Spicing Up the Business

“The pandemic has forced everyone in the food service industry to get creative,” observed Vince Hayward, the fourth-generation owner and CEO of L.H. Hayward and Company. “We went from having a healthy amount of business to almost zero.”

In a city that loves to dine out, the plight of restaurants and restaurant workers has been top of mind for many New Orleanians since the first COVID shutdowns began. What often gets less attention is the vast supply and support network behind each smiling server and delicious meal that arrives at one’s table. The food has to be grown or raised. It has to be prepared for transport from its source, then shipped to an intermediary location, usually a warehouse (even though an increasing number of restaurants are purchasing directly from the farms, this is still the most frequent route).

Frequently, there will be additional preparation steps before the food reaches the restaurant, and this is Hayward’s place in this complex food chain.

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As the parent company of Gulf Coast Blenders, “We’ve been a supplier of dry mixes and ingredients for 30 years,” Hayward explained. The company obtains various herbs, spices and other plants from growers, then converts them into the ingredients that add the flare to the meats, fishes and vegetables the restaurants serve.

During the pandemic, filling this type of middleman role took on a new meaning: Hayward found himself square in the middle of the business shutdown. The company’s suppliers were struggling to produce the food, while their customers had few if any people to serve it to.

“Our first priority was to try not to lay off people, to keep the company going,” Hayward said. “We soon realized we would not be going back to normal business.

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“We’ve always tried to bring value to our customers,” he added, “to produce products that help them succeed. If they’re not around, we’re not around.”

As restaurants began to emerge from the worst of the shutdown, Hayward recognized the industry-wide labor issues – not just the worker shortage, but how many of the people that were hired were inexperienced, untrained individuals. And one area of particular expertise for many restaurants is the ability to blend raw spices and other dry ingredients into the special seasonings that are the secret behind so many of the city’s most famous signature dishes.

Working directly with its restaurant customers on the specific mixes, Gulf Coast Blenders began providing fully blended seasonings instead of just the ingredients. Although this reduced staffing and training issues, while ensuring the consistency of flavors that restaurants must maintain, Hayward soon realized that much of his clientele was still struggling. This led to innovation number two.

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“In addition to providing the mixes for use in the restaurant, we are now packaging these special blends for them to sell to their customers on the way out,” he said, “It’s a new revenue source for them.”

Some of Hayward’s customers are willing to take this one step further and distribute their heretofore secret seasonings via local grocery stores. This did require a certain amount of convincing.

“We had to overcome their worries about losing clientele, that people would just prepare the same meals at home,” he noted. “But people want to go out and have that restaurant experience, so this becomes a marketing and brand awareness opportunity.”

It helped that Hayward was able to offer established connections with the retail market, as his company also owns the legendary Camellia Brand line of food products, with its well-organized distribution system.

Ultimately, Hayward welcomes the opportunity to become more involved in the local restaurant business. “We know this industry is always changing fast,” he observed,” and our role is to be nimble enough to participate in that, to be in communication with our customers to serve their needs. After all, food is life in New Orleans.”

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