Jun 13 2017

Local Company Jazzmen Rice is Cream of the Crop

By: Burke Bischoff

New Orleans: the city that is world-famous for food, music, food, liveliness, and of course, food. Speaking of food, what are some of those dishes that are most representative of not only the city, but also the entire state of Louisiana? Gumbo, jambalaya, and etouffee, obviously. Well, what connects all of these dishes, besides being delicious? They are all served with rice. These dishes are only about as good as the rice that comes with them, and one company is working to give locals, as well as the world, some fine-tasting and -smelling rice.

Jazzmen Rice, which was officially formed in 2010, is a local company that strives to bring a selection of aromatic jasmine rice varieties to the market. According to George Chin, president of Jazzmen Rice, he and his childhood friend/business partner, Andrew Wong, who was actually living in Thailand at the time, first thought up the company sometime before Hurricane Katrina. “I said, ‘Andrew, you’ve been living in Thailand with all of this Thai rice. Man, you ever think about growing jasmine rice in Louisiana?’” Chin said. “The climate’s pretty similar; we got the humidity and the heat. Plus, we produce a good amount of rice.”

After Katrina tore through Louisiana, Chin and Wong, with the idea for Jazzmen Rice still in their minds, went to the LSU AgCenter, which strives to build up Louisiana’s agricultural community, and spoke with them about the possibility of working with them to grow their own jasmine rice in Louisiana. “They were trying to develop this jasmine-type rice to compete with the Thai jasmine, 'cause Thailand, at that time they were talking about it, was bringing in, like, 500,000 tons of Thai jasmine into the country,” Chin said.

Chin and Wong ended up meeting with Dr. Steve Linscombe, senior rice breeder and geneticist for the LSU AgCenter. He told them the center was about ready to release their own type of jasmine rice, which was also ready for market, and the two of them hopped onboard to market and sell the rice in the U.S. “So, we basically had to start a business up,” Chin said. “We started contracting local farmers; we found ourselves a rice mill that we associate ourselves with, which is one of the largest rice mills in the country. They do a good job for us.”

The rice that Jazzmen Rice sells is a long grain rice that sets itself apart from other types of rice because of its gummy texture and, especially, its aroma. According to Chin, when you cook the rice, it smells like fresh popcorn. “A lot of times when we demonstrate our rice, we let people smell the rice,” Chin said. “The aroma is very important in this rice.”

Another way the rice sets itself apart from the rest is that it stays fresh longer than most other rice. “What we’ve found, also, is that when you cook this rice and you have leftover rice, you put it in the refrigerator, microwave it the next day, and it tastes just as good; it doesn’t dry out,” Chin said. “When restaurants, like buffets, use our rice and leave it sitting in a steam table, it doesn’t dry out as fast as regular long grain rice.”

Chin also said their rice, even the white rice, has a lower sugar content than other rice. He said that when they entered the Asian market, a lot of the locals who are diabetic eat Jazzmen Rice because of its health benefits. “We’ve had testimonials from these families,” Chin said. “There are families that are all diabetic who said, ‘We used to always have to eat the brown rice. We didn’t really care for it, but we have to eat our rice every day. So when I started eating your rice and my whole family started eating it, we started taking our blood sugar every day and it didn’t go up at all. It stayed stable.’ So, now they can eat the white rice and enjoy it. That brings a lot of value to our rice. That’s what makes it different.”

Dawn Vachon, national sales and marketing director for Jazzmen Rice, said that since its inception, the company has been able to promote its product in different markets around the world. “We’re in 48 states in the U.S. right now and a few different countries,” Vachon said. “We’re in Hong Kong, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and Canada.”

Vachon stated that while it is great that Jazzmen Rice has been able to expand so far, it was also a tremendous amount of hard work to make it happen. “We have tariff issues when we have to deal with other countries,” Vachon said. “So, it’s an up-and-down cycle for us, because the market is ever-changing.”

Despite any down cycles they might have had, Vachon said the company has been staying strong and doing a lot of work, especially with only a small handful of people running the core of the business here in New Orleans. She said Jazzmen Rice has been able to form many partnerships in the city, such as working with the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, which is made obvious by the image of Armstrong in the center of the colorful, standout package the rice is sold in.

“We have worked with Emeril, Besh, and Martin Yan with the James Beard Awards, and even went to the White House because Mitch Landrieu sent us,” Vachon said. “We’ve created partnerships with other companies, too, in town with our product. We’ve kinda cross-marketed our product with other products too. It creates a synergy for us. We have charities give us phone calls and ask us to donate our product. We’ve even given our rice to children in Haiti to help them. We give back to the communities that give to us as well. So, that’s very important for us to give back to people who need our help.”

“When we first promoted the rice when we were doing a Louisiana restaurant show, a lady came up to me one day and said, ‘This product is one of the best products I’ve seen come out of Louisiana in a long time,’” Chin said. “It’s a product nobody really had.”

According to Vachon, Jazzmen Rice is working to expand its brand in the Louisiana market, as well as working to diversify and innovate their products in the future. “We’re hoping to get a really different product line too, offering different types of packaging that will be coming out for our rice,” Vachon said. “I’d like to see us go into the jasmine sake and beer route. That’s my pipe dream.”

Vachon also indicated that it is important for Jazzmen Rice to try to create a synergy with as many people as possible within our local community. “We have broken through different types of communities,” Vachon said. “We’ve penetrated some of the Hispanic market. We’ve penetrated a little bit more into the Mediterranean market as well. They get educated about our product and they love it. It’s naturally New Orleans.”

Chin expressed an interest in getting Jazzmen Rice into bigger stores like Sam’s, Costco, and Walmart, because he wants the product to be part of that food culture that comes out of New Orleans. “When you think about New Orleans, you don’t just think about food; you think about good food,” Chin said. “We’re in an area where we have a different culture and the food culture is different. You have etouffee, gumbo, jambalaya. You don’t see this kind of food in most of the country or even most of the world. You’re gonna see more and more of this food moving into different areas. So, we like our rice to follow a trail. You wanna get good etouffee? Pair it with this great rice. You wanna get good red beans and rice on a Monday? Pair it with Jazzmen Rice. That’s how we see ourselves fitting into the community. It’s just a product that can go along with anything that we do here.”

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