Bean Business

A look at the Louisiana institution that is Camellia beans.

Nielsen Research recently identified Camellia Brand as America’s No. 1 selling red bean. It seems the rest of the U.S. has learned what New Orleanians have known for generations — nothing else cooks up creamy quite like Camellia red beans and no one knows beans better than Camellia’s CEO, Vince Hayward.

A Family Affair

Mercantile roots run deep in the Hayward family. Vince’s great-great-great- grandfather, Sawyer Hayward, came to New Orleans from the Caribbean in 1850. Originally he was a cotton broker, but he soon transitioned into dry goods, bringing beans and other items into the port while also developing a local produce distribution business.

Sawyer’s grandson, Lucius Hayward, brought the family business into the 20th century when he founded Camellia Brand in 1923, naming the company for his wife’s favorite flower. The focus of the company’s product selection narrowed to beans and Camellia prospered, supplying bulk beans to vendors at the French Market and to corner groceries across the city.

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Lucius’ son, William Gordon Hayward, revolutionized the family business again in 1940, when he identified a growing market for pre-packaged bags of beans. The dawn of supermarkets helped convince housewives that the modern way to buy beans was to simply pluck a pound package from a shelf instead of scooping their own.

Camellia’s beans were packaged in clear cellophane so every bean was visible.

That was vital to Gordon, as he knew the secret to Camellia’s success was in the quality of the bean. Growers across the country came to recognize his exacting standards and the industry widely came to accept that the Hayward grade exceeded U.S.D.A. grades one and two. All Camellia beans had to be uniform in size and color and impeccably clean. The top U.S.D.A. grade standards accept up to two percent debris and damage, something unacceptable at L. H. Hayward.

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Quality That’s Created a Following

It’s a good guess that Gordon Hayward would be amazed and pleased by the trip the beans take today from supplier to package. First, they must pass the scrutiny of state-of-the-art optical sorters, which take a look at each bean, making sure it’s not damaged or dirty. The beans then travel across tilted, shaking tables that sort out lighter, defective beans, leaving only the best to be sold as Camellia Brand. That’s quite an accomplishment considering upwards of 100,000 pounds of beans are packaged daily.

There are currently 18 varieties of beans, peas and lentils packaged by Camellia, available in stores across a dozen states and internationally online.

The company’s online web and social media presence is significant, providing a home base for fans across the world. When Food and Wine magazine published an online recipe including tomatoes in what was purported to be a traditional New Orleans style preparation, it ignited a firestorm – especially among Camellia’s red bean fans, who decried the recipe as heresy!

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In its 95-year history, Camellia has become an integral part of New Orleans’ culinary culture. Most days Vince Hayward sports a work shirt bearing the company name. Everywhere he goes, people stop him to talk beans — often sharing poignant family memories and recipes.

The love and loyalty that New Orleanians have for Camellia is in a class of its own. Red beans and rice were once a dish reserved just for Mondays. At Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, 95-year-old Leah Chase shakes her head remembering those days.

“Now my customers expect red beans on the menu every day,” she said, “So every day we’re cooking a pot of beans!”

Ten years ago, rabid red bean devotee Devin DeWulf began the Krewe of Red Bean, a Lundi Gras procession with over 100 participants, all sporting costumes adorned with red beans and rice.

If you’re curious to learn more about the delicious history of Camellia, visit “Red Bean City” at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. There, you can try on a beaned parade costume and catch “Red Bean Madness” yourself.

A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, Louisiana Eats! Saturdays at 11 a.m. and Wednesdays at 1 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.

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