The best part of waking up? The bridge smell.
It was an uneasy time for New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had just waylaid the city, submerging it not only in water but in near-total darkness. And while most people in the city stood tall and vowed to rebuild, deep down there was concern if that was even possible. People everywhere — inside the city and outside — were looking for any signs of normalcy, of a return to how things were before. Then, in October, just a few weeks after the storm, we got one: the uplifting scent of roasting coffee emanating from the Folgers plant on Chef Menteur Highway near the Industrial Canal, wafting up and embracing motorists as they traveled over the Interstate 10 high rise and Chef Highway’s Danzinger Bridge. The “bridge smell,” as it is colloquially known, was back. And with it was a signal that New Orleans was, too.
The bridge smell is still going strong, not just because of the Folgers plant but also because of the nearby Luzianne roasting facility, which is right next door. Both are complemented by a number of coffee storage warehouses also in the same area.
- Folgers has been roasting at its Chef Highway plant since 1955. The company sold it to Procter & Gamble in 1998, which in turn sold it to the J.M. Smucker Co. in 2008.
- The plant covers 233,300 square feet and employs 234 people, according to the company. Brands of coffee produced there include Folgers, Dunkin’ Donuts, Café Bustelo and Café Pilon.
- Reilly Foods has been roasting coffee at the neighboring Luzianne plant since the 1960s. That facility covers 200,000 square feet and employs about 160 people. Brands of coffee produced there include Luzianne, French Market, CDM, RT and Union.
- Folgers’ Chef Highway plant isn’t the company’s only one in New Orleans — or even its biggest. Its facility on Old Gentilly Road, built in 1958, covers 600,000 square feet and employees 375 people. It was sold to Procter & Gamble in 1963 and J.M. Smucker in 2008.
- Folgers also operates a 250,000-square-foot green coffee silo at the Port of New Orleans that employs 20 Smucker employees and about 110 contracted employees, as well as a distribution center in the St. Tammany Parish community of Lacombe.
- As significant as the return of the bridge smell was, Folgers’ Chef Highway plant wasn’t the first to go back on line after Katrina. That distinction belongs to the Old Gentilly Road facility, which restarted production on Sept. 17 — just 19 days after landfall.
- To get back up and running, Folgers set up trailers on-site at its Gentilly plant so workers — many of whom had lost their homes in the storm — would have a place to stay. That enabled it to become the first major industry back in operation in the city after the storm. Three days after it restarted production, the plant was visited by none other than President George W. Bush to mark the occasion.
- According to the Port of New Orleans, the city boasts 14 coffee warehouses, more than 5.5 million square feet of storage space and six roasting facilities all within a 20-mile radius.
New Orleans is a sensory city, one built on innumerable sights, sounds, flavors and smells, all tied to different memories and triggering different emotions. Just as emotional, though, can be the absence of one of those sensory triggers. On one hand, the return of the bridge smell restored to New Orleans a tie to its rich history as a coffee city, which has its roots in the 18th century. In those uncertain weeks after Hurricane Katrina, though, it also served as a much-needed inspiration for those looking to figure out the direction of its future. Granted, the bridge smell ordinarily might not be as refreshing and restorative as a morning cup of coffee, but in October 2005, it sure came close.