Fortunate Circumstances Founded Magic Seasoning Blends

A blend of fortuitous circumstances 22 years ago resulted in the founding of New Orleans-based Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning Blends.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Chef Paul Prudhomme relaxes in his backyard.

When Chef Paul Prudhomme expanded from all-star chef of K-Paul's to a provider of all-natural seasoning blends, sauces, marinades and seasoned and smoked meats (andouille and tasso), the timing was perfect. By making the seasonings that took the nation by storm available for retail, foodservice and industrial applications, Paul forged new territory in bringing restaurant-quality flavors from chef to shelf.

Not since chef Hector Boiardi became Chef Boyardee about 30 years before did a "name" chef retool recipes for the home cook with such phenomenal success. "Chef Paul" was one of the first to do it from scratch, though. Unlike Boiardi who came out of a large hotel with its backing and blessing, Paul had one unaffiliated restaurant. Prudhomme also went that extra — and more difficult — mile by making his product line without MSG, additives or preservatives.

From that tiny local operation, Magic Seasoning Blends has grown to 65 employees and international distribution to 30 countries. Prudhomme consults with restaurant chains and large food manufacturers around the world to develop complete or selective menu items and specialty dishes. He and his team of five product developers and three gurus in the R&D kitchen can also create specific flavor profiles or duplicate existing ones.

"I suspect that Chef Paul was a chemist or a doctor in another life," confides Shawn McBride, president and CEO. Friends since he was 14 and she was nine, McBride confesses, "We've not grown old together, just grown up together."

"I'd been using blends for years," says Prudhomme, when asked what inspired him to start the company. "I started making them for the cooks that worked with me because if I gave them six different seasonings for a recipe, they'd never measure. For consistency in the restaurant, I started blending them. Then we started developing individual blends because local customers would ask to buy them after eating at K-Paul's. Sally, one of our waitresses, drew a cartoon of me for the label and taped it to a plastic bag. As they began to sell, we put the blends in bottles and glued the labels on." Soon a labeling machine was needed.

"A friend of mine was in the restaurant business, but his restaurant failed," says Prudhomme. "I suggested he sell our blends. He put them in grocery stores and a few months later he came back and said he needed a truck to distribute them outside of New Orleans. Rather than buying a truck, we decided to get a distributor."

Chef Paul says the key to the company's success is that the blends are consistent, balanced and make foods taste better. "If we could make them for the same price as others out there, they'd be even more popular," he adds. "But we prefer to sell fewer products of higher quality. Everything that goes in the blender or a container is tasted first. Before we buy individual ingredients we taste them. After they are put together as a blend, we taste them again. Then it goes to quality control and manufacturing and after they approve it, it's tasted yet again. If there's any doubt, we put it aside and taste it again. After the taste tests, we go to storage tests, moisture control and shelf-life testing."

Magic Seasoning Blends has grown to include dozens of products, distributed in 30 countries.

McBride points out large companies have come to the realization that for just a few pennies in large batches, seasoning can make frozen food taste much better. "Anybody can make a small batch of food taste good, but when you manufacture 5,000 pounds of something it's a different story."

McBride says manufacturers don't have time to let food slow cook and that's where the flavor is developed. "We've worked with companies that make 5,000 gallons of food that has to be out of the kettle in one hour. Our challenge is to work with companies to get the product to taste the way it did in small batches."

Since 1985, Japan has been a top market for Magic Seasoning Blends products, though its distributor Matsu Co. Ltd. "Our current distribution in the U.S. is about 40 percent retail and 60 percent foodservice," says McBride. "With expanded manufacturing capabilities, the company produces custom blends, bulk sizes, contract packaging and co-branding with other food companies, as well." But there are challenges of bringing them to the mass market.

"Controlling the quality is one of the hardest things to do when buying millions of pounds of spices and herbs per year," says Prudhomme. "The other problem is that fluorescent lights in supermarkets change the color of spices – they fade." That's the reason, he explains, they are packaged in jars and boxes.

"When you season steaks and freeze them, it doesn't work well," says Prudhomme. "The proteins and the acids in the meat work on the seasoning. So what we're doing with steaks is giving the manufacturer steak seasonings in a sealed package that the customer can sprinkle on at the last minute. We found while working with large companies that this technique works very well with seafood and vegetables as well." 

Everyone on staff comes up with ideas for new products and blends. "Research shows that salmon is one of the healthiest foods to eat," says McBride. "The idea for Salmon Magic, one of our newest products came from John McBride, [her husband and] vice president of sales and marketing."
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