mature market, there would have been facilities that essentially work for hire to help companies like these get their products on the shelves. Today, that’s changing.”

He cites Fresh Food Factor as an example. Operated by Volunteers of America, it’s an 8,500-square-foot commercial kitchen located in the Lower Garden District. It can be an important stepping stone for food and beverage companies that want to expand but aren’t able to invest in their own manufacturing and packaging equipment. 

Cold storage provider Lineage Logistics, meanwhile, announced it is embarking on a $42 million expansion of its Jourdan Road cold-storage facility in New Orleans East, where the international company plans to create 50 new local jobs. Expected to be finished in the second quarter of 2022, this expansion opens up another 144,000 square feet of space for the market to use. 

An equally important part of the support network is the city’s business development ecosystem.

A lot of these food startups are graduates of entrepreneurship programs at Idea Village, Propeller and other nonprofits that aim to help new businesses succeed. The University of Holy Cross has a food science program that’s also supporting young entrepreneurs. And organizations like Greater New Orleans Inc. and the New Orleans Business Alliance are nurturing the industry. Since 2019, a group called New Orleans Food and Beverage, founded by Brass Roots’ founder Aaron Gailmor, has met in person and online to discussing everything from what’s happening in the market to details about going through the permitting process with the city.

“These founders are all talking to each other and sharing resources with one another,” said Wolfe. “The fact that these companies aren’t operating in silos gives them each a better chance at survival.”

The reality is food manufacturing is a tough business with lots of barriers to entry and competition from larger companies. But the changes in the New Orleans food scene are improving the chances for entrepreneurs. In the coming weeks, Biz New Orleans will publish several stories about new and established businesses operating in this sector to help get a sense for who might have the next multimillion dollar idea.

Next up: Brass Roots founder Aaron Gailmor talks about founding a New Orleans-based healthy snack company using a seed that originated in the Peruvian Amazon.

Categories: Food, Retail, Today’s Business News