In The Media

Aug 1, 2010
Against the Grain
By Maggie H. Richardson, 1012 Corridor

When three New Orleans entrepreneurs were looking for a fresh business idea, they found it in one of Louisiana's‚ and the world's‚ most popular staples: rice.

Earlier this year, Jazzmen Rice LLC hit regional supermarket shelves with its $2.50 bags of locally grown aromatic rice, designed to take on Thai jasmine, an imported rice variety that has soared in popularity in the United States over the last decade.

Jazzmen Rice got its start in 2008 when George Chin and his two close friends and fellow entrepreneurs, Andrew Wong and Egbert Ming, were casting about for a new venture. The three grew up in Chinese immigrant families in Mid-City New Orleans, attended the same Presbyterian church and public schools, and watched their parents form successful small businesses. As adults, they started their own businesses and teamed up to form a post-Katrina construction company. By then, the rebuilding demand had cooled, and they had begun looking for something new.

Meanwhile, Chin noticed news reports of the global rice shortage. Prices had risen sharply, and exports of products like Thai jasmine rice were temporarily stopped. Chin turned to his two friends and posed a question.

"I said, 'How come we don't grow jasmine rice here?'" he recalls.

The three took advice from Chin's wife and telephoned the LSU AgCenter. The phone call led them to the AgCenter's Rice Research Station in Rayne, where they met with Director Stephen Linscombe, Ph.D., and other rice breeders about the research station's significant work in developing commercially viable strains of rice. Researchers there have improved 44 varieties since the station's founding in 1909, each taking years to test and perfect.

A $320 million industry, Louisiana rice production amounts to 14% of all rice produced in the U.S. Just less than half of the state's 64 parishes actively grow rice, and 80% of all varieties grown were developed at the research station.

Chin, Wong and Ming didn't know it when they called the AgCenter, but the Rayne scientists were nearing the end of a 12-year research project to create a variety of rice with the same properties as jasmine.

"It had become a very popular type of rice in the U.S.", says Linscombe. "We can't grow the same rice here, because the conditions aren't the same. We had been working on an adaptive variety with similar characteristics."

Floral, nutty jasmine rice, often paired with the sweet-pungent dishes of the Pacific Rim, is more aromatic than traditional long-grain rice. AgCenter scientists had to develop a strain that would not only flourish in Louisiana's climate, but would impart the distinct taste and texture of Thai jasmine rice.

"It takes about six to seven generations of planting until you can introduce them into yield test," says Linscombe. "We were looking at aroma, cooking quality, texture, yield, and we needed to make sure there was no environmental impact. The more time you have, the more comfortable you are."

By 2009, seeds were ready for planting by rice farmers. Chin, Wong and Ming became the missing piece of the puzzle. Investing $1 million of their own money, they formed the Jazzmen Rice company and began developing the brand.

Chin came up with the name, a play on words that sounds like the real deal and captures regional culture. They took the concept to Lamar Berry, former chief marketing officer for Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken and Biscuits and founder of the New Orleans-based retail marketing firm International Marketing Systems. Berry convinced them to make a bold—and pricey—commitment: to use the iconic image of Dixieland jazz great Louis Armstrong as the company's logo.

A horn-blowing, wide-eyed Satchmo is plastered on the Jazzmen 20-oz. bags of aromatic rice, while the sound of Armstrong belting out "Hello, Dolly!" greets the users of the product's website. Licensing of Armstrong's name and image comes through the New York-based nonprofit Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. Wong declined to say how much the licensing costs the team, offering only that it's considerable.

"It's about five figures this year, soon to be six," he says. "That's a lot more rice than we can eat."

Still, the team believes it's a good move, since they hope to capture market share well beyond Louisiana.

"We think it's worth it," says Chin. "Our intention is to grow the brand, and Louis Armstrong is so recognized around the world."

Jazzmen's first year of production was relatively small at 500 tons, but the company expects the 2010 harvest to be 10,000-20,000 tons. That would still be just 5% of last year's imports of Thai jasmine rice, leaving substantial room for growth. By its third year of operation, Jazzmen wants production at 63,000 tons.

"Our plan is to take it global," say Chin.

It's an unusual goal for a Louisiana specialty rice producer. The vast majority of large operators produce long grain rice, which gets bought up by companies like Kellogg's for use in products like Raisin Bran and Crispix cereals, says Linscombe.

So far, Jazzmen has worked with Associated Grocers, Rouses Supermarkets and small specialty stores to enter 47 individual outlets in south Louisiana and Mississippi. The company hopes to penetrate north Louisiana and Gulf Coast Alabama next. Wong says entering new markets has been one of the toughest parts of the venture so far.

"Every time we enter a new market, it takes time and money to make sure the consumer accepts our product," says Wong.

Still, the team is encouraged. They believe they're appearing at a time when the local foods movement is continuing to build steam. If consumers are offered a competitively priced domestic equivalent, Chin believes they'll opt for it.

"It's fresher, and it tastes just as good if not better," says Chin. "We want to get to the point where we're milling every month and we can guarantee freshness that often."

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