Folse celebrates 30 years, dedicates plant's expansion

Aaron E. Looney
Chef John Folse, center cuts the ceremonial ribbon made from labels of products and companies his facility handles Wednesday. Also pictured are from left; Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan, company research and development assistant Dawn Delhommer, Folse's wife Laulie Folse, company chief financial officer Melissa Folse, company director of communications Michaela York and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

For world-renowned Chef John Folse, Wednesday was more than just his own birthday.

Folse and his invited guests celebrated three birthdays in one day - the St. James native's 62nd birthday, the 30th anniversary of his Chef John Folse and Company food manufacturing and distribution operation and the ribbon cutting for his processing plant's recent expansion to triple the size of the facility.

Hundreds including many local and state dignitaries, gathered at Folse's plant located off the Hwy. 70 Spur in the Donaldsonville Industrial Park to celebrate the day with a party featuring a small orchestral band, a slideshow of Folse's history and numerous guest speakers who honored Folse for the occasion.

"It's hard to believe that 30 years have past since I opened the original Lafitte's Landing Restaurant at the foot of the Sunshine Bridge," Folse said in a prepared statement. "I never could have predicated, nor did I plan, the growth the company has seen."

Just over two years after opening his state-of-the-art USDA food manufacturing plant, Folse has tripled the size of his facility. Now measuring 68,000 square feet, the food plant is capable of producing 100 million pounds of food annually. The expansion will also create 90 new jobs.

"To be honest, we had just about outgrown the building when we opened back in January 2005," Folse said. "That's a good problem to have, but it meant drawing up expansion plans immediately."

The expansion includes additional cooler space, refrigerated docks, freezers including a blast freezer, a dry storage warehouse and expanded prep and packaging areas.

Located on 11.6 acres, the plant is poised for growth. Future expansion plans include adding a 20,000-square-foot bakery and 21,000-square-foot dairy. Both the bakery and dairy divisions are currently located at Folse's corporate headquarters in Gonzales.

Folse said the manufacturing company began in 1990, when he received a phone call at his restaurant from a customer requesting a weekly order of 300 gallons of gumbo.

This simple request resulted in the kitchen of Lafitte's Landing Restaurant being turned into a mini-manufacturing operation. From this humble beginning, Chef John Folse & Company Manufacturing was born.

The manufacturing division has grown to national prominence with a customer base extending from the Gulf Coast to Canada and from California to Maine. Many manufactured products enjoy international distribution as well.

The product line includes soups, sauces, vegetables, entrées, desserts and dry mixes, both fresh and frozen. Currently, the facility produces more than 300 products for approximately 375 food service, retail and chain account customers such as T.G.I. Friday's among others.

The Donaldsonville operation is now capable of producing nearly two million pounds of food weekly, creating quite a grocery list. On any given week the plant can purchase, receive, cook and ship 27.5 tons of flour, 11.5 tons of vegetable oil, 4 tons of olive oil, 1.6 tons of minced garlic, 4.5 tons of Chardonnay, 3 tons of celery, 10 tons of onions, 24.5 tons of milk, 30.5 tons of heavy cream and 10.5 tons of cheddar cheese among other ingredients.

"We move an amazing amount of food through these doors," Folse said.

Currently, the food plant employees about 110 people, many from the Ascension Parish and surrounding areas. Folse anticipates hiring an additional 90 employees from the region over the next 24 months. Plant labor ranges from food scientists and microbiologists to cooks and case packers.

The project was spearheaded through the cooperative efforts of the Donaldsonville Industrial Development Board; Mayor Leroy Sullivan and the Donaldsonville City Council; Chuck Long, Donaldsonville city attorney; and Regions Bank, formerly AmSouth Bank. Representing Chef John Folse & Company was Malcolm Dugas of Dugas, LeBlanc & Associates, L.L.C. of Donaldsonville; Andy Whitehead of Thornton Farish, Inc.; and Melissa Folse, chief financial officer, Chef John Folse & Company.

Besides Chef John Folse & Company Manufacturing, Folse also owns and operates Bittersweet Plantation Dairy, Chef John Folse & Company Bakery Division, Lafitte's Landing Restaurant at Bittersweet Plantation and White Oak Plantation.

He is the author of numerous cookbooks and hosts a nationally-syndicated television cooking show, "A Taste of Louisiana," and a radio cooking talk show, "Stirrin' It Up With Chef John Folse." Additionally, the Chef John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University is named in his honor.

Folse praised the work of his employees for helping to make the company what it is today.

"It's not all me," Folse said. "It's the people that work hard here and at all of our locations every day that made this day possible. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for sharing my vision and being such a large part of our success."

During Wednesday's event, numerous guest speakers acknowledged Folse for his efforts and also expressed their gratitude for his work as an ambassador for Ascension Parish and Louisiana.

"John Folse dreams big and makes things happen," said Rolfe McCollister, publisher of the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report. "He discovered his calling right in his own backyard. He's always given back to the community. I am privileged to call him my friend."

John J. Arena, founder of the Distinguished Restaurants of America group, called Folse a "dear friend."

"John Folse loves what he does and he does it very well," said Arena, who flew from Canada to attend the event. "He is, what we call in this industry, a pure blue diamond."

"When you think of Louisiana, you think of John Folse," Secretary of State Jay Dardenne said in his remarks.

Donaldsonville Mayor Leroy Sullivan thanked Folse for his dedication to Donaldsonville. He said that by Folse keeping his businesses local, he has been a "tremendous help to our city's economic development."

The mayor added that he is glad that Folse's plant anchors the city's industrial park and hopes that its expansion will help to draw more companies to the park.

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez also cited Folse as a visionary, adding that "some people dream, but John Folse has realized his dream."

State Rep. Elton Aubert, who grew up in nearby St. James with Folse, cited the chef as "a blessing to the community."

State Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret congratulated Folse and also cited Folse's economic impact on Louisiana.

"You are one of Louisiana's top exporting companies, with 100 billion pounds per year exported across the country and throughout the world," Moret told Folse.

Moret added that the plant's $8 million capital investment makes the expansion one of the largest in the state this year.

Speaking on behalf of farmers and fishermen across the state, State Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain thanked Folse for his commitment to using local raw product in his cooking.

"John Folse took local raw materials and added value to them here," Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu said. "He created an economic development engine that brought jobs, recognition and respect to Louisiana. He's shown us the way."

The Donaldsonville JROTC Color Guard presents the flags at a ceremony for Chef John Folse's 30th anniversary and expansion. Pictured include, Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, Melissa Folse and Chef John Folse.