Along the Mardi Gras parade route, the quest to acquire a Zulu coconut has inspired theatrics, acrobatics, plenty of hollering and probably even some prayer.
Now the Zulu coconut has inspired a line of coffee blends, and a unique sponsorship deal between PJ’s Coffee and the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, one of the city’s most prominent Carnival krewes.
PJ’s is now marketing Zulu-branded coffee roasts and a coconut-flavored specialty coffee drink. In return, the New Orleans-based coffee brand has made a financial contribution to the nonprofit Zulu organization. The amount was not disclosed.
There will be no PJ’s branding on the Zulu’s Mardi Gras parade itself. That’s in line with a city ordinance prohibiting commercialization of Carnival parades.
It was also a key issue during discussions with PJ’s, according to Zulu President Elroy James.
“We take a lot of pride in our organization and its history,” James said. “The reason this worked for us is because the flavor itself is a tie-in to Mardi Gras; it puts more attention on our throws and on Zulu itself.”
Felton Jones, roast master for the coffee company, said the deal helps PJ’s by affiliating with an important facet of local culture.
Like many New Orleanians, Jones has his own history with Zulu. He watched the parade as a kid, and as a teen he marched with it as part of the color guard for the acclaimed St. Augustine High School band. As an adult, he’s ridden with Zulu on Mardi Gras Day.
Jones also feels that the partnership has benefits beyond the financial side.
“For me, the biggest part of this has been the exposure of the culture and history of Zulu,” Jones said. “Now that we can be a partner with them, we can help tell that story.”
Zulu sprang from the city’s African American community during the era of segregation, holding its first parade in 1909. Today, the nonprofit organizes events year-round, from its Zulu Lundi Gras Festival to distribution of holiday baskets for families in need.
James said PJ’s will be able to take part in events like these through its sponsorship.
In PJ’s cafes, the partnership takes the form of a new Zulu-branded coffee drink and a pair of bagged coffee blends. The Zulu Coconut iced mocha is an iced coffee with coconut flavor and a dose of chocolate Hershey’s Syrup, which is prepared in PJ’s cafés during Carnival season.
For the blends, one is a medium roast ground coffee called Zulu Blend; another dubbed Zulu Coconut adds roasted coconut flavor.
The coffees will be sold in all PJ’s locations beginning next month and distributed at groceries and other retailers (full disclosure: John Georges, owner of The Advocate, owns a PJ’s franchise).
The coffee bags bear an image of the Zulu king and painted coconuts, along with Zulu’s logo and a short explanation of the krewe’s significance.
Both Jones and James said the partnership was collaborative from the start, with officers of the organization attending tastings and giving feedback as PJ's developed products to bear the club’s name.
It was immediately clear to everyone, however, that coconut would be key.
“I’ve ridden Zulu, I’ve been king of Zulu. Whatever else we put on the float, the coconut is what people want,” James said. “It’s so entrenched to who we are as Zulu.”
Krewe sponsorships are not uncommon, said Carnival expert and commentator Arthur Hardy, though in New Orleans, with restrictions on advertising during parades, they tend to be behind the scenes. Hardy said the PJ’s and Zulu deal appears to be in line with similar sponsorships Zulu has previously made.
City ordinances bar advertising on floats, stipulating that “(n)o parade shall be of a commercial nature or convey a commercial message, corporate or commercial sign, logo or symbol.” There are a few exceptions written into the rules for float builder vehicles, convertibles carrying dignitaries and guests and horse- or mule-drawn carriages that were part of parades before 1984 (think Budweiser Clydesdales).
James said the krewe initially used sponsorships to help underwrite the costs of the reign for Zulu royalty and characters, like the Witch Doctor, Mr. Big Stuff and Big Shot. He said the krewe has more recently been looking at sponsorships as a way to market the organization, which is how the PJ’s deal came together.
“They are partners with us now, and that’s exciting,” he said. “We work hard, hard, hard to make sure we don’t lose what Zulu means to the community, and they understand that.”
Coconuts have been associated with Zulu for generations. Zulu parade riders must now hand them to people along the route, after liability issues arose over tossing the hard, burly little prizes. Painted and decorated, they remain highly sought-after keepsakes of Carnival.
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