Through an unwavering focus on impeccable quality, Camellia brand beans have become synonymous with a favorite Southern staple.
New Orleans is a city steeped in ritual. There are different versions of the popular myth explaining how ‘red beans and rice’ – a creamy stew of red beans, herbs and (traditionally) dodgy ham over rice – became a Monday staple. One claims that after serving big Sunday meals with ham, New Orleans residents used the leftovers the next day to make hearty stews. Another speculates that because families did their laundry on Mondays, kidney beans would be simmering on the stove, ready to eat at the end of an exhausting day of chores. In the past, large log fires were needed to do laundry, and it would have been efficient to cook a large pot of red beans and rice at the same time.
One thing that is undisputed, however, is that the most common kidney beans used to make the dish are those from Camellia Brand. For 99 years it has belonged to the same family, the Haywards. From its humble beginnings as a purveyor of dry and fresh produce to the city’s French market, to its ubiquitous presence in Southern grocery stores today, the company has steadily earned a reputation for consistently offering beans of high quality to restaurants and home cooks. . Beloved New Orleans restaurants use Camellia brand beans to create their versions of classic Southern dishes like kidney beans and rice. The camellia is so ingrained in the city’s food culture that the Southern Food and Beverage Museum’s exhibit on Louisiana includes a section on the brand’s history.
“We have a big commitment to our customers and the people of the city, and it’s a big responsibility, it’s a huge responsibility. And so we always take that very seriously,” said Vince Hayward, fourth-generation owner and current CEO of the company. “We are very lucky to have a very dynamic and loved brand and company, but it took 100 years to get there. … It wasn’t an overnight success.
New Orleans cuisine is an expression of the cultures and peoples who passed through the city: French and Spanish settlers, enslaved Africans, Native Americans. According to Liz Williams, founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, recipes for kidney beans and rice began appearing in cookbooks in the late 19th century. West Africans have a tradition of eating legumes with rice, while Native Americans have long known the favorable conditions for growing beans in the local soil. Red bean and rice preparations also use a seasoning base similar to French mirepoix, known as “Holy Trinity”: onions, celery, and peppers.
Camellia’s history follows a similar pattern: Sawyer Hayward was the first to arrive in New Orleans from Bermuda in 1836, and was successful in the agricultural trade. Around this time, the local demand for dried beans began to grow. He started selling dried goods and products to retailers in the French market. In 1923, Hayward’s grandson, Lucius Hamilton Hayward Jr., founded Camellia, focusing the company on beans and naming it after his wife’s favorite flower. Later, his son Gordon came up with the idea of wrapping the beans in individual cellophane bags, creating the company’s quintessential product.
The brand distinguishes itself by sourcing from farms that produce high quality beans. In the bean industry, legumes are graded by the USDA based on their quality, such as the amount of defects or foreign matter present in them. Camellias are consistently superior to the finest quality, earning them the nickname “Hayward Standard”. In the company’s main warehouse, located just outside the city center, beans are sorted by six machines to remove dirt, stones and under-qualified beans. Vince said: “One of the things that sort of sets us apart as a customer of these farmers is that we’re extremely selective in what crops we’re willing to accept, so we’re very picky.
Over the generations, the family has nurtured relationships with farmers across the country. “It’s two people doing business versus two companies doing business,” Vince said. In the previous generation, his uncle Ken managed the relationship with the farmers while his father, Rick, refined the production process. Rick has always enjoyed working with machines; he took electrical engineering and computer science courses in college. At Camellia, he wrote the first computer programs to manage the company’s invoicing.
Rick said he hopes to pass on this lesson to Vince: “Being a family business owner is stewardship – something you take care of.” At the same time, managing the opinions of different family members is one of the hardest parts of running a family business, but Vince said he doesn’t want it any other way. “We couldn’t just sell this business,” he said, adding that an outside company wouldn’t “run it with the care and concern and the kind of delicate nature that it really, really needs.” . IIt takes a lot of expertise to maintain quality. “When people buy our product and cook it, … they’ll have a similar experience every time,” Vince said.
Every generation has its challenges. Decades ago, it was difficult to find staff when senior managers started to retire. Now, introducing the brand to the next generation of consumers is a new business. “The marketing and sales departments – we didn’t have those before,” said Ken, who is still a senior adviser at the company. Vince, meanwhile, hopes the business will “stay consistent with our authenticity and our roots.”
A piece of camellia is always with him. “There’s a blurry line between who I am and who the business is, so if I were to give up on this business, it would be like giving up a part of me.”
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.