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New Cajun spice blend started with charity work

Sun, 01/30/2011 - 11:46am
JOHN DESANTISAssociated Press

The latest Cajun spice blend to hit supermarket shelves was born out of charity.

Buddy's Cajun Spice began development seven years ago, with the jambalaya that Jaime "Buddy" Callahan cooked for events like Race For The Cure and Relay For Life.

As a radiation oncology technician at Thibodaux Regional Medical Center's Cancer Center, Callahan, 56, sees every day the toll the disease and its treatment takes on the patients he comes to care so much about.

But while Callahan's heart focused on charity fundraising, his hands and brain were busy getting just the right spice blend for his jambalaya.

"I started selling it and giving it to my friends, and that's how it got started," he said. "People found out about it and wanted it."

Last year, he landed a contract with Targil Inc., an Opelousas firm specializing in spices and culinary supplies.

By April, Callahan was ready for serious product development. He sold his beloved 22-foot boat to finance the project, a risky one in the tight, competitive Louisiana spice market.

Nine months later, the new spice line debuted.

Buddy's is on the shelves of just about every Rouses supermarket in Louisiana and Mississippi. The L&N Supermarket in Thibodaux also carries the brand.

Customer reactions have so far been good, he said.

In-store demonstrations at local Rouses stores are expected to begin in February.

Dantre Blanchard, Rouses' spice buyer, helped with connections on the distribution end.

Key to the appeal of Buddy's, Callahan said, is a hint of sweetness from Louisiana sugar cane, along with the more zesty flavorings to give it a zing.

A formula using less salt than a lot of other brands, Callahan said, also helped.

"I was actually selling Cajun spice, not seasoned salt," Callahan said. "That is one of the things Chef Nino (Thibodaux) told me was unique. It was lower in sodium, half the sodium of the others."

A lot of commercial spice or seasoning products, Callahan said, pose difficulties when shaken on finished meals because salt is already present in the food.

Tim Acosta, Rouses' marketing and advertising manager, said the chain is pleased to have a new product from a local entrepreneur on its shelves.

"It's great if a local person puts a quality product in here," said Acosta, noting that sales of Buddy's were noticeably high in Mississippi after in-store demonstrations by Callahan and Thibodaux.

Managers at individual Rouses stores decide whether to stock the spice. So far it is in most stores, but Acosta said shoppers can request it if it hasn't made it to their local Rouses.

How well Buddy's will produce in the long run remains to be seen. But Rouses will be monitoring the sales carefully.

The name of the spice comes from a nickname bestowed by Callahan's friend and companion, Cynthia Capone.

"We were thinking of calling it Bayou Country Rub-and-Shake," Callahan said. But marketing consultants said that wasn't going to work.

Capone urged Callahan to come up with something better, using his nickname "Buddy."

He likes to call it "using the Buddy system."

Although Callahan's professional lifetime has been spent treating cancer patients, cooking has always been an important activity.

He said his mother inspired him to cook, and he credits his late uncle, Junius "Mac" McJimsey, with the knowledge of how to cook big for big crowds.

He still has a mega-sized iron sugar kettle that his uncle used for cooking at fundraisers, which he has restored and hopes to use locally soon.

McJimsey succumbed to cancer in 1984, but his memory remains an important part of Callahan's life.

As he works to make the Buddy's venture a success, Callahan has other pots boiling.

He's testing out a new food product that he's not ready to discuss publicly yet, developing recipes and working every day at the Cancer Center, where he takes joy from in patients' success and the medical miracles he sees.

Cooking and working on products like Buddy's, he said, is a good avenue for personal development and an enjoyable diversion from the serious tasks he must perform.

That his product even made it to shelves, Callahan said, is in some ways a miracle in itself. Sometimes he felt like quitting, but encouragement from Thibodaux and others kept him going.

Rouses, like other retail firms, gets a lot of requests to carry products. But only one out of nine or 10 makes the grade, Acosta said.

"Everybody has a cherished vision or a dream," Acosta said. "But it's not an easy thing to do."

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Information from: The Courier, http://www.houmatoday.com

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