The root (beer) of Zatarain’s and its New Orleans flavors
It started, as so many things in New Orleans do, with a frothy beverage. In this case, that beverage was root beer — or root beer extract, to be precise — being sold by a local grocer named Emile Zatarain at the 1899 Louisiana Exposition. It was a hit, with Zatarain handing out an estimated 16,000 glasses of root beer in the first two weeks of the fair. Based on the success of his new venture, he began importing olives, pickles and spices — and soon he was making more from his root beer and pickles than from the grocery he had started in 1886. A new career, and an iconic New Orleans company with a distinctive name, was born.
The Zatarain’s company was bought in 2003 by spice giant McCormick & Co., but it still boasts that New Orleans flavor for which it became known. With more than 200 products marketed under the Zatarain’s brand — from Gumbo mix and crawfish boil to boxed jambalaya and, yes, root beer extract — it boasts of being the nation’s leading producer of New Orleans-style food.
- The company wasn’t always called Zatarain’s. When it started, it was Pa-Poose Pure Food Products, named after the Pa-Poose brand root beer that started it all.
- After root beer, the second product Emile Zatarain set out to produce himself was Creole mustard, using an Old-World-style recipe of consisting of just three ingredients: mustard seed, vinegar and water. Like Zatarain’s root beer extract, its Creole mustard is still available today.
- Another of the company’s more notable products was its Chow Chow, a mustard relish that it stopped making but — based on popular demand — brought back on a limited basis in late 2016. “It was discontinued because we didn’t sell much of it,” Zatarain’s Food Service Director Dudley Passman said in 2015. “But every person who did buy it must have complained twice.”
- Many of the company’s products are made at a 64,000-square-foot facility that was opened in Gretna in 2015 and which employs more than 150 people, most in three shifts.
- When the ribbon was cut on the company’s Gretna facility, the moment was toasted with — what else? — root beer.
- The building constructed in the 900 block of Valmont Street by Emile Zatarain in 1900 to house his factory is still standing, having been converted into apartments. You’ll know it by the “E.A. Zatarain & Sons” sign on the side of the building.
- The Zatarain family sold the company in 1963, leading to a succession of owners. At one point, it had five owners in six years — until McCormick bought it in 2003.
- The company started selling rice mixes in 1985. As of 2015, those mixes made up 50 percent of Zatarain’s sales. On Amazon, however, the biggest seller was the company’s original product: root beer extract.
Zatarain’s might not be locally owned anymore, but it’s still made locally, which is undoubtedly a reason why it has retained so much of its local flavor. Not only does it serve as a delicious culinary ambassador to those unfortunate enough to live outside of New Orleans, but locals also pay it the highest compliment by stocking their own pantries with Zatarain’s products. General Manager Jill Pratt made that much clear during a media tour of the then-new Gretna factory in 2015. “The Walmart on Tchoupitoulas sells so much (of Zatarain’s rice mixes) that if they don’t have extra, they will run out on the weekend,” she said.