Blue Runner Foods for decades fixed red beans for cooks who didn’t have the time or impulse to simmer beans from scratch.
The cans in the distinctive blue and white labels provide an easy solution, just heat and eat. But now the company is expanding not by selling convenience but by harkening back to traditional Louisiana cooking. Blue Runner wants not just to be the canned bean company but also the choice for consumers who buy and cook dry beans.
“We would like to be the red bean company, whether cooked or dried,” said Katie Thomas, vice president of operations, whose father Richard Thomas purchased the company in 1993.
In getting into the dry beans business, Blue Runner is pushing into a market many associate with another company that has as established a south Louisiana pedigree as themselves: L.H. Hayward and Co. of New Orleans, with its familiar Camellia beans.
“We always take any type of competition seriously,” said Jessica Wilson, sales and marketing coordinator with L.H. Hayward, who also noted that the company has been selling dry beans to consumers since 1923.
Poppy Tooker, the New Orleans-based host of “Louisiana Eats!” the National Public Radio member-affiliated weekly show, called the new entrant into the Louisiana dry beans market a fascinating development.
“It’s almost like going back into the future,” Tooker said.
In New Orleans, where the Camellia brand is the top dry-bean seller, “nine out of 10 people are still cooking dry beans” and Mondays are still “red beans and rice days” for home cooks and restaurants, Tooker said.
But Tooker also gave props to the Blue Runner product, saying the beans are “absolutely the best way (for home cooks) to serve red beans and have everybody think they’ve been cooking all day.”
Wilson, of L.H. Hayward, said that over the company’s 90-year history, it has helped build the Monday red beans and rice tradition.
“We’re a huge staple” in the Gulf South, she said.
Blue Runner is initially keeping the dry beans distribution — which includes both red and navy beans — to stores in southeastern Louisiana, Katie Thomas said.
“We have to order our beans six to seven months out before (the growers) even plant” so the initial rollout was conservative. Blue Runner sells canned beans throughout the Gulf South and in parts of the East Coast and the Midwest, she said.
But the Gonzales company expects its dry line business to grow.
The business in fact recently came before the Gonzales Planning and Zoning Commission seeking site plan approval for a 15,000-square-foot storage and distribution building going up at its facility, a $2 million investment driven by its expanding lines.
The commission has recommended that the City Council approve the plans.
The Blue Runner company, which sells 15 different varieties of canned beans, has roots back to 1918, and its blue and white buildings on Burnside Avenue in Gonzales are well-known landmarks.
The addition of dry product lines to its canned items is the second time the company has added something to its plate in recent years.
In 2011, the company rolled out a line of Creole meal bases — to which home cooks can add rice and meat or seafood — that includes gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée and bisque.
Richard Thomas and Luis Ramoz, vice-president of production, worked for about a year on the recipes in the Blue Runner test kitchen.
“We started in gumbo pots, then went to 10-gallon, then 300-gallon” kettles to tweak proportions and spices, Ramoz said.
After the Blue Runner Creole bases appeared on grocery shelves four years ago, Katie Thomas said management named 2011 the year “we put every Louisiana dish in a can” and said, “What’s next?” “We do an annual managers’ meeting and someone said ‘dry beans,’ ” she said.
Thomas said the company has expertise in dry beans going back many years and with the same growers.
“We were always buying them, we know what makes a good dry bean. It’s something we’ve always done,” Thomas said. “It’s just a matter of selling them to the consumer instead of cooking them ourselves.”
Part of the decision to add the dry beans lines was something else new at Blue Runner — a $250,000 computerized machine that sorts, cleans and polishes the beans. The company purchased the machine last fall and got up and running in December.
“We were sorting by hand. With the machine, we can sort 18,000 pounds (of beans) an hour versus 16,500 per day with six employees,” Ramoz said.
No employees lost jobs with that switch to automation, and the company has hired two more employees, for a present total workforce of 32 people since it began processing and selling dry red beans and navy beans, he said.
The company’s increasing move to automation has been a plus for employees, Ramoz said.
“With technology you have to invest in a lot of training with employees,” he said.
“We do a lot of cross training. It’s not, ‘This is going to be your job the rest of your life,’ ” Ramos said. “If you’re happy, you’re going to enjoy your job.”
Blue Runner canned red beans have always been the company’s No. 1 item, Thomas said, but the company has seen a little decline there, “almost a move away from red beans being a Louisiana tradition.”
“ ‘How can we keep that?’ ” company leaders asked themselves, she said.
In response, Thomas said Blue Runner has started to market “red beans in general, the memories.”