Bruce Foods Corporation
Bruce Foods Corporation
P.O. Drawer 1030
New Iberia, Louisiana 70562
Telephone: (337) 365-8101
Toll Free: (800) 299-9082
Fax: (337) 365-5891
Web site: http://www.brucefoods.com
Sales: $187 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 311421 Fruit and Vegetable Canning; 311422 Specialty Canning
Bruce Foods Corporation, headquartered in New Iberia, Louisiana, is one of the largest, privately-owned specialty food manufacturers in the United States. It or its forerunners have been canning yams (sweet potatoes) and manufacturing and distributing Cajun and Tex-Mex foods for over 70 years, starting long before either Cajun or Tex-Mex cuisines became popular outside Louisiana and Texas. The family company, owned by four generations of Browns, not Bruces, operates four domestic processing plants. These are located in New Iberia and Lozes, Louisiana; El Paso, Texas; and Wilson, North Carolina. In addition, Bruce has an affiliate plant at Kerkrade in The Netherlands. The company currently manufactures over 550 individual products under nine brand names, including Casa Fiesta Mexican Food, “The Original” Louisiana Hot Sauce, Louisiana Gold Pepper Sauce, Cajun King Seasonings and Sauce Mixes, Bruce’s Yams, Munch King Canister Snacks, Magic Garden Seasonings, Gravy Gourmet, and Green’s of New Orleans Creole Soups. Bruce’s products are distributed throughout the United States and in over 100 other countries, and they are carried by most of the major supermarket and grocery chains in its geographical markets both at home and abroad. Altogether, its exports account for about 30 percent of its sales. Over the last two decades, Bruce Foods’successful growth strategies have earned the company several marketing and exporting awards. However, its primary markets are still in this country, where Bruce products are very widely sold, including, for example, Louisiana Hot Sauce, which can be found in 75 percent of America’s supermarkets and, in six-ounce bottles, outsells Mcllhenny’s two-ounce bottles of Tabasco sauce. Although some of the Browns no longer live in Louisiana, the family has always been proud of its Louisiana heritage and has supported it both at home and abroad.
1928–54: Two Upstarts Combine to Form Bruce Foods
Although its name suggests that Bruce Foods should have some connection to a man or family named “Bruce,” the connection has been obscured by time. The company started out in 1928 in New Iberia, Louisiana, as a manufacturer of a single product—a hot pepper sauce. Coincidentally, it was also in that year that J.S. Brown, Sr., formed a company named J.S. Brown and Son Food Brokers, also in New Iberia. Brown was originally a wholesale grocer in that small city, but when forming his new company he became what was then called a “factor,” a middleman or buying broker. In those days there was an extra distribution layer in the food industry. Up through the 1940s, factors bought food products from farmers and producers and sold them to regional distributors, who in turn sold them to retail stores. Early on in its history, the company’s products were still transported by horse-drawn wagons and paddle-wheel steamers on the Bayou Teche, limiting the range of its business to about a 150-mile radius of New Iberia.
Brown was also the scion in four generations of Browns, the family that has owned Bruce Foods since 1954. His son, J.S. Brown, Jr., entered the business with his father, and together they saw their company both grow and prosper. Among other things, when Louisiana roads improved, the company was able to move goods greater distances. It also expanded its operations. By the 1940s, it maintained a small fleet of trucks and, in addition to its warehouses and offices in New Iberia, it had warehouses in New Orleans, Shreveport, and Jackson, Mississippi. Its markets took in all of Louisiana, eastern Texas, southern Mississippi, and southern Arkansas.
J.S. Brown, Jr.’s three sons—Gordon, Norman, and Si (J.S. Brown III)—all joined the company in the 1950s after attending Tulane University and completing military service. They were thus in a position to help their father take the family business in a new direction, necessitated by the fact that large grocery chains were quickly driving both factors and regional food distributors out of business. Accordingly, in 1954, the year that Gordon joined the company, the family made a major investment, buying out Bruce Foods. At the time, Bruce was still primarily a hot sauce producer and bottler, but it had branched out a little, making a few other pepper products as well as a gumbo filé. It was run by J.E. Broussard, a neighbor and friend to J.S. Brown, Sr. Broussard was also a business associate of J.S. Brown and Son, which for years had been brokering Bruce Foods’ products. Significantly, the company had begun exporting its specialty foods as early as 1947, an important step for the future of Bruce Foods under the control of the Browns.
1955–80: Development of a Varied Product Line
Having purchased Bruce Foods, and extended the name of that company to include all of their holdings, the Browns quickly sought both to expand and diversify the company through further acquisitions and new product development, strictly within the food processing market. It added canned sweet potatoes and okra to its line when, in 1957, it purchased L.C. Soileau and Son Inc., which operated a canning plant at Lozes, Louisiana, specializing in Southern vegetables.
Wanting to extend the product range of Bruce Foods further, the Browns also bought the rights to other companies’ brands. Included were Louisiana Brand Hot Sauce, acquired from a Shreveport company, and the Mexene (Tex Mex) brand line bought from Riviana Foods, a major rice producing company located in Houston. However, it was not until 1972 that Bruce acquired a third plant, one a good distance from its home territory, in the Acadiana region of south-central Louisiana. In that year the Browns bought a potato and sweet potato cannery located in Wilson, North Carolina. The seller was Lance Inc., a manufacturer of crackers and other snacks, which was then divesting itself of some of its diverse interests. The purchase worked out very well for Bruce Foods, which eventually became the nation’s largest processor of canned yams.
Although the Mexene brand products had earlier eased Bruce Foods into the Tex-Mex food line, it was not until 1980 that the company jumped into that speciality whole-heartedly. In that year it bought the extensive line of Ashley Mexican Food products and that company’s plant in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. Ashley, which had been in business since 1931, had begun producing Mexican foods long before they became widely popular outside Mexico. The business had actually started out as a Mexican restaurant, then evolved into the first company in the United States to can what are now standard Mexican food staples sold north of the U.S.-Mexico border. At the time Bruce Foods made the acquisition, Ashley was owned by the Holly Sugar Corporation of Denver. The Browns were not really looking to enter the Mexican food business at the time—they simply wanted more acreage and another plant for their pepper business—but Holly Sugar was anxious to divest itself of a company that did not readily fit into its business portfolio and made the Browns a deal too good to turn down.
Because Mexican food was just starting a rapid climb in popularity, the timing of the purchase was very fortuitous. Using the brand name “Casa Fiesta,” Bruce hoped to help the popularization process, just as it had been doing for its Cajun foods. In fact, the plan worked well. Casa Fiesta branded foods eventually became the company’s top selling product line. Casa Fiesta also became the number one brand of Mexican food sold in Europe and by the century’s end was beginning to make strong market inroads elsewhere abroad.
1981–90: Sustained Growth Both at Home and Abroad
In the 1980s, Bruce Foods responded to the fluctuating value of the U.S. dollar, rigorous packaging requirements, and tariff barriers abroad by modifying its products to better adapt to new markets while strengthening its presence in its existing markets. When the dollar was strong, it was the company’s policy to subsidize prices to get a foothold in new markets, in some places all but giving foods away at cost in order to give foreign customers a chance to acquire a lasting taste for them. It was a strategy that worked well, helping stabilize prices and even increase sales when the dollar weakened.
Its marketing strategies also won Bruce Foods some significant awards. In 1986 the company won a Clio Award for innovative package design as well as the Intermediate Product Award at the Sial Exhibition in Paris. These awards resulted from Bruce’s ongoing efforts to develop new products and attractive packaging tailored to individual markets, a concerted plan in which the company had invested millions. As part of its program, Bruce Foods exhibited products in various U.S. pavilions at trade shows in West Germany, France, and Japan.
To get anything fresher, you would have to grow it yourself. Our vegetable products, dips, sauces and salsas are prepared and packaged less than 24 hours after the produce leaves the fields. That’s the kind of quality you can always expect from Bruce Foods. Our products also boast all-natural ingredients and no preservatives—just as they have since 1928.
At about the same time, Bruce Foods took some more innovative steps that revealed its ongoing willingness to adapt to changing technologies. The effort had started early in the 1970s, when the New Iberia pant became the first cannery in the country to use computerized equipment to control its food processing. Later, in 1986, in a joint venture involving the University of Texas at El Paso, the Bureau of Reclamation (an agency of the Department of the Interior), and El Paso Electric Corporation, the company began using the country’s first solar pond to produce both pure water and electricity for its El Paso plant. The heavily salinated .83-acre solar pond produced heat from the sun’s rays then used it to operate a turbine capable of generating 100 kilowatts of electricity, enough to save the plant about 20 percent of its energy costs.
In 1987, because of its programs promoting American products abroad, President Ronald Reagan granted Bruce Foods the prestigious “E” Award, a special honor given to select U.S. exporters. In the next year, Bruce Food’s president, J.S. (“Si”) Brown III, traveled to Moscow to visit the Soviet World Trade Center, where, in conjunction with Louisiana chef John Folse, Bruce Foods opened a temporary Cajun restaurant called “Lafitte’s Landing East.” By design, it was only open two weeks for a trade show, but it drew big crowds and enthusiastic reviews. Moreover, Bruce Foods entered an agreement with a Moscow restaurant organization and a West German company to supply the first Mexican food restaurant in Moscow.
Its imaginative and energetic overseas marketing earned additional awards for Bruce Foods. In 1989, it garnered a National Association of Marketing Officials Award for outstanding marketing, and in May 1990 the company was awarded the “E Star” Award by President George Bush. Importantly, in the three-year interval between receiving its two “E” Awards, the company doubled its exports. By 1990, it was employing 800 workers worldwide, including 85 at its headquarters in New Iberia. In addition to its four U.S. plants, it was completing an “affiliate” factory at Kerkrade in the Netherlands, where laws prohibited its outright ownership of the plant. It was selling products on all continents, shipping various items to over 65 countries. One of its customers was the Pope, who liked the company’s Cajun gumbo so much that every month Bruce Foods packed up and air-freighted him two frozen gallons of the irresistible, first-you-make-a-roux concoction.
1991 and Beyond: Reflecting the Health-Conscious Era
Throughout the 1990s, Bruce foods reflected the era’s focus on health, product quality, and “alternative foods.” For example, it took pride in the fact that all of its vegetable products, sauces, salsas, and dips were prepared within 24-hours after their ingredients were harvested, and were packaged with no artificial ingredients. That the National Council of Nutrition named the yam or sweet potato the number one vegetable for health and nutrition gave Bruce Foods a great boost. It was, after all, the nation’s leading canner of yams. The company also developed a line of other sweet potato products, including pancake, muffin, and biscuit mixes, all packaged with the Heart Healthy symbol authorized by the American Heart Association.
On May 1, 1997, Gordon Sandoz Brown, company chairman, died. He and his brother, Si Brown, had been the firm’s chief executives since the death of their father, J.S. Brown, Jr. In fact, all three sons of J.S. Brown, Jr., had served on a rotating basis as company CEO and president.
Bruce Foods diligently continued to develop its export trade through the 1990s, even during the 1997–99 Asian financial crisis, when most companies watched their export trade falter. Bruce actually increased its foreign market share in those years. According to Si Brown, the company “had a wonderful 1999.” Its nets sales had risen in each of the previous three years, and Bruce Foods had become one of the top 100 exporting companies in the United States. Prospects for the new century looked even better.
Authentic Specialty Foods, Inc.; B&G Foods, Inc., Mcllhenny Farms; Trappey.
- Two New Iberia, Louisiana, business are started: Bruce Foods and J.S. Brown and Son Food Brokers.
- The Ashley Mexican Food Plant is founded in El Paso, Texas.
- Bruce Foods begins exporting its hot sauce.
- J.S. Brown, Jr., and his sons acquire Bruce Foods.
- Bruce buys its second Louisiana plant from L.C. Soileau and Sons, Inc.
- The company buys a North Carolina potato and sweet potato processing plant from Lance Inc.
- Company purchases Ashley Mexican Foods.
- Bruce Foods earns “E Star” Award presented by President Bush and opens its affiliate plant at Kerkrade in The Netherlands.
- Chairman Gordon Sandoz Brown dies.
“E Award Winning Exporters Bruce Foods Corp.,” Journal of Commerce, September 28, 1990, Foreign Trade Sec., p. 5A.
“Hotter Than Hot Sauce,” New Orleans Magazine, November 1992, p. 70.
Johnson, William, “Bruce Foods: The Yam What They Yam,” Acadiana @ Work, March 2000, p. 16.
Robinson, Duncan, “Exporter Invests in Future,” Journal of Commerce and Commercial, September 28, 1990, p. 1A.
——, “US Exporter Redesigns Label after Losing Lengthy Battle,” Journal of Commerce and Commercial, May 14, 1991, p. 3A.
“Texas Solar Pond Is First in US,” Journal of Commerce, October 17, 1986, p. 7A.
—John W. Fiero