For Mike and Katie Coullard, coming home meant coming back to Panola Pepper Corp. The couple – who moved from Baton Rouge, La., to Lake Providence in July of 2009 – returned to Katie’s hometown primarily to help run the family business. Mike is vice president of operations and Katie is the director of marketing. As the 30th anniversary approaches, the Coullards couldn’t be prouder to be a part of the company’s success.
Established in 1983 by Katie’s father, Grady “Bubber” Brown, Panola Pepper has a rich history centered on a commitment to support the local community. Following in his father’s footsteps and farming on his father’s land, Brown felt a sense of responsibility for his employees, whose jobs were put on hold every year during the slow winter season. However, in 1983, Brown cooked large batches of his mother’s secret recipe for Panola Gourmet Pepper Sauce and presented it at the World’s Fair in New Orleans. People loved it, and soon Brown was keeping his employees busy year-round producing and bottling the instant hit.
Today, Panola Pepper offers more than 100 products that include specialty peppers, olives, hot sauces, marinades, mustards, rice, ready mixes, oils and pecans. The original Panola Gourmet Pepper Sauce is still the most popular item, followed by Panola Jalapeño Pepper Sauce.
In addition to traditional Louisiana-style vinegar-based sauces, Panola produces sauces that are cooked and aged. High-quality ingredients such as sun-ripened jalapeño, cayenne, habanero and Tabasco peppers are the heart of the product, but it’s the uniqueness factor that draws customers in and continues to fuel the company’s growth. Over the years, as the hot sauce business has taken shape, Panola Pepper has added more products to meet the demand.
One way the spice producer has expanded its product portfolio is by offering private-label brands. According to Mike Coullard, introducing the private-label strategy 20 years ago allowed the company to grow without investing significant capital into branding the Panola name on a national scale.
The Panola and private-label brands sell nationally and internationally in retail, specialty markets and heavily via e-commerce, but private-label is by far the largest part of the business and supports the family’s goal to provide jobs for the community. “We want to keep people in town employed,” Mike Coullard says. “We live in a typical rural, delta town that is heavy in agriculture. There is very little financial opportunity here besides farming.”
While Panola Pepper continues to grow, its values remain the same: a commitment to quality foods and customer service as well as a dedication to the place it calls home. Reputable partners provide high-quality raw ingredients, which are tracked and monitored closely, allowing the company to know exactly what is in each product. Receptionists answer the phone instead of an automated answering service. Customers are provided with a rapid response that ensures deliveries within three to five days of an order, even on truckload quantities. All employees are treated like family.
Keeping that small family farm feel is important to the Coullards. It’s a mentality that’s been passed on from Katie Coullard’s mother and father who – after 30 years – still come in to work every day. “The biggest reason for us to move home was to continue our family business,” Mike Coullard notes. “As we become more of a global economy, it becomes increasingly rare to have a full manufacturing facility in the U.S., and we are still one of those and proud to do it. We take great steps to make sure our business is not outsourced overseas.”
Panola Pepper buys ingredients from local growers when available, and packaging and distribution are handled at home, as well. From beginning to end, every step takes place in Lake Providence, earning the business a “Made in the U.S.A.” label. “We are proud to grow and offer jobs in such a tough economy, especially such a tough local economy with the rural aspect of our town,” Mike Coullard comments.
Over the last few years, the Coullards have noticed that the meat-and-potatoes American consumer has become a fan of fiery food. Across the United States, the younger generation, especially, is gravitating toward spicy dips and seasonings.
Since the economy has been difficult, people are eating in and looking to recreate the restaurant experience at home. Because of the prevalence of television cooking shows, the public is more willing to try new flavors. Louisiana-style foods are particularly popular since many famous chefs have surfaced from New Orleans.
Most of the Panola Pepper sauces, mustards and marinades are sold for less than three dollars, offering inexpensive choices for foodies. All products are fat-free and the majority is gluten-free. In the last five years, Panola Pepper has converted its entire line to be 100 percent natural.
“Traditionally, people thought healthy food wouldn’t taste as good, but people who want to eat well are looking for ways to enhance the flavor of healthier food and Panola products are a good way to bring in the flavor,” Katie Coullard notes.