The business world is not short on stories about manufacturers that got started in their founder’s home garage, a construction worker starting with one hammer and a few nails that grew into a multimillion-dollar operation, and restaurants with concepts that were developed in their creators’ kitchens. The Slap Ya Mama brand of Cajun products takes that notion even further – the origins of its business involve rolling a large pickle jar around on the kitchen floor.
“The first blend was really simple – salt, red pepper, black pepper and garlic, but with just the right portions of the highest-quality ingredients,” Vice President Jack Walker explains. “Working in our childhood home, my parents put those spices into an antique, five-gallon glass pickle jar, closed the jar and my brother, Joe, and I rolled the jar around on the floor to mix the spices. My brother and I were young, but we got to participate in the fun of mixing the ingredients.”
Customer service and a focus on quality is what lead the Walker family to the pickle-jar-mixing method. In the town of Ville Platte in south Louisiana, Tony and Jennifer Walker ran a small convenience store and deli, where they sold “all the basics – fried chicken, French fries, corn dogs, hot links and other such food items found in a deli,” Jack says. The business had a steady stream of customers, but some complained that the food was too salty, so Jack’s parents sought a solution to this problem.
“My father came up with the initial recipe and he used it on his signature dish – Slap Ya Mama Atomic Potatoes, which were smothered potatoes with sausage,” Jack says. “It had a spicy Cajun taste without being too salty, and customers thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Building a Brand
The Walkers first introduced their spice mix to their deli customers in 1996, but it wasn’t till 2001 that they became incorporated and decided to make a run at developing Slap Ya Mama into a brand. “The name was the result of a joke – my dad said our seasoning blend made food so good that you would go home and slap ya mama for not cooking that great,” Walker explains.
To get started, the family went to their local dollar store, bought some small spice jars to be the seasoning blend’s containers, and made their own labels on their home computer. The spices only were offered at their deli/convenience store and the demand gradually began to grow. The Walkers later sold their deli and began to move forth with Slap Ya Mama, not knowing where it would take them.
Demand grew so much that the Walkers eventually approached a local manufacturer about mixing and filling seasoning canisters with Slap Ya Mama. “Our first product was the original blend, the yellow canister, and our first commitment with the manufacturer was 10,000 cans,” Walker says. With so many canisters filled with Slap Ya Mama, Jennifer Walker, Jack’s mother and owner of the company, loaded the canisters into the back of her car and went to the local grocery stores to see if they would put the spice mix on their shelves.
“She is a cute, little lady with a Cajun accent, and the stores really liked her,” Jack says. “She started by selling it on consignment and we soon had to order more. These days we may receive single orders requiring us to fill 10,000 canisters.”
While their mother was peddling the product to grocery stores, Jack and Joe were roommates at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. They ran the Slap Ya Mama website and processed the mail order side of the business from their college house, and hired their roommate to help them out. When they realized how well the business was growing and how popular the spice mix had become, they decided to focus their studies in areas that would help them run the business.
“It was so exciting to see everything grow,” Jack stresses. “Stores outside our local area were requesting the Slap Ya Mama seasonings, and then a small distributor approached us and wanted to sell the product. When my brother and I graduated college, we started going to major food shows, and we gained national accounts and signed with national distributors.”
Becoming a Kitchen Staple
Demand continues to grow, so Slap Ya Mama is responding by expanding its product line. In addition to its Original Blend, Slap Ya Mama has the Hot Blend and White Pepper Blend Cajun seasonings, as well as a pepper sauce, seafood boil, etouffee sauce and a batter for a Cajun fish fry. Walker says the company plans to introduce five more products within the next year.
“We are big foodies here, so we’re always messing around in the kitchen,” he says. “We get an idea or a request from a customer, and we put our heads together to create something. We spend a lot of time testing and experimenting – the development of a new product can sometimes take a year – and then we get our family members to taste it. We use their feedback to make changes and when we’re happy with it, we invite locals from around Ville Platte for a big dinner/tasting party so we can get their reactions. It’s not a very technical process, but we get solid feedback from true Cajuns – we have yet to do any big market research.”
Slap Ya Mama is available in all 50 states, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom, but its goal is to further saturate its current markets. The brand currently has one hot sauce, but it decided to develop two more to “make a bigger splash” in that niche, Walker notes. Slap Ya Mama also plans to introduce three new dinner mixes so, with the addition of some protein, customers can have “dinner in a box,” he says. Slap Ya Mama also is working on low-sodium versions of its spice mixes.
The company is still a small operation; there are 10 total employees – the members of the Walker family and their close friends. They do plan to do some hiring, however, because in a few months Slap Ya Mama will expand into a new, 40,000-square-foot warehouse that will serve as its central distribution center. Even so, Walker expects Slap Ya Mama to remain a “small, tight-knit” operation.
“One of our best friends is our warehouse manager, and my mom’s best friend is our office manager,” he says. “This is a small operation, and we put all of our time and effort into these products, but we do want to become a global company. We will enter the retail markets of an additional two countries in the next year, but we already sell all over the world with our online business – those sales are phenomenal.
“People are initially attracted to our products because of its name – it’s something that sticks with you,” Jack adds. “But the quality of the product keeps them coming back. We want a Slap Ya Mama product in everybody’s kitchen and we want it to become a staple in the food industry. We are fortunate to be where we are and we’re excited about where we are going, but we’ll never forget where we’ve come from.”