Port Log Fall 2015

Thanks in part to east coast businessman Mark Ryan, South Louisiana’s unique Perique tobacco is enjoying a rebirth both locally and globally  


South Louisiana is a land loaded with traditions.

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We have a language all our own, spoken in a dialect not found anywhere else. Our festivals serve as colorful, loud magnets, attracting visitors from all corners of the map. The food is top-notch and unique, a fantastic reason to push the start of your diet until Monday.

But the way North Carolina businessman Mark Ryan tells it, one of Acadiana’s most sacred traditions – Perique tobacco – almost literally went up in smoke.

In April 2005, Ryan took over the neglected and basically abandoned Louisiana Poche Perique Tobacco facility, a rundown processing site only an architect’s mother could love. A complete fixer-upper, Ryan retells an anecdote from the first two weeks of business: He went down the street to a local po-boy place to grab six sandwiches for workers redeveloping the main two buildings.

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“After I ordered, I think they knew I was from out of town, they wondered what I was doing around here, and I mentioned Perique,” Ryan says. “They just looked at me quizzically, ‘What’s Perique?’ This was two blocks away. The history and tradition was lost.

“Perique was basically extinct for four or five months,” Ryan continues. “It pretty much died on the vine…and it was a crushing blow to me that it would no longer be available. So I ended up buying it.”

Driven by passion more than profit, Ryan has totally revamped the Poche facility while simultaneously not straying too far from the traditions of the area and the process. When Ryan took over, the processing center only had 80 presses, half of which were operational and two buildings in need of a lot of love – both cosmetically and structurally. Ryan modernized the buildings while maintaining much of the charm.

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He not only installed more than 300 additional presses and constructed a 20,000 sqare -foot receiving station, but also air-conditioned the entire complex and upped the workers’ pay rate substantially. When asked why he poured so much capital into the business, especially during the volatile infant stages, Ryan simply said, “Because there’s a right and a wrong way to treat human beings.”

“It’s about respect,” Ryan says. “So I created an environment where people love coming into work. It’s comfortable. It’s safe. It’s clean. It’s big. It’s not dingy; we have lights all over the place. So it’s respect the present of Perique, while still preserving the past.”

“When I set up the presses at that property, the local community had forgotten the culture, history and tradition of Perique,” Ryan says. “To them, that was stuff that your grandfather did. And to see the way it’s come back, it’s just real exciting – just the way we’ve been able to restore this piece of history while bringing it into the current times using the current technologies.

“We’re in the midst of a rebirth, a total rebirth with Perique.”

Written history of the product dates back to the 18th century, about the time when the Acadians arrived in the region. The tobacco was raised and prepared by local Indian tribes in St. James Parish and eventually the distinct aging process was taught to the newcomers. Perique experienced a boom in the 1920s when production annually reached into the multiple tons, but faded out of (almost completely) over time.

Mainly a “condiment tobacco,” Perique is labor-intensive to produce. It’s found mostly in pipe tobacco blends, and as Ryan warns, a little goes a long way. Because of that, most blends only contain 1-2 percent Perique, although Ryan has heard of enthusiasts smoking blends that will “blow your head off” featuring 35-40 percent Perique.

“People had almost pushed it out of their memory, because you couldn’t find it for so long,” Ryan says. “So the enthusiasm among buyers when they knew it was available – it was something special. Because it’s a great product. It’s naturally aromatic. You don’t have to put all that chemical junk on the tobacco. It’s got so much flavor.

“I’ve even introduced it to a friend who makes cigars in the Philippines, the oldest manufacturer of cigars in Asia, and they’re now making cigars with Perique in them, which are delicious. So Perique is back.”

Ryan is busy these days not only visiting the facility – he comes to Louisiana nearly a dozen times per year – but also waving the Perique flag at tobacco conventions and trade shows. Of course, with that comes a bit of recognition.

“When word got out that I’m the guy that saved Perique from extinction, man, I got invited to all the parties,” Ryan says, half-joking though it’s technically true. “When you go into the smoking tents, I’ll have 40 people come up to me, ‘Hi, Mr. Perique,’ or ’Thank you for saving Perique. I don’t know what we would have done without it. I don’t let it go to my head, but it feels good to hear it.”

“I went to a tobacco show in Germany and just happened to mention the word ‘Perique.’ Just then three men who don’t speak English turned to me and said, ‘St. James Parish.’ So, you can say, we’re putting Perique back on the map.”




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