Life dealt Eula Savoie some real challenges. Yet her determination and grit allowed her to turn those lemons into a remarkable Cajun food empire.
Today her legacy business, Savoie’s Sausage & Food Products in Opelousas, La., reigns as a meat-industry beacon in the Gulf South and her family recipes and foods are on the plates of some of the finest gourmet restaurants and food stores across the nation.
As a young girl, her mother’s poor health meant Eula was responsible for the cooking, and she listened closely as her mother taught her how to make Cajun foods. In 1949, at the urging of her parents, she and her husband bought a small country grocery store. As Savoie (commonly known as “Miss Eula”) then put it, “it was a job you could do when you were pregnant.”
The country store was a struggle, so four years later the Savoie (pronounced Sav-wah) family borrowed money from banks and family to purchase 187 acres to raise hogs. Then the hog market crashed in 1955 and not all the hogs were being sold. Her mother suggested they slaughter one hog a week to make sausage and other products to sell in the store. Soon they were using more than one hog a week and used a hand-cranked grinder to turn out sausage, boudin and hoghead cheese. Customers came to love her recipes and eventually the family had to buy hogs from other farmers to keep up with demand.
During the 1980s the company was in a position for growth. It was then that Savoie added many employees to the payroll. These employees included her daughter, Donna Savoie Lafleur; Freddie Lafleur, who has an accounting background; Gerald Boullion, who was a former production manager for Frey packing company in Lafayette; Dale Robin, a maintenance supervisor that she hired away from an oil drilling company; and Timmy Lejeune, who could sell ice cubes to the Eskimos in December. This core group of employees forms a major portion of the management team today.
“She always insisted on keeping the recipes for the products authentic,” Freddie Lafleur, the company’s president and chief operating officer recalls. “She would invest in better equipment to improve efficiency and capabilities, but never as a way to replace an employee. We have some second- and third-generation workers from local families still with us.”
A staple of Cajun cooking is roux, a difficult-to-make thickening mixture of flour and cottonseed oil that forms the base for sauces, gumbos and gravies. In the 1960s Savoie began making and selling the roux that proved so popular it is sold today in pint jars and in up to 30-lb. containers.
The Savoie product line began to expand and in 2000 a 35,000-sq.-ft. production facility was built behind the original grocery store, which still brings in locals and travelers on the main road from Houston to New Orleans. A 15,000-sq.-ft. facility was also purchased in nearby Church Point, La.
Passing on traditions
Eula Savoie passed away in 2010, but her traditions and respect for workers and customers are still hallmarks of this Cajun meat and food business that has grown to 110 employees.
Fifteen years ago, Savoie brought on board Robert van Leeuwen, a native of Holland, who serves as the company’s vice president of corporate planning and director of marketing and sales. Recent additions to the management team include Plant Manager Michelle Meche, Maintenance Manager Darrell Aucoin, and SQF Practitioners Danielle Soileau and Rachael Bolfa.
Third-generation employee owners include the Lafleur children – Morgan Talevich, Matthew Lafleur and Mckenzie Richard – who look forward to increased responsibilities in the future growth of the company.
Opelousas is in the heart of Cajun country, a 22-parish swath (out of 64 parishes in Louisiana) located two hours from New Orleans and an hour from Baton Rouge where traditional Cajun and Creole foods make up everyday meals.
Nurturing New Ideas
Savoie’s may be the home of those original recipes, but there is nothing old-fashioned about its dedication to food safety. Operating under federal inspection and SQF certification, the firm sells its products nationwide, but its core business remains small, independently owned convenience and chain grocery stores throughout the Gulf South.
“One of the most important things we moved to in recent years was to further process and package these traditional products into ready-to-cook, one-step preparation foods,” Lafleur explains. “This has allowed us to make a variety of products that are available to busy customers who may not have time to spend hours in the kitchen.”
When Lafleur talks about variety, he isn’t just whistling Dixie. A visual tour of the company website, savoiesfoods.com, quickly opens chapters of Cajun food ideas that most have never seen nor were ever able to enjoy in such a convenient preparation format.
Cajun anchor foods like boudin, andouille and tasso can be ordered and shipped to states in the US from Maine to California, but the Savoie recipes are the real deal, and many come in everything from snack-size to restaurant-size packaging.
Indeed, trying to duplicate its product lineup would be a Herculean task for even the veteran meat processor. Probably the best way to describe its offerings would be to name a few.
Certainly, smoked sausage stands out, even in flavors like smoked mixed green onion, but Savoie’s else offers smoked alligator pork sausage, turkey tasso, chicken and sausage gumbo, smoked venison sausage and sliced pickled pork. Even seasoned pork roasts can be found at Savoie’s.
Seafood is a bedrock of Cajun country, and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone making better crawfish and crab pie or shrimp and crab pie, shrimp jambalaya, shrimp and okra gumbo, or seafood gumbo.
Lest anyone think Lafleur’s comments about Savoie’s business acumen are a stretch or a family adoration exercise, it is worth noting that in 1991 Eula received the Louisiana Business Person of the Year from the state’s Dept. of Economic Development. That same year she earned an Entrepreneurial Excellence Award from Working Woman magazine. Just 10 years later, she was honored with Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Gulf Coast Region.
Attaining and keeping such high standards and reputation in a family-owned business may be a challenge, but Lafleur feels his role is not just to grow and expand the company, but to serve as a guardian of Savoie’s principles.
“Sure we can grow,” he believes. “But we are trusted and that means we need to do everything with dignity and respect. Every employee must understand they are part of a team that works together. With that comes the understanding that we strive to make every customer happy, meaning that our products must be the best we can make them. It’s a way of saying that people are our real business.
“We’ll always be concerned about the safety of our products and the customer who buys them for their family,” Lafleur adds. “This is one company that won’t betray that trust if we remain practitioners of Miss Eula’s high standards.”