Recently, I addressed guests of the Abita Fresh – MDA Community kickoff event held at Ain’t Life Grand Investments on December 8th, 2016. As the founder of Abita Fresh, I was given the responsibility of re-telling the story of how we came to be. What surprised me was how many people, even some closely associated with us, had no idea of the full story. Most know bits and pieces, but were amazed at how the stars seemed to align over the last few years bringing together the perfect cast of characters to build this remarkable company. It really is a pretty cool story, and now I’d like to share it with you.
A LITTLE BACKSTORY
Not only am I the owner/founder of Abita Fresh, I’m also the proud owner of the Historic Abita Springs Cafe, located in downtown Abita Springs, LA. Built in 1890, the cafe has been home to many different types of businesses over the last century, most notably restaurants, but that’s another story so I’ll fast forward a bit. My grandfather bought the Cafe in the late 70’s and leased it out for many years until I took over the operations in 2012 with my business partner. Back then I just wanted to be the best breakfast/brunch/lunch restaurant on the Northshore. I may be biased, but I believe we accomplished that goal pretty quickly. We became so popular that another location was soon opened in downtown Covington under the name Abita Roasting Company. It was a magnificient merger. The Abita Roasting Company, which was started by Kyle Ross several years ago, became a household name delivering hand roasted artisan coffee to businesses and residents all over Southeast Louisiana. After the merger, and subsequent opening of the Covington location, customers were finally able to consume hand roasted coffee and made from scratch breakfast under one roof. It was an instant success!!
I NEED EGGS
Around the same time we were planning the Covington location, the Avian Flu was rapidly spreading across the country. Little did I know at the time that this would be the catalyst for a major turn in the direction of our companies. Up until that time, our restaurants relied heavily on national producers for the items and ingredients used for the production of our restaurant dishes. Being a predominately breakfast restaurant, eggs were at the top of the list in terms of usage. Approximately 150 dozen eggs are consumed each week at both locations combined. So as you can imagine, our supply was severely affected when the Avian flu decimated the Chicken population in this country and over 46 million birds had to be destroyed. So much so, that an egg that once cost us approximately .12 cents, now cost us over .60 cents. Not only did this affect our bottom line, but sourcing had become increasingly hard and some weeks we had trouble just finding eggs to purchase. One day, I woke up and said to myself ” I NEED EGGS”. This is where the Abita Fresh journey began.
IT ALL STARTED IN A BARN
Fed up with our current system of using national producers, I set out to find local farmers who could supply the eggs my restaurants required. My goal was, and still is, to one day rid my restaurants of the need for a Sysco Truck. I spent several days searching for local farmers, but none could handle the demand I was requesting. One of the last contacts I had to make on my list was a small farm named Stoney Point Farm, owned by Tim Roper. As I pulled onto his gravel road, I was met by a pack of farm dogs who escorted me to the barn near the middle of the property. As I climbed out of my truck, I immediately realized I was over dressed for this meeting, but continued towards the barn as I did the two step with a couple free range chickens while honey bees buzzed in my ears. This was a unique experience for a city boy from New Orleans to say the least. I entered the Barn and met Farmer Tim for the first time. Long hair and a long beard, he looks like what you would expect. We sat at his makeshift desk inside the barn as he proceeded to tell me about his cayenne pepper operation that he was beginning for a new hot sauce bottler, General’s Hot Sauce. I said “That sounds great, but I need eggs.” He stood up, walked over to the fridge, opened it up, and said, “I have about 10 dozen you can buy.” I sighed, “That’s not what I meant, I need 150 dozen…a week…every week.” He went on to explain that he would love to help me, but could not. Unknown to me at the time, Goodeggs.com had just closed its New Orleans Hub and in the process had stiffed many of our local farmers and producers out of thousands of dollars. Not to mention, many of these farmers had invested a lot of money into upgrading the infrastructure of their farm to supply Good Eggs demand. When Good Eggs pulled out, it left these farmers with little or no source of income to continue operations. Farmer Tim was one of these farmers, and the closure of Good Egg’s left his farm flat broke.
I STILL NEED EGGS
It was a touching story. Really, it was. But I still needed eggs. I needed eggs almost as bad as Farmer Tim needed plants. He needed plants so bad that he was reluctlantly willing to sell 20% of his farm to another investor for pennies. His options were few and saving the farm was his only concern, even if that meant giving up ownership. So as we continued to discuss our needs, we finally came to an agreement. I would pay to buy the chickens, if Tim would agree to raise the chickens and collect the eggs. I would also help him put plants in the ground, so he could resume farming and back on his way to making a living free from goodeggs.com. Farmer Tim would keep 100% of his farm. I didn’t want to own a piece of his farm, I only wanted eggs, and now I was one step closer.
Something happened in that barn that was more than eggs and plants…trust was established and a friendship was born. Farmer Tim is more than just a scruffy face. He’s a passionate and intelligent man who grows all of his produce according to naturally farming procedures, meaning no pesticides, chemicals, or hormones. His products are as fresh and natural as it gets. Anyway, a few days after our initial meeting in his barn, I was working hard at the cafe flipping eggs when I received a visit from my new friend. Farmer Tim had come to return the favor. The conversation turned back to goodeggs.com. Here was a 7 million dollar company that went out of business, not because of low sales, but because of poor management. That company should have been profitable but overspent at every turn. Even so, it had many great aspects to it. Most of all, it was a great avenue for local producers and farmers to sell a local, healthier product to our community. It just so happened that Farmer Tim was the first producer goodeggs.com signed on when they came to town. They used Tim’s wealth of knowledge, resources, and network to build their New Orleans hub. Farmer Tim knew their strengths and their weaknesses. He knew what they did right, and what they did wrong. Farmer Tim had the keys to the kingdom and was ready to hand them over. AbitaFresh.com was born.
ABITA FRESH HATCHES
Abita Fresh owns 850 chickens that produce the eggs for my restaurants. Those started as eggs that Farmer Tim incubated in the same barn we once met. Just as it took time for those chickens to hatch from eggs, it also has taken a while for Abita Fresh to hatch and become fully grown. Originally the goal was to sell the eggs and Farmer Tim’s produce online, but our main goal was also to help rebuild the local farming industry that was abandoned by goodeggs.com. Soon, we began to sell all types of different local products from honey and jams, to grass fed beef and cream line milk. Our main goal was and still is to help our local producers. Sometimes that means higher costs or higher pricing, but that’s ok. We don’t want to be a 7 million dollar company that forgets about the little guy. We want to be the engine that drives sales and revenue to help our local producers grow a hobby into a company. This doesn’t happen overnight, and has been slow moving at times, but these companies are our community. They live here, work here, play here. We should support them first.
PRINCE RICHARD, DUKE OF COVINGTON
So at this point, we have a businessman (me…kind of), and we have a farmer (Tim). We need a website. Enter Richard Taubin, owner of Mpressed Media, a local company in downtown Covington offering everything from website design to social media marketing. (SIDE NOTE: Richard’s grandmother was a countess and his uncle is a prince of the House of Saxe, Gotha, and Colberg in Germany, which makes Richard #1571 in line for the English Throne). Aside from being a noble, he’s also a very talented website designer and equally passionate about supporting local businesses. As a regular attendee of farmer’s markets, Richard understand’s the importance of supporting our local producers, and the benefits of eating clean, healthy foods. He caught wind of Abita Fresh and wanted to offer his services. When I told him we couldn’t pay him, but instead would offer a piece of the company, Richard gladly accepted. Our A-team was beginning to form.
TRUE BODY MEALS
Being a restaurant owner, my inclination is always to fall back on what I know and am good at…cooking food. Abita Fresh was starting to get some traction selling raw products,but something was missing. The trends in this country lean towards the prepared meal lines. More and more people everyday are buying prepared heat and eat meals as opposed to cooking meals from scratch. A trend that has been growing more and more as of late is the indivdual meals people can purchase for an entire week, thereby, reducing the amount of fast food or unhealthy food that they consume on the go. My background is in French cooking, meaning creams and butter, stick to the bones type cuisine. I am a lot less experienced in healthy food preparation. I knew I needed help. Richard had a friend whom he soon introduced me to that could help us create a healthy line of prepared meals. I first met Rebecca Lee in the most unhealthy of places, a local restaurant serving craft beer and chargrilled oysters. But it was here that launched our True Body Line. Rebecca is a registered dietician and nutritionist. She knows healthy better than I know breakfast. As the owner of True Body Nutrition, she has consulted countless members of our community throughout their effort to lose weight and increase their healthy lifestyle. It just so happened that she wanted to offer those clients real food by real chefs that tasted real good. As we began to create a menu, I realized that this undertaking was more than I had time for. My primary job is the restaurants and I couldn’t properly operate those, run Abita Fresh, and at the same time devote the attention needed to produce this new line of prepared meals. I needed a Chef.
HIGH SCHOOL REUNION
Chefs are easy to come by in New Orleans, not so much on the Northshore. One day while working at the Abita Roasting in Covington, an old high school friend paid me a visit. Michel Couste and I have been friends since we were 13 years old wandering the halls of Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, La. He dropped into check on me and see the new restaurant. While catching up, he informed me that he began working with a company in New Orleans producing healthy meals but that their future didn’t seem bright. However, the light bulb that went off in my head shined brighter than the noonday sun. After several weeks of back and forth, I had a catering order to deliver on the southshore. My trailer caught a flat and I was delayed for the setup of this event. Pressed for time, I called my friend Michel, who worked nearby, to see if he could lend a hand. With his help we setup and fed the guests at this event in record time. Later I treated him to lunch at a sushi restaurant as payment for him bailing me out of a tough spot. By the end of that conversation, Michel was on board the Abita Fresh train. The menu he and Rebecca have designed reigns high above the competition. Every item focuses on containing four main components: healthy, clean, local, delicious. Our Farmer farms, and our Chef creates. The end product is a delicious meal that is created by a genius chef according to guidelines set forth by a certified nutritionist using local, clean food grown by a passionate farmer. No other company comes close to that concept.
WHO’S THE BOSS?
Whenever you put this many creative geniuses in a room, chaos is bound to erupt. We needed direction…We needed a boss. The Abita Fresh truck was built with all the bells and whistles, but we still needed an engine. Our leader would arise from one of the most ironic stories of all. Eight years ago as a 28 year old kid, I opened my first attempt at a restaurant in Slidell, LA. After the initial hiring was complete and we were preparing for our grand opening, my manager approached me and requested that I interview a late applicant. She spoke highly of her and wanted to give her a chance even though we were already at full staff. I reluctantly agreed to the interview, and afterward responded to my manager that “she could hire Marissa Suprean if she wanted to, but I don’t believe she’ll last more than 3 weeks”. Folks, I have never been more wrong in my entire life. Not only did she last 3 weeks, Marissa has outlasted every employee I hired from that time period. She has been at my side for the last eight years (aside for a short stint working for my sister). She is the only employee that has worked at all four restaurants I have owned, and is now running the show at Abita Fresh. No order leaves the building without her oversight. No email goes unchecked. No account goes unbalanced. And no mistake goes undisciplined, even when I make the mistake. Marissa is our boss. She’s my #1. She is the face of Abita Fresh, and we are a better company because of it.
FEEDING THE MASSES
The Abita Fresh Team seemed complete…almost. During the late summer of 2016, a catastophic flood devastated the Baton Rouge and Denham Springs area just west of us. Many people were flooded out of their homes and lacked food and water. Late on a Sunday evening, as the flood waters continued to rage I sent out a call to action on my Facebook page to all my friends in the restaurant business. Nearly 20 of them answered the call, including an old Southern Miss college buddy of mine, Chris McDonald. Chris is the founder of Ain’t Life Grand Investments, which is the parent company of Mugshots Grill and Bar, Glory Bound Gyro Company, and Topher’s Rock and Roll Grill. With Chris’ network of more than 20 restaurants, we set out west and fed victims of the storm hot food day after day for over 6 weeks, totaling close to 30,000 people. Food was donated from restaurants and residents all over the Northshore and Southshore, along with 12 fully stocked U-hauls and trailers filled with supplies. On the way back from one of our last food relief runs, Chris was riding passenger in my truck when he asked about Abita Fresh. After telling him the story, he asked how he could join. Without hesitation, I told him he was in. This man can build a brand like no other. He’s a marketing extraordinaire, and a natural born leader. Having him join us was divine intervention. Our team was now complete, but the story was not.
A NEW HOME… A FRESH START
Along with my partnership with Chris, came use of his corporate offices at 1950 Hwy 190 in Covington, LA. Here we have full use of his large commercial kitchen and several office spaces. Recently, he constructed a small space up front to open as a store front, where customers can come throughout the week to pick up farm fresh eggs, honey, prepared meals, or any of our other local products. As we continue to build the local farming industry and educate our community on healthier eating we invite you to be a part of this exciting movement. Please check out our local products online or come shop our storefront.