Michelle A. Vallot credits her tireless drive as lawyer turned entrepreneur to her late father Peter who always emphasized education and encouraged a strong work ethic. Raised in rural Abbeville as the second oldest of seven children, she was surrounded by a family ancestry that harkened back to the French Creole legacy. A legacy she has come to appreciate and cherish.
The Vallot ancestry
According to history, what is known regarding the family legacy is that originally three Vallot brothers came from Burgundy, France, in 1800, and settled in south Louisiana. One of the brothers, Alfred, took a Creole mistress, Sylvana, who bore his six children – three sons and three daughters. The Vallot children acquired their father’s name and the family descended from Alfred’s lineage – with his sons inheriting land as early as the 1850’s and settling in Vermilion Parish. Adonis, the youngest son, grew rice, sugar cane and raised a family of nine with his wife, Emma Broussard Vallot of New Iberia. Perhaps it was passed down from her great grandfather Adonis – that entrepreneurial spirit – to his son Peter, (Michelle’s grandfather) who, with the land that he acquired, made a business of farming sugarcane to sustain his family.
Peter Sr., expected no less of his children. All four of his sons pursued the business of sugarcane farming and the eldest of his two daughters, Mary Ellen, was the first person of colour to attend and graduate from Southwestern Louisiana University (now ULL) School of Nursing in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Peter Vallot Jr.
Peter Jr., Michelle’s father, and the oldest of his siblings, attended high school in Houston, TX, and pursued a B.S. from Southern University in Baton Rouge. After serving time in the Air Force with the majority of his time spent in Germany, Vallot returned home and subsequently taught biology & science in Abbeville, Louisiana, at James Herod High School early in his career. He later earned a Masters of Education at Southwestern Louisiana University and, throughout the course of his career dedicated much of his life to public service working as a founding director of the Head Start Program and directed the Community Action Agency in south Louisiana. Still later in his career, Peter Vallot owned several different businesses and travelled extensively to many parts of the world. Peter Jr’s brothers, to this day, continue in the business of sugarcane farming and have for the most part passed the business on to their sons.
Sugar cane fields and the beauty of the south Louisiana countryside, particularly during harvest season with the autumn air crisp and cool, is etched in Vallot’s mind like a painting – where cane stalks which had been cut and set ablaze lay smouldering against the backdrop of an orange setting sun in the quiet sky. True to Louisiana too at this time of year is the sweet smell of cane juice, cooking to a perfect syrup or molasses. This is another memory that has set the stage for the food, celebration and sensibility, that is uniquely the foundation of Creole living and has shaped in large part Michelle’s experience.
Michelle, along with her older siblings, attended primary school in Abbeville, LA, at Our Lady of Lourdes, a small black Catholic School. At age 11, sixth grade, she transferred to Mount Carmel Catholic School in Abbeville to be counted among some of the first African Americans to integrate the institution. In her junior year of high school, Michelle and her younger sister Angela, transferred to the public high school, Abbeville Sr. High, and graduated. Michelle moved to southern California to attend La Verne College and Angela to Oakland, CA, to attend Mills College, an all-girls school.
During her freshman year in California, Michelle was a full time student. Later, having moved back to Louisiana, she continued her studies and pursued journalism while working part-time for the local television station – initially in the projection and audio department. Subsequently, she was in the news department where she did some on camera work and reporting of local news.
Growing up and young adulthood
With seemingly no challenge too great for this young idealist still working her way through school, in the late 1970’s, Michelle was working in the predominately male dominated oil industry in South Louisiana. She managed oilfield sales for a construction company with both on-shore and off shore operations. At the same time, though she was one of a handful of women who worked in oilfield sales, and despite the challenges, Michelle continued school part-time and saved enough money to travel to France to study abroad for a year and a half. The experience of living abroad was a wonderful and life changing for Michelle. She became proficient in French, but more importantly she was able to connect from where the Vallot family descended. Often she noted how “at home” she felt with many aspects of the cultural immersion of the experience of living in France – the food, the celebration – and the “joie de vivre”.
Michelle did not realise that every experience in life prepares one for the next journey. Perhaps it was the nature of selling in a male dominated oil related world and making “cold calls” that prompted Vallot to call on some of the top Fashion Houses in Paris, and even Milan, to do modelling. Looking back – what daring – and how wonderful to get a gig in a Pret-a’-Porter in Paris and do some runway work!! The entire experience was transforming and wonderful, but with only a slim possibility of getting a green card which would have allowed her to remain in France, Michelle returned to Louisiana after 18 months abroad. Not long after her return home, she deemed it appropriate to graduate from college and completed her studies at the local university.
The birth of the Zydeco nutrition bar
Knowing that an undergraduate degree would probably not serve her needs should she decide to continue to pursue her own calling in life, graduate school was the next step. When Vallot committed to attend law school in the 1990’ s and experienced the 100 mile daily commute in addition to the gruelling hours of late night study. She sought a nutrition bar product for energy. Finding none she liked, she always promised that she would make her own bar to fill what she considered a void in the market for a healthy and great tasting nutrition bar. Her husband Jim made delicious baked goods, particularly the Italian fig cookie, at Christmas for family & friends, Michelle knew she could make the perfect bar!
But even with the knowledge that “life can be short” one is never more keenly aware of the reality of that fact until someone we love is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Jim was gone in less than one year. Vallot found herself alone with a license to practice law, and more energy than she knew what to do with (she was known to have pushed the lawn mower at a running pace at times when she cut the gr ass). It would be Jim’s older sisters who would inspire Vallot to get into the kitchen and start baking, to harness that energy and keep the spirit & tradition alive – particularly with the delicious Italian Fig cookie.
Bringing all of the discipline from her youth that advanced her through the law degree to her new found hobby in the kitchen, Vallot outfitted her own state approved kitchen spreading the magic of the fig cookie which she had by now made uniquely & deliciously her own. She trialled it on family and friends and even managed to get it displayed by small scale speciality stores.
Some of that same magic would inspire Vallot to take on the nutrition bar (now that she had garnered some baking confidence) as her next project and in 2010, the Zydeco Bars were in their final incarnation and on the shelf in numerous locations. With the brightly colored ZYDECO label and the iconic accordion, the Zydeco Fruit & Pecan Bar and the Zydeco Pecan Brownie Bar are not to be missed at retail. Both Zydeco Bars contain the nutritious sweet potato ingredient, rolled oats and roasted pecans and boasts “good source of fiber” and “excellent source of Vitamin A, among other wonderful ingredients”.
Our research has allowed us to rollout a product with NO refined sugars & NO high fructose corn syrup! With todays “on the run” society, our Zydeco Bar is a convenient, nutritious and delicious breakfast, snack or anytime food source that travels in the lunch box, briefcase, nap sack or purse!
Having now worked with more than her first contract manufacturer since Vallot initially rolled out Zydeco Bars in 2009 on her own, she can definitely talk about the experience and the learning that has taken place in the last few years.
“Working with the local universities and even the decision to add the sweet potato to our formula was a wonderful addition— and that was our starting point, as I look back. It cannot be underestimated the amount of effort, and attention to detail that it has taken to put a product in the market place for large distribution. It all takes time, money – more money than I would have ever imagined, and the ability to keep plugging along in the developmental stage. Then, once you got a product, then you better start making those sales calls! Plan to review and review again the same conversation, label, ingredient deck, art modifications etc., to make sure that every detail and change has been followed through on and will be perfectly executed as the buck stops here!!”
If someone were to ask what she might do differently today, Michelle would say “Looking back, I might have moved just a bit more slowly and secured a more local/ regional distribution prior to working with a national distribution channel so early in my development. And, I might also have worked with a smaller manufacturer/ contract packer initially. And it never hurts to partner with someone who knows the business on many levels, someone to share the load and who can make the path just a bit easier to navigate. Knowledge is so important and then perhaps throw in a bit of luck. Or, I might just do everything just the way it rolled out – who is to say”, she muses.
The expansion and growth of Zydeco Foods
Zydeco Foods, LL C, is now producing not only the two nutritious and delicious snack/nutrition bars made with the unique Sweet potato ingredient (so large a part of the Creole/Cajun culture), but Zydeco is also producing Louisiana
Style Salsas. These salsas represent what is the uniquely rich agrarian Louisiana culture. There is a trio of products featuring Zydeco Sweet Potato Salsa, Zydeco R ed Bean Salsa and Zydeco Creole Trinity Salsa – all natural, gluten free products which are devoid of chemical preservatives and contain little or no vinegar. “We so believe in the richness of this Louisiana culture and respect the history that has brought us here. For me, Zydeco is a universal symbol – representative of all of our people, our food, music, language & our undeniable spirit. Our hope is that this little bit of Zydeco can put a smile on your face and a little pep in your step!”
Zydeco products are not only nutritious but delicious—and continue to speak to our mission statement. Zydeco Foods advocates wholesome nutrition for a great life and is committed to providing tasty and healthy snacks to consumers of every age f or every occasion. Zydeco Foods, LLC, has products available in all of the Rouse’s stores from Louisiana into Mississippi and Alabama and many other independent retail locations in Lafayette, Baton Rouge, New Orleans and much of Louisiana’s south. The Texas Chain HEB is slated for delivery to all of its top retail locations and Zydeco can also be found in Bloomingdale’s NY and Florida locations. Zydeco has a pipeline of new products for rollout before the end of 2014!!