Louisiana native trying to spice things up with his seasoning blends

Steve Tarter

Avery Soileau came to Illinois for the food. Not to pick up but to deliver.

"I found out that Illinois had more factories making food products than almost any other state," said Soileau (pronounced "swallow"), who arrived in central Illinois a year ago with plans to promote his "Bayou Blend" seasoning.

Being born and reared in Crowley, La., "the middle of Cajun country," gave Soileau the opportunity to develop his culinary chops at an early age, he noted during a recent demonstration of his products at Alwan and Sons meat market.

With his wife, Amy, Soileau served Alwan customers samples of chili flavored with his seasoning. In the process, his bottles of blended spices flew off the shelf. "I'm doing demos all the time," he said.

Now with 50 area stores selling his wares, Soileau has set his sights on the Champaign area. "We're in about 25 towns now with 50 outlets but we need more than that," he said.

To meet demand, Soileau plans to set up shop soon in a building in Middletown, southeast of Mason City, adding "It took every dime we had."

Meanwhile, he's been mixing his seasonings in the kitchen of the Arcade Cafe in Lincoln. Soileau said he's indebted to the cafe's owners, Sharon and Wally Brandt, for giving him the opportunity to get started.

"They said I could use their kitchen under one condition: I couldn't pay them anything," said Soileau, who added that his offer of free seasoning to the cafe owners was accepted. "They use it in their onion rings and all kinds of things," he said.

Soileau, 38, arrived in Illinois after living eight years in Bristol, Tenn., where he and his wife originally went "to get into the mission field but we never made it," he said.

After landing a job at the children's home in Bristol, Soileau landed on his back with separated discs. "I couldn't walk. I couldn't work. With four kids (ages 8 to 14), I had to do something," he said.

After being denied disability assistance, Soileau decided to put his seasoning on the market. In Bristol, Soileau made a hit with his special blend.

"I even had a chef put me on the public TV station down there. They had me make up my dirty rice recipe in a big black pot," he said.

While gaining public attention, Soileau wasn't achieving retail success. "The (Bristol) public library was selling my seasoning but I couldn't get it into the stores," said Soileau.

Having had a taste of the food business, he turned to the bright lights of Illinois.

"I contacted the office of ACH Foods near Chicago to see if they'd market my seasoning," he said, referring to the food giant with brands like Mazola corn oil and Karo syrup.

Instead of a contract, Soileau received a book from his contact at ACH entitled "Turn Your Ideas Into Dollars."

"I read it and decided to get busy," he said.

Soileau said he got out the telephone book and made cold calls to area businesses, asking them if they'd consider carrying his special blend. "People have been great here," he said. Some of the stores that now sell his seasoning in Peoria include Alwan's, the Raber Packing Co. on Farmington Road and Naturally Yours in the Metro Centre.

At the annual Illinois food product show staged each year in Springfield by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Soileau said, he sold more than 18 cases of the seasoning.

He doesn't mind taking on the competition with his product. "You take Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning. A lot of Cajun people use it. But mine has less salt, no fillers or sugar and no MSG," said Soileau.

One 3.5 ounce bottle of his blend, selling for $6.49, seasons 50 pounds of meat. "That's 100 hamburgers," he said.

Along with dispensing samples, the Soileaus also provide recipes to inspire Midwesterners to add a bayou flair to familiar foods. Recipes offer instructions on how to prepare bayou chips or popcorn, Soileau's chili mac and tropical bayou dip (blending cream cheese with pineapple and bayou seasoning).

Soileau hasn't set any limits on his spice trade. "I want to take this thing as far as I can go. I want to keep spreading out. Eventually, I'd like to establish something in my hometown," he said.

As sales increase, Soileau also looks to move out of the camper he and the family presently call home in rural Mason County. "I want to get us a house soon," he said.

Despite going to therapy two or three times a week for his back, Soileau said he feels fortunate.

"I'm thankful just to be walking and working," he said.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 orstarter@pjstar.com.