The Southern Food & Beverage Museum debuts New Orleans: A Red Bean City Thursday, Aug. 3. The new exhibit examines the history and traditions associated with red beans and rice. Vince Hayward, CEO of L.H. Hayward and Company (www.camelliabrand.com), which produces Camellia Brand beans and is a sponsor of the exhibit, spoke with Gambit about red beans and his family's history in the bean business.
What's the history of Camellia beans?
Hayward: My great-great- grandfather Lucius Hamilton Hayward started the company and the brand has been around since 1923, but we were supplying the merchants of the French Market with vegetables and other goods way before we got into the bean business.
We've done a lot of research with Rien Fertel, putting together our history (for the exhibit). In the early 1800s, our family settled on the island of Bermuda when we were in the shipping industry. We made our way into the United States at the time (when) New Orleans was the place a lot of the trade came through, so we ended up here. We don't really know the evolution of it, but we (transitioned) out of the shipping industry and into the food distribution business. We were food merchants in the city, moving cotton, vegetables and fruit from farmers into the French Market. We feel like there was probably an interest in beans in the family from living in the Caribbean, where they were such a strong staple. There's a pretty good chance that when they got here they were used to eating a lot of beans and they were familiar with it as a product.
I'm the fourth generation family member to run the company. Over the years, our focus has narrowed to be a dried bean supplier for the merchants of the city. Throughout the decades, our focus has gone from more of a bulk supplier to more of a packaged supplier. We sell more red beans than any other distributor in the country.
Where do you get your beans?
H: Everything's done here in New Orleans, but we have growers all over the country. We don't talk about precisely where they come from — it's kind of a trade secret. But we've dealt with these farmers and growers for decades. My grandfather dealt with their grandfathers and so it's a very longstanding relationship. In terms of the packaging and the processing and the cleaning, all of that happens here in New Orleans.
How has the significance of red beans and rice changed through the years?
H: The idea of red beans and rice is woven into the fabric of the city. You can go anywhere in the country and ask about the dish ... and they probably know that it's a staple in New Orleans. It's a big part of us as a culture, as a city and as a region.
Today's consumers, especially younger consumers, are extraordinarily interested in their food and its origins. Ten years ago you wouldn't have heard the term "farm to table," and now it's just about one of the most overused slogans. So the idea that people are interested in their food and the quality of it ... has fed into the popularity of the dish. ...
One of the things that makes coming to work meaningful to me is that we're not just selling to one group of people. We're selling across all lines — all races, all income levels, no matter who you are or what neighborhood you live in.
The thing that really touches me is when I'm ... wearing a T-shirt with our logo, I'm stopped constantly by people wanting to share memories ... or share a story about how their grandmother makes the best red beans ever. We hold ourselves as a cultural cornerstone in the city of New Orleans.