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Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout

By Cassie Livingston
In Bayou Icon
Jul 29th, 2020

article by GEORGIANN POTTS and photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

In 1963, Billy Edd Wheeler wrote “Jackson”, a song made popular in 1967 when Johnny Cash and June Carter recorded it. The most memorable line in the song described a love match that was “hotter than a pepper sprout.” Anyone who has tasted the original Panola Gourmet Pepper Sauce understands just what delicious fire those pepper sprouts cooked on Panola Farm near Lake Providence, Louisiana, can produce!

Today the next generation, Mike and Katie Coullard, is running the company, adding products to the line and ensuring that the family-owned and operated business will continue to thrive. Because of the amazing products they have developed and the life-changing job opportunities that they and their family have provided for their neighbors in East Carroll Parish, the Coullards and Panola Pepper Corporation are our August Bayou Icons.

The Panola pepper story began with Martha Wyly Brown, Katie Coullards’ paternal grandmother — probably about the same time that the Cash/Carter song hit the airways. She was the first one to make pepper sauce from locally grown garden peppers. The family had enjoyed it for many years before it became the cornerstone for a very successful food business. Katie Brown Coullard can’t remember when she first tasted it because it was already a staple on her family’s table when she was a baby.

When Katie’s father, Grady “Bubber” Brown, Sr., decided to produce the sauce for commercial sales, it was “Miss Martha’s” recipe that he used. He wanted to name the sauce after his mother and put her picture on the label, but she would have none of that.

Family has always come first at Panola Farm, whether “blood kin” or “friend and neighbor kin.” That love permeates everything. The family loved Panola Farm and the surrounding parish, and no one really ever wanted to leave. “Miss Martha” lived next door to Katie throughout her life, and Katie says that between the Browns and the Wylys, there was always close family nearby. Katie’s mother was from Glasgow, Kentucky, and had a small family. Even so, she was quickly wrapped into the Brown/Wyly clan and made Panola Farm her home as well.

Grady Brown Sr.’s father passed away before Katie’s parents were married. At the time of his dad’s death, Grady Sr. was in the Navy, serving as a jet fighter pilot. With his father gone, Grady Sr. was pulled back to Lake Providence and Panola Farm, a place he loved more than any other in the world. “We lived in the same house my entire life,” Katie remembers. “Daddy loved his land, and if he could have been buried on it, he would have. He never liked being away from home for more than three days!”

Among Katie’s fondest memories of her childhood involve flying with her dad, looking over the crops with him. As a special treat, he would sometimes fly Katie and her brothers, Grady Jr. and Glen Brown, to the sandbar and spend the day there, picnicking and playing. Both of her brothers now run Panola Farm, and both have their father’s passion for flying. They have several planes, and Grady Jr. does all of the crop dusting for Panola.

Panola Farm has always required a lot of work, as do all Delta farms. Katie remembers her dad working very hard for years, tending to the crops and the animals. Over time, he became increasingly concerned about the poverty and depopulation among the people in East Carroll Parish, and started thinking about what he might do to promote economic development. Taking his mother’s pepper sauce recipe, Grady Sr. began Panola Pepper (incorporated as Panola Pepper Corporation in 1983).

Katie’s mother stayed home with the children until Grady’s Panola Pepper dream became a reality. Katie says that her mother and her aunt were to handle the bookkeeping and sales while the men on the farm would be able to stay employed all year by making sauce in the off season. “Stock was made all winter and stored,” Mike Coullard explains. “When farming began that spring, the stock sold out in 3 months! A year-round business was born.”

Katie attended St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Lake Providence for K-8 and then finished high school at Briarfield Academy. There she played basketball, tennis, and was a member of the dance team. “I was involved in everything that I could possibly be,” Katie says laughing. “I guess I’m kind of like my dad. I love to be busy.”

With no particular career in mind, Katie enrolled in Louisiana State University where she joined Kappa Delta sorority. Her dad (an LSU alumnus as was her brother, Glen) suggested that she get a marketing degree which she did, never realizing that one day it might come in handy when she and her husband took over Panola Pepper. During summers, Katie would return to Panola to work. She filed papers or packed boxes with finished product to be shipped. In this way, she was learning the business at the “ground” level.

After graduating from LSU and with no marketing jobs of interest available, she returned to school and earned a teaching degree. She taught high school algebra and geometry for seven years at East Ascension High School in Gonzales, Louisiana, until she and Mike had their first child. Katie says that math has always been her favorite subject. She loved doing problems and knowing quickly whether they were right or wrong.

How Katie and Mike met and “courted” is a classic Southern love story. Katie’s brother, Glen, brought Mike home to Panola Farm together with other Kappa Alpha Order fraternity brothers for a “pledge” retreat. Katie thought that one of them – Malcom – was cute. “Mike was cute, too, but I didn’t really notice him until later,” Katie explains.

Glen then began bringing Mike home for dove and duck hunts – two pursuits they both enjoyed. Katie remembers that it was then that she noticed how cute and sweet Mike was. “He was always so polite and kind, but I never thought that we would go out on a date,” Katie says. “He was too old. Gosh – he was my brother’s friend. That would be weird.”

After Katie enrolled at LSU, she began noticing Mike at various places and he would always speak to her, calling her “Katie Bird.” Mike explains the nickname in this way: “It’s because the first time I saw her, it was after a Briarfield basketball game and her legs looked like bird legs with those big basketball shoes on.”

Later on, when brother Glen and his wife, Tobi, got married in a small, family-only wedding, the bride and groom each also had their closest friend there. Mike and Katie were seated together at both the rehearsal dinner and the reception dinner because they were the only single ones present. They went out that night, and

“. . . the rest is history” Katie says.

Just four years after the first bottle of Gourmet Pepper Sauce was bottled in 1983, an electrical fire burned down the first “pepper house” — an old farm house where the company began. Grady, Sr. regrouped and rebuilt on the same spot the farm house had stood. Then in 2001, a second disastrous fire hit destroying the manufacturing plant. Once again, Grady, Sr. persevered and within six months, the plant was rebuilt and was bottling hot sauce again. Because of his tenacity and impressive business success, in 2003 Grady, Sr. was honored with the Small Business Award of Louisiana, and three years later received the U.S. Commerce Department’s Export Achievement Award and Businessman of the Year.

In 2009, Grady, Sr. announced that at age 75, he was ready to retire and figured that he would either sell the company or just close the doors. Hearing that, Katie and Mike decided it was time to “go home to Panola” and start a new life together there. Katie secretly suspects that her dad said those things to get them to move back home and take it over. That way the family wouldn’t lose something that by now three generations had been a part of. Most importantly, Mike and Katie saw an opportunity to own and operate an American-built, American-made company. “The company was started not for greed or exploitation of workers; it was started to create opportunity for all, and we wanted to be a part of that. There were real people who had worked hard to build the company and it was an honor to continue to be part of Mr. Bubber’s American Dream,” Mike explains. “We saw a company that grows, builds, and packages something special in the Delta, and we could not let the business close or move away.”

After they moved, both Mike and Katie realized that Grady Sr. really wasn’t ready to retire even though he had said that he was. This caused some tense moments as Katie’s dad and Mike were learning to work together. Though the two would disagree, Mike was able to see both sides of the argument and remained encouraged – and encouraging — about the company’s future. In 2013, Mike became President and CEO of Panola Pepper Corporation with everyone’s blessing. His primary goal: to grow Panola Pepper and help make Lake Providence something that people want to come home and be a part of.

Panola’s Patriarch
In 2018, Panola’s patriarch passed away on Katie’s birthday. Grady, Sr. was 83. He had lived life to the fullest, and left a legacy for not only his family, but also Northeast Louisiana. From a pepper sauce he enjoyed at his mother’s table, to running Panola Farm, to creating Panola Pepper Corporation — his hard work and vision for a better future had paid off.

Mike, now fully “schooled” on the various processes and experience in managing the business, began putting his own “touches” on Panola Pepper. A co-packing/private label division was fueled that allowed the company to reach a new set of customers. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top fame discovered the Gourmet Pepper Sauce when a bottle was on his table in a restaurant in New York City. “He ordered bottles from us for years, and then decided to have his own brand,” Mike explains. “Now he has 3 private label sauces with us. We are blessed to have a few large customers with national and international footprints, as well as regional brands with loyal followings. In addition, we are uniquely set up to help launch new products for customers who have ‘a sauce and a dream’.”

It is this part of the business that is by far Mike’s favorite. He loves helping others make their own dreams come true. People find us when they have a product but not the budget to manufacture it. “It is gut level entrepreneurship and so very rewarding to be part of,” Mike says. “We handle all the production, packaging and logistics and the customer handles the product marketing. We have seen people take a single product to their local market and grow their brand into a national presence. It is great to see it happen!”

Today, unlike in the early days, marketing for Panola centers on the internet. The private labeling and co-packaging part of the business, plus manufacturing, take up time and manpower, and the internet provides an economical way to get the word out about all of the Panola products and services. “Technology is allowing us to isolate and track every aspect of our business cycle,” Mike explains. “From new customer solicitation, procurement cycles, downtime, production efficiencies – the data is available. We can analyze it and make many small operational changes that will impact the bottom line. That wasn’t as easy years ago.”

Over the past several years, Food Safety Regulations and Compliance mandates have increased meaning that Panola must work even harder to remain BRC Certified – the highest level of Food Safety and Compliance Standards worldwide. “Maintaining this level of performance takes our complete focus and our clients take this confidence to market,” says Mike.

Mike and Katie’s two sons – Carter, 16 and Ben, 14 – are also “growing up in the family business.” This summer, Carter is working in the sauce room, learning how to make all of the different sauces. Ben is also working at Panola, operating label machines and small order fulfillment. Both boys love sports — and both were on the local football team that won the State Championship last year. Ben also loves baseball. “I spend most weekends at the ballpark with Ben while Mike and Carter spend their weekends at our fishing camp in Cocodrie,” Katie says. “Both boys love fishing, and going to Cocodrie is one of their favorite things to do.”

Mike and Katie are true partners and an excellent love match. Both enjoy one another’s company and do many things together — except cook. Both are excellent cooks, but their styles differ. Mike makes a big mess, according to Katie, while she is more of a “clean as you go” type of cook. Recently they built a new home. Mike has 100% control over the outdoor cooking area, and Katie has the indoor kitchen. Even though everyone is busy, the family tries to sit down and enjoy a family meal together every night possible. As Katie says, “Family meals are the heart and soul of strong family bonds.”

Although neither thought that they would end up working in the food industry, both love it. Katie sees the diversity within the business as a real plus. “You have obvious things like sales and marketing, but there are areas such as the lab, test kitchen, research and development, and the ever-changing market – all of these keep us on our toes. If you want monotony, this isn’t the business for you,” says Katie.

Mike considers it a blessing that his career took him away from the sciences (he had majored in zoology and environmental science at LSU). He owned and operated 4 franchise restaurants in Baton Rouge and Metarie, but eventually sold those. He went to work with Todd Graves at “Raising Canes” when Todd had only 8 stores. “Todd hired me to build his franchise program. I was there 5 years and left when there were over 125 locations throughout the country. Many people work in the restaurant industry at a young age, but then migrate to other areas,” Mike explains. “Those who stay will find incredible opportunities in leadership development roles, finance, operations, research, food safety, and marketing. The world will always need food, so it is a safe industry.”

Panola Pepper Corporation, now in its 37th year, continues to be an important economic engine for one of the poorest areas in the United States. Today Panola manufactures a variety of hot sauces, wing sauces, Worcestershire and soy sauces, marinades, salad dressing, drink mixes, and apparel, plus does an impressive amount of sales with custom gift sets. Their Bat’s Brew Sauce and Vampfire hot sauces are a salute to nearby town Transylvania. They offer custom blending for new customers, and help adapt and/or produce qualified products as co-packing opportunities. Co-packing and private label accounts for 95% of Panola’s revenue.

Although Panola can easily consume much of their time, both Mike and Katie still make time to volunteer in areas that matter. Katie is a member of the school board, and handles the fundraising duties for Briarfield Academy. Mike enjoys volunteering on Louisiana’s coast through land preservation, clean-ups, habitat development, and coastal conservation. He has been on the Louisiana Board of CCA (Coastal Conservation Association) for the past 20 years.

During the past decade, the popularity of hot sauces specifically, and spicy food in general, has soared. There could not be a better time to be in the “pepper sprout” business. Even the ever-present threat from COVID-19 hasn’t harmed Panola. “Luckily, we have seen very little negative impact from COVID-19,” Mike says. “We are very blessed! Our wonderful staff has trusted us to keep them safe and remain the important contributors to Panola that they are – without missing any work!”

Panola Pepper Corporation is a true American success story. One man’s dream has become a reality far beyond even his expectations. One family’s desire to help their neighbors by providing opportunities that allow them to pursue their own dreams — priceless. With annual multi-million-dollar revenues and double-digit sales growth annually for the past several years, this “pepper” is hot indeed.