Supplying Krewes With Throws is a Year-Round Job
NEW ORLEANS – Before the Mardi Gras beads begin to fly each year, a lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into supplying the city’s thousands of parade riders with the trinkets, cups and toys they’ll throw to the jostling throngs.
A handful of private, family-run companies serve as the proxies between parading organizations and the mostly overseas factories that produce the mostly plastic loot. The businesses keep their financials close to their silks, but the scale of the operations speaks for itself.
Plush Appeal – The Mardi Gras Spot opened its doors as a supplier of amusements and novelty toys in 1989 and has grown to occupy four acres of warehouse and retail space in Mid-City. Its immaculate and organized 13,000 square-foot showroom on Toulouse Street looks like a Home Depot that got sprinkled with Carnival dust.
Plush Appeal Vice President Alyssa Fletchinger said the company supplies about 70 organizations with Mardi Gras throws and they also sell items throughout the year to schools, businesses and other groups. Plenty of individual customers come in during Carnival season to stock up on throws, costume supplies or themed decorations. Overall, they supply more than 10,000 different items ranging from beads to plush toys to glitter to Saints T-shirts – and there’s a new focus on environmentally friendly options.
Business is obviously good but it’s also hard work. In the months leading up to Mardi Gras, Plush Appeal hires approximately 250 temporary workers to staff the retail location, unload truckloads of goodies and make deliveries to the krewes.
“Pretty much by the end of the Carnival season, everything in this store and the warehouse will be gone,” said Fletchinger. “We’ll be bringing in stuff for next Carnival season but a lot of the inventory will not be here after we get through the next few weeks.”
Then, after the last St. Patrick’s Day parade has weaved its way through the city, Fletchinger, who’s a mom of two, embarks on a four- to eight-week factory tour throughout Asia and elsewhere to plan designs, manage relationships and check on the quality of merchandise.
A big part of the job for Fletchinger and her colleagues is overseeing the delivery of items manufactured in faraway places. It’s common for throws to be made in China, shipped to Los Angeles, transported by train to New Orleans and then trucked to and from the Plush Appeal warehouses. This year, the federal tariffs and ongoing “trade war” between the U.S. and China have added to the logistical headaches.
“The tariffs have been very difficult just because we deal with so many different items,” said Fletchinger. “It was hard to figure out which ones would be affected by tariffs and when the tariffs were going into effect. Especially since some of the orders had already been placed and the pricing had already been set.”
Two Stores in One
Five miles away from Plush Appeal you’ll find Jefferson Variety, an Old Jefferson retail operation that began as a “five and dime” store in 1957 and now has an 8,000 square-foot showroom and roughly 25,000 square feet of warehouse space surrounding it.
Owner Rusty Tracy estimates it takes about three dozen 40-foot shipping containers to deliver all the Mardi Gras merch he sells each year to about 20 different parading organizations and individual riders. He has separate warehouses for his best-selling products. One is full of second-line umbrellas, another one overflowing with foam footballs and yet another containing boxes full of plastic flowers to be handed out during the St. Patrick’s Day parades.
His most cavernous warehouse – full of beads and other throws for krewe members – is reminiscent of the one in the final scene of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” … except these boxes won’t be locked away forever. Shipping pallets stacked high are waiting for krewes or individual riders to collect them in the coming weeks.
“We get their orders starting in August and then we’ll hold it for them until they need it,” said Tracy. “Plenty of them go straight from here to the float. We have about 1200 layaways plus all the krewes we have.”
Jefferson Variety has a dual identity. In addition to the Carnival throws, the store is also a supplier of specialized fabrics and accessories used to make Mardi Gras ball gowns and costumes for second-line organizations, Mardi Gras Indians, marching clubs, dancers and krewes. The place has what’s needed to make everything from a wedding dress to a pirate costume for a truck parade. During Carnival season, there’s a line of people every day waiting to purchase fabric, feathers, boas, sequins, rhinestones, hats, headbands, glitter, velcro, fringe, zippers and of course … umbrellas.
“I think everybody in the city gets an umbrella,” said Lisa Tracy, Rusty’s wife and the overseer of the fabrics side of things. “We go through a 40-foot container of umbrellas every year and sell out. People use them for Mardi Gras, the Saints, LSU … They do it for weddings and they do it for funerals. Everything!”
Plush Appeal’s Fletchinger and the Tracys all note that throws have evolved considerably in the last 30 years.
Riders used to hurl strings of small plastic beads, doubloons and cups to parade-goers. Now, the average child atop a parade ladder might catch a stuffed Dora the Explorer doll, a shark sword studded with multi-colored LED lights or an elaborate set of big beads holding a Saints medallion … plus literally thousands of other more expensive trinkets.
“Throws have changed so much,” said Fletchinger. “It used to be if you caught more than one bead it would be very exciting. Now we have groups with more than 150 different customized items. It’s incredible and interesting to see the evolution in the last 10 years.”