Spice king: How a New Orleans food firm went global
- 29 April 2013
- From the section Business
Paul Prudhomme is one of America's most famous chefs - he has cooked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W Bush, and has won almost every fine-dining culinary award that the United States has to offer.
But here in an industrial suburb of New Orleans, far away from the white tablecloths, he is munching happily on lavender pods from a giant rubber dustbin.
As more than 50,000 pounds of spices, flour, and salt are blended together overhead in his Magic Seasonings plant, Chef Paul offers workers herbs from a bin lid as if he's passing around hors d'oeuvres at his famous restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, in the city's French Quarter.
Chef Paul's love of spice - of oregano from Turkey, sassafras from Appalachia, and spicy peppers from right here in Louisiana - is what first made diners fall in love with the Cajun cooking at his restaurant in the 1980s.
"Customers would come in and eat and would say what are you putting in the food?" says Mr Prudhomme. "So we would give them [the seasonings] because it was cheap.
"Over the years, it just got all over the globe."
Today, Magic Seasonings is a multimillion-dollar business, with 27 different spice blends that are manufactured in a 100,000 sq ft factory - replete with a top-secret recipe experimentation room and a test kitchen, which on the day the BBC visited was occupied by representatives from the country's biggest pork producer.
Now, instead of bringing spices from around the world to his customers at K-Paul, Chef Paul exports his blends to 37 countries.
Revenues from exports make up more than 25% of the business and are growing rapidly.
Crossing the Border
Only one in 100 small businesses in the US is an exporter - and of that select group, most export to only one other country, typically either neighbouring Mexico and Canada, according to the United States Chamber of Commerce.
This means there is plenty of room to grow, according to Jerry Hingle, executive director of the Southern United States Trade Association (Susta).
"Ninety-five per cent of the world's consumers are outside of the United States," says Mr Hingle. "So in effect, 99% of American companies are ignoring 95% of the world's consumers."
Helping small businesses reach those consumers is crucial to President Obama's economic initiative.
He has made increasing exports a priority, explicitly stating as part of his National Export Initiative that he hopes to double American exports by 2015.
Companies like Magic Seasonings are a large part of that plan, as 97% of US exporters are small and medium-sized businesses.
Already, agricultural exports, which include things like soybeans but also speciality food products like Chef Paul's blends, are up 50% since 2009.
But more needs to be done to help educate businesses about how to break into overseas markets.
"Small businesses are intimidated by the exporting process - they're afraid of getting paid, they're afraid they won't meet labelling laws," says Mr Hingle.
From the Big Easy to Japan
Even with a robust interest abroad, growth often comes slowly - as it did for Magic Seasonings.
In the beginning, Mr Prudhomme would find another chef to cook with in a foreign country like Japan, where Magic Seasonings was first introduced in 1985.
In that way, he could have someone on the ground who could vouch for the product.
But as the exporting business grew, Mr Prudhomme brought on Anna Zuniga, his director of international sales and marketing, to streamline and grow operations beyond a few chefs scattered across the globe.
One big change that helped boost sales - and the bottom line - was altering the way that Magic Seasonings was bottled and sold.
"We used to package the seasoning in glass bottles with 24 to a case - but that weighed too much and cost a lot," says Ms Zuniga.
"Now, we package the seasoning in foil bottles that weigh a third as much."
Ms Zuniga says many of the challenges for Magic Seasonings involve foreign regulations on labelling and food standards. This is why she often gets help from government programmes that can offer insights into foreign laws and importing standards, like Susta.
Today, the company's biggest export market is Mexico, followed by the UK and Japan, and it is now looking to expand to India.
Magic Seasonings does not shy away from its Louisiana roots - and experts say that capitalising on locations with specific reputations, like New Orleans, can help when trying to export a product abroad.
It is a strategy that many in the area are already employing.
Joel Dondis runs Sucre, a New Orleans-based dessert chain. He says he is just beginning to think about becoming an exporter, after getting offers of interest from places as far away as Singapore, Dubai and London.
"I think New Orleans has just as much cachet as Paris and I think those things play into exporting," says Dondis. "You need a brand that can carry."
Like Magic Seasonings' Cajun creations, Dondis thinks that his macaroons, chocolates, and King Cakes - a New Orleans speciality - will be popular because of how localised they are, with deep roots in the Louisiana area.
"Distance is not an issue," Dondis says.
"If people want to buy our chocolate bars in Abu Dhabi, I'm going to sell them in Abu Dhabi."