Tabasco: Spicing Up Bland Food the World Over
Step out of your car in front of Tabasco's manufacturing plant on Louisiana's Avery Island and the first thing you'll notice is the sweet smell of pepper in the air. It dances on the wind, tickling your nostrils and helping to clear your throat.
The island, home of Tabasco since 1868, is only a two-hour drive west of New Orleans, yet feels like another world with its lush greenery and tranquil inlets, just 14 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. And then there's the scent of those peppers that seem to draw you to the pepper sauce factory.
In the plant's mixing room, the red-orange liquid that becomes Tabasco fills wooden drums two stories high where it is stirred consistently for 28 days before bottling. Here, the sweet pepper smell takes on a more sinister incarnation. The tickle becomes a burn. Every breath you take brings a cough. You'll look around in distress and notice that while you are struggling for air, the employees tending to the tabasco seem unharmed. They walk among the vats breathing easily.
The cliched explanation for this phenomenon would be to say that the spice is in their blood. But here cliche is not far from truth. While Avery Island is the longtime home of Tabasco, it's also home to 180 people, many who are part of the company's 200-person workforce. For some, their families have lived on this island for almost as long as Tabasco has been made.
Chapter 1: Recipe for Success
To understand the story of Tabasco, you need to understand the sauce. Read the ingredients on the bottle and the product seems overly simple, almost unimpressive. But don't let the mere three ingredients of vinegar, salt and tabasco pepper fool you. The thousands of miles and hundreds of hours that go into making one bottle is staggering
Let's start with the peppers themselves. They're grown from heritage seeds that share the same genetics as that first pepper plant grown beside a chicken coop on Avery Island around the time of the Civil War. The seeds have never been genetically altered and are so precious that a sample of them are under lock and key in a safe on Avery Island.
All tabasco peppers used for the sauce start as seedlings in the spring and must be hand-picked at precisely the right time, in the early fall, when the peppers reach that perfect shade of red. If the pepper is picked too early or too late, the taste is compromised.
Although the company would like to grow all peppers on the island, the sheer quantity they need, coupled with the plant's volatility, makes that impossible. So over the past hundred years, the company has branched out, working with 400 small farmers across the globe to help grow the plants that start from seed plants grown on the island. The tabasco plant is susceptible to all sorts of diseases, so in order to reduce the risk of losing an entire year's crop, each farm -- from South America to Africa -- only grows about two to three acres.
Once the pepper crop is picked, it's mashed at the farms and then sent back to the tabasco plant. There, it's mixed with salt from the island, which geologically is a salt dome at the edge of the Louisiana bayou and the Gulf of Mexico. The mash mixture is then placed in oak barrels and aged, like a wine or whiskey, for three years. Finally, the mash of pepper and salt is brought to the mixing room, where extra liquid is strained out, vinegar is added and the 28-day mixing process begins. After that, it's strained and bottled.
Despite some changes to the supply chain and physical plant, that's the way Tabasco has been made since Edmund McIlhenny invented the sauce in the 1860s. Five generations later, the McIlhenny Co. -- the official corporation behind Tabasco -- is still and always has been run by a direct descendant of the inventor. Anthony "Tony" Simmons, the current president and chief executive officer, is the seventh McIlhenny in a chain of direct descendants to keep his family's business thriving. Like most of his family, he feels a deep connection to the business and the island that's been its home for almost 150 years.
Growing up in New Orleans, Simmons spent the summers on Avery Island, hiking and fishing with his cousins and employees' children. But for 25 years, Simmons worked in the heavy equipment business, living in as diverse places as Houston, Texas, Singapore, and Charlotte, North Carolina. When Simmons sold his business in the late 1990s, his cousin Paul, who was taking over as McIlhenny's chief executive officer at the time, offered him the chance to move back to Avery Island and join the family business as an executive vice president.
"The first thing that crossed my mind was whether my wife was going to be willing to agree to leave Charlotte, because we'd been there for 10 years," Simmons remembers. "But she did agree to move, to come to Avery Island to do this for my family."
In fact, it's the connection the McIlhennys have to this little slice of the Louisiana bayou that Simmons attributes to the company's stability and success. The island has been jointly owned since the early 20th century by two sides of the same family -- the McIlhennys and the Averys -- through a land corporation. The business arrangement ensures the island will always be owned by them as a whole entity.
"I think part of the reason we've been able to stay family owned and operated is because of Avery Island," Simmons says. "This sense of place, I think, has as much to do with the family's unwillingness to sell out. The two are interrelated."
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