Vance Vaucresson has overcome some big challenges to keep his family’s traditional creole sausage business alive. Luckily for him, his ancestors have always flourished in the face of adversity. Vance is no exception, following both the recipes and traditions of those who came before him, and leading his company to success.
The Vaucresson family story is one filled with a legacy of entrepreneurship going back over 100 years, when Levinsky Vaucresson migrated from France to New Orleans. Levinsky worked as a butcher around the turn of the last century, passing his business on to his son, Robert “Sonny” Vaucresson. Sonny decided to focus the business on sausage making, and named his company The Vaucresson Sausage Company.
Step change in the 1980s
The business went from strength to strength, and, after rave reviews from food critics, Vaucresson Sausage Company opened its first factory in 1983, after great success running Vaucresson Café Creole, on Bourbon Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter. This eatery won critical acclaim from respected New Orleans food critic, Tom Fitzmorris. He called it, “One of the first examples of authentic Creole cooking of people of colour in the French Quarter”, clearly recognising the role it played in bringing Creole food to the world’s attention.
There were a lot of pretenders, who would ask local Creole people to teach classically trained chefs how to make the dishes on the menu, before firing the local people and relying on their trained chefs to carry on. Fitzmorris’ acknowledgement that the Vaucresson family were not treating their staff in that despicable manner publicised the respect which the Vaucressons and their restaurant had for traditional Creole food.
Nurturing a food dynasty: sausages and jazz music
The admiration for the Creole people and their food was inherent throughout the Vaucresson family since their arrival in America. Raised in the seventh ward of New Orleans, they lived among Creoles of colour and French Creoles. The Creoles welcomed newcomers, such as the Irish and Italians, who opened their own shops within the community, playing a huge part in influencing the Creole culture.
It was a fantastic example of multiculturalism, with the shops stocking both traditional Creole groceries and imports from Italy and Ireland, which became part of the Creole menu. Pane meat, a Creole dish, takes its name from the Italian word, “pane”, which means bread. Traditional Italian breadcrumbs are still insisted on when making the dish. As butchers, the Vaucressons were key players in preparing the meat the way the Creoles liked it, learning the tricks of the trade which continue to make them the unique company they are today.
Historically, New Orleans has always been the home of jazz music, and this was something that the Vaucresson family shared and appreciated. In fact, one of their first big breaks was selling their wares at the 1969 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where they introduced their signature dish – the po’boy sausage, which is one of the top selling sausages at jazz festivals today. As the family worked hard to build up their business, they tried to include jazz music as well, for an authentic Creole experience.
4th Generation Vaucresson
These days, Sonny Vaucresson’s son, Vance Vaucresson, a 48 year old entrepreneur from New Orleans, has taken the reins to steer Vaucresson’s famous Creole sausages right to the top of the food world. He is a man on a mission. Vance’s father set the bar high for his young son. A big part of the New Orleans community, he used his influence to introduce political candidates to the everyday people, talking to them about their reasons for standing, and almost certainly guaranteeing them victory. New Orleans was what Vance refers to as a “hinge”, meaning it could swing either way if you didn’t do your best to get the voters interested.
Calamity with Hurricane Katrina
However, in August 2005, something was to change the direction of this close knit community, forever. Hurricane Katrina landed squarely on New Orleans, killing 1,245 people, and destroying 80% of the city with the resulting floods. It remains the third worst cyclone to hit the United States since records began.
It was disastrous for the Vaucresson family, too. Their business premises were flooded under six feet of water, ruining the production equipment and the stock of meat. Even worse, when Vance tried to claim on his insurance, he discovered that he was not covered for flood damage. With Katrina looking like it could be the end of the road for Vaucresson Sausage Company, Vance and his family headed out of New Orleans to the safety of New Iberia in Louisiana, where they wound up sharing a small three bedroomed house with 15 other people.
As ever, the fighting spirit of the Vaucressons showed itself. It turned out that even Mother Nature couldn’t keep the Vaucressons down. They found a mobile home, which became the family’s temporary lodgings, and Vance approached a former competitor in Metairie, Louisiana, for help. With that spring’s jazz festival coming up, his competitor couldn’t deny the people their Vaucresson Sausage Company po’boy sausages, and agreed to let Vance’s team use his factory.
Competition for sausage sales
Something which Vance worries about is the hole in the market which has been left by the absence of having his own factory. Describing himself as a person of colour, Vance laments that the hard work he’s expended to put himself on a level playing field with the predominantly white-owned businesses, who were his main competition in the food production industry, may well be wasted.
The Vaucressons had a hard fight to establish themselves in the market, and the plan is definitely to stay there. They’d like to do this through education, for both tourists and locals, and in a more informed society, thanks to the internet and travel guide books, it’s slowly starting to happen. People are less likely to come to New Orleans and make their regular choices, and are more open to trying out the real New Orleans’ history, culture and food, and getting to know the residents.
The unwanted “Ripple Effect” and the Creole community
One problem with making New Orleans a valued place to live and work is something that people in the UK call, the Ripple Effect. Wealthy people, usually white, started setting up home in the French Quarter, where the Vaucressons had their business. The Creole people were no longer able to afford the homes in their traditional suburb, and were pushed out into a less affluent area called the Treme. Over time, the ripple effect meant that the Treme area also became desirable to incomers, and the Creole people were pushed out again and again.
Very few Creole people remain in the neighbourhoods where their families historically originated, and with their departure from the Creole homelands, the traditions and culture of the Creole people have been displaced as well. This also impacted on the Vaucresson family, when their restaurant closed down in the 1970s, after Vance’s father realised that Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was no longer the happy, family friendly place it had once been.
Vance Vaucresson: Fighting back the “Ripple Effect”
Determined not to lose the company’s Creole roots, Vance has vowed to rebuild his factory right in the centre of Creole country, hoping to bring a bit of traditional New Orleans Creole life back to the heart of its former home. He wants his employees, tourists and corporate visitors to learn what New Orleans Creole stands for, both in the past and in the future. Vance is determined that the Creole people hold firm in their heartlands, and maintain their traditions. He has no problem with incomers who respect and integrate into the Creole way of life, and want to be a part of the process which helps them to become Creole, rather than newcomers displacing the Creoles’ way of life.
These traditional values apply to the way Vance conducts his business. He insists on the seasonings being the same that the Creole cooks would always have used and had access to – Cayenne pepper, garlic and onion are especially important. One of the restaurants which Vaucresson supplies have been serving their products for more than 75 years, because they believe that they’re an authentic representation of the taste of Creole food of the past. Ever the innovator, Vance is already experimenting with ingredients like crayfish and poultry-based sausages, made from chicken and turkey meat.
The future of the Vaucresson authentic Creole sausage
Vance has also got his eye on the future. He’s two-thirds of the way to being able to pay for his own factory, and hopes to have the final third soon. Until then, he’s somewhat limited by his shared facilities. There are currently 35 products which he can pick and choose from when it comes to manufacturing, but, only eight which he can make consistently. He’s counting down the days until he can get back to his own factory, when he hopes to make cheeses and their version of chorizo, called Chorise. At the moment, he’s only able to sell and deliver locally, but with his own factory up and running, he’s planning to get into the export market and sell the Vaucresson sausages all over the world.
Since the passing of his beloved father in 1998, Vance has worked hard to ensure that the family business continues to evolve into something his forbears would be proud of. The determined spirit of the Creole people in the face of both natural and unnatural disasters will surely keep Vance’s Vaucresson Sausage Company legacy alive for many generations to come.