Dixie Beer is back, and in a big way.
The century-old New Orleans company, bought last year by Saints owner Tom Benson and now led by his widow, Gayle Benson, unveiled plans Tuesday to open an 80,000-square-foot brewery and restaurant in New Orleans East.
Backers hope the project will not only help revive the historic brand but also serve as a catalyst for economic development in the hard-hit neighborhood.
“I am so thrilled to stand here today and represent (Tom's) vision to bring Dixie Brewing Co. back to New Orleans, where it belongs,” Gayle Benson said in front of a few dozen local officials and business leaders gathered for the announcement.
Dixie’s new facilities are expected to cost between $30 million and $40 million and could be ready within two years, officials said.
The brewery will be built at the site of the former MacFrugal's distribution center on Jourdan Road, which burned down nearly two decades ago. The 35-acre site was later transformed into a production studio for FilmWorks New Orleans.
Dixie had largely fallen out of sight before Tom Benson bought it last year. From the start, the Bensons were optimistic about building a facility that would allow Dixie to be brewed in New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, rather than under contract by a brewery in Wisconsin.
Bringing the brewing process back within the city limits was long viewed as an important step in reviving Dixie, a historic brand, rich with nostalgia, that was once a major player in the city's bustling beer industry.
The new brewery is expected to include a museum that will celebrate the city’s beer-making history as well as offer tours for visitors.
Company officials hope to attract 50 to 100 visitors a day and are exploring ways to offer transportation for tourists from downtown hotels.
At a news conference Tuesday to announce the project, Gayle Benson was joined by Mayor LaToya Cantrell as well as Dennis Lauscha, who serves as president of the Saints and Pelicans franchises, and Kendra and Joe Bruno, who acquired Dixie in 1985 and retained a minority stake in last year's sale.
Benson became the controlling owner of Dixie as well as the Saints and Pelicans after her husband's death in March.
Dixie officials said the available space at the site would allow the brewery to host special events like concerts, as well as retain the option to someday expand the beer-making operation.
The site is also adjacent to Crescent Crown Distributing, which has distributed Dixie for decades.
“It’s a great location. We have a tremendous amount of space, so that we believe that we can really grow and do well here,” Lauscha said.
At this point, Dixie has about 15 employees, Lauscha said, a number that is expected to grow to 60 or 70 once the new facility opens. In the long term, it could surpass 100, he said.
Lauscha declined to offer sales details but said that Dixie has grown since last year, with expanded sales now in parts of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. Getting into the Houston market is next on the list.
Along with Jax Brewery and Falstaff Brewery, Dixie was once a key cog in the city's bustling beer industry. At the time of the 2005 storm, it was the last privately operated regional brewery in the South.
Under Benson’s ownership, the beer has been brewed in Memphis, Tennessee, where the process was overseen by the company’s own in-house brewmaster. The beer is also now brewed using the original Dixie recipe, something the faltering company had gotten away from over time to save money.
By the time Kendra and Joseph Bruno acquired the business in 1985, Dixie's Mid-City brewery had already fallen into disrepair. Twenty years later, Katrina's floodwaters finished off the Tulane Avenue brewery, which stewed in 10 feet of water.
After a two-year absence from store shelves and a temporary stop in St. Tammany Parish, Dixie found a home brewery in Wisconsin for several years.
On Tuesday, Gayle Benson credited the Brunos for their years of actively looking for a buyer who was willing to reopen a brewery in New Orleans — a precondition of any potential deal.
“This day would not have been possible without the passion and dedication of our partners and friends, Joseph and Kendra Bruno, who sacrificed so much to make sure that Dixie Beer survived,” Benson said.
Kendra Bruno at times grew emotional as she described the long effort to reopen locally and Dixie’s cultural and historical significance to the city.
Even with Tom Benson’s deep pockets, it would have been impossible to reopen the old Tulane Avenue brewery. Although the front façade was preserved, the site is now used as a research center in the new $1 billion Veterans Affairs Medical Center — a fact that Kendra Bruno said she grieves over, saying it “still hurts my heart.”
But the new location in New Orleans East represents “a good synergy” that offers benefits of its own, she said.
“It’s not a compromise,” she said. “We simply had to find another place, and I think this is a great location. It’s got room to grow, and I really think we’re going to need a lot of room.”