BATON ROUGE: SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY TO LSU
We started our morning back at Southern University by the Red Stick Monument, and Tom ran out of campus heading south. It’s Saturday and things are quiet on the campus—the stadium empty with Southern’s football team at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas this weekend for a big conference game. I watched Tom cross over the railroad and run down the Scenic Highway before heading on to find the exchange. Thankfully, traffic was light as the route took Tom past the Exxon/Mobil complex along the river. There isn’t much for pedestrian accommodations along this stretch, even after the turn onto Chippewa Avenue, but about a half mile after I took over I skated onto the Capitol plaza flush with sidewalks. Wide swaths of pavement were not the only thing in abundance this Saturday morning around the State Capitol, I suddenly found myself amidst droves of hot pink-clad power-walkers—I was crashing a breast cancer walk! My route was exactly theirs, and I coasted through their finish line at a double-time to their pace, garnering whoops and hollers through the official megaphone.
Now on the streets of downtown Baton Rouge, I made the turn to reach the levee path, and climbed up the hill. My race day wasn’t over, it seems, as I saw another throng of athletes in the distance. This time I appeared to be running against traffic. About a quarter mile ahead of me was the finish line, and streaming through were exhausted runners carrying large orange objects in their arms—this was unusual, to say the least. As I got closer and my eyesight improved, I noticed the objects taking a more defined shape. They were pumpkins! Incredible, I thought, as I wove through these accidents waiting to happen, giving them all a “good job runner” shout out as I passed. I continued to encounter more and more pumpkin carriers as I made my way down the levee path toward my destination, eventually exhausting them and exhausting myself as well. A flag pole finish line awaited me at the edge of LSU’s campus, there standing my mom, dad, and husband Tom, a great welcoming party after all the excitement.
We climbed down the hill and made a quick change in the van as usual before heading out the the Community Coffee Headquarters. Now, if you don’t know, Community Coffee is a Louisiana institution. I was raised on the stuff. I mean, even before I drank coffee, I was attached to that moment when my mom would cut open the vacuum sealed bag and the aroma of dark roast coffee would waft out. It was heaven. And now, living in Minnesota—actually ever since I moved away to college over 20 years ago—my mother has shipped me Community Coffee to drink. There’s just no replacement.
When we spoke about Community Coffee today with Donna Saurage and Candace Tucker, I learned that the reason this coffee is so rooted in my own family might have something to do with the fact that it was born out of another family, and that “family” is the atmosphere in which it is produced and shared.
Donna married into the Saurage family who started Community Coffee 100 years ago. She was just out of high school and jumped right into helping with the business, working in the Premium Store on riverside. They had premium coupons on the top of their bags that, like stamps, you could collect and go into the store and get lamps, towels, pots and pans, etc. Donna counted the coupons. It was just “a little lagniappe,” she said, “the beginning.” Now they have the UPC, the proof of purchase, on the bags, which are clipped for programs like “cash for schools.” In those early years, when Donna and Norman first got married, the company was very small, and Donna says she was working unpaid, doing things like arranging sales meetings and just anything she could do to help. She and Norman were very close and he would talk to her about everything, bouncing things off of her. Because of that, she always knew what was going on in the business, and she could validate his ideas or challenge him.
The sense of family doesn’t stop with the name Saurage, though. Candace Tucker, a communication specialist with the company, spent the afternoon with us as well. She says, “it goes both ways too because both Donna and Norman, they know our families our spouses, our kids, and they ask about them, always wanting to know, and so it’s kind of a give and take. It’s not just we’re a part of their family, they’re a part of ours.”
Candace will make ten years with Community Coffee in January. She has rotated through all sorts of positions, originally joining the company as Matt Saurage’s administrative assistant. Matt, Donna’s son, was president of the company at the time, and Candace was coming in with a degree in marketing from LSU. She spent almost eight years in an administrative role before moving into Human Resources and then Marketing, but she says she knew right away—in the second interview even—that there was something different about Community Coffee.
“Mr. Norman” interviewed her, she said, and some of the questions that he asked her weren’t necessarily about her skill set or what she was going to bring to the table, she said. He was interested in Candace herself. He asked her one particular question that she recalled—he asked her, “Do you drink coffee?” She was scared to death because she really didn’t drink coffee. She could hear her father in the back of her head saying, “just always tell the truth.” So she answered, “No sir I don’t really drink coffee.” And he replied, “That’s ok. Not a problem. Thank you for your honesty.” And they moved on. Candace was like, OK! Huge sigh of relief. And then he started asking her questions like, where did she see herself in five years—it was about her. Candace was like, “jeez!” Apparently that’s how he always was. He was interested in what’s next for you.
Candace told us when she changed roles, no longer supporting Matt, into more of the events and people-focused work, he called her and wanted to talk about it. He wanted to know if she was happy about it. Was she passionate about it? When she was able to tell him yes, he said, “OK. What can I do to help you?” This was her family.
Candace’s work is to extend this feeling of family to the rest of the employees at Community. To make the “community” of Community Coffee a very literal and real thing. She gets very exciting as she talks about the new employee orientation experience called “My First Cup.” It’s two days long and every single employee, whether you are at a manager or director level or you’re driving a truck or stocking a shelf in a warehouse, every single employee comes to headquarters and participates together. Candace explains, “they take a plant tour, they spend time with us, like it really sets the stage for what it means to work here, what it means to be part of this family because we are, we’re family. And so again, regardless of what part of the country you’re from or what position you’re in, you’re part of our family and you learn about this….”
At the orientation, Candace tells the stories that encapsulate the 100 year history of the company, how it evolved from when founder Cap Saurage was packaging the coffee to what they have today with “gable tops” and single serves, and how through time they’ve always been innovating. Each of their vice-presidents, even their presidents, spend time with their new hires, explaining the company, talking about their values, everything from financials to what their views on risk are and why they do certain things to make sure people are safe. They spend a good part of the day educating people about coffee—“It’s not just ok, here’s what’s in it and how you brew it. But it’s here’s where coffee started. You know, it was in five hundred AD that Kaldi was a goat herder and first developed coffee…”
Candace really gets rolling at this point with the history lesson, going into King Louis, South America and Brazil, the coffee plant itself… This brings us to the plant tour, that is the physical, mechanical plant there in Port Allen, where the employees meet Mr. Walt who has been roasting for thirty-something years and he shows them this huge roaster, pulling out a scoop and showing it to them. “It’s awesome,” Candace says. And then they walk through and see the packaging line in action before returning to the headquarters to actually taste different blends. They explore why Brazilian coffee taste different than Colombian coffee, and what about dark roast verses medium roast, and what about a competitor’s taste? This is new employee, or new family, orientation!
Candace and Donna welcomed us into the Community Coffee family this Saturday afternoon, sending us home with piles of coffee, a fresh-o-later, a book covering the history of Community, and just the kind of solid, warm feeling you get after drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. From there we headed back to downtown Baton Rouge to meet author Mary Ann Sternberg at the Starbucks in our hotel—perhaps now sacrilege to admit after our experience with Community! We’ll just say it was for a competitor tasting.
As soon as Mary Ann sat down with us on the patio outside, I asked if I could record our conversation—she quipped back, “Do you mind if I take notes on our conversation?” Mary Ann is a writer, and not just any writer, her subject area has consistently been the Mississippi River and the sites and experiences along the River Road in Louisiana. She told us that we were doing on the land what she has longed to do on the water, from the top all the way down. I immediately inquired if she meant by way of canoe! She shook her head no. “I can’t do that anymore,” she said. “I’m seventy-five years old. My days of canoeing, certainly on something like the Mississippi River, are DONE.” Well, that wasn’t entirely true, as she went on to tell us about a day trip she took by canoe with the well-know John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe out of Clarksdale, Mississippi. He and his team were making a voyage from Baton Rouge to the Mouth, and Mary Ann joined them on the day they traveled from the Sunshine Bridge to Paulina. The weather conditions were dreadful, she said, “but there were at least two places where you couldn’t see anything on the banks of the river except forest. That didn’t last terribly long but, you know, there you were and you thought you were really in the real river. It was terrific… You know, I thought where’s Mark Twain. He must be here somewhere.”
Mary Ann’s work writing about the Mississippi River in Louisiana has led to a variety of experiences that most people don’t get to have, but oddly enough, many which we shared thanks to our own journey. She has spent time on a tow boat pushing forty barges for a really long day just to get a sense of what that is. On that same canoe trip with John Ruskey, she discovered a place she never knew existed on the batture of the river there in Paulina, a campground set up for paddlers coming downriver, maintained by a Mr. Charlie Poche on his family land. She’s given voice to histories of a host of communities that were otherwise only housed in memories of people living there. According to Mary Ann, a lot of people living along the river now don’t have anything much to do with the river because of the levee. There’s no immediate interaction. Some people still fish in the river, she said, but there are very few people that get out in their little boats—the roads are now paved, so they can go to church in their car instead of paddling across the river.
From where we sat outside our hotel in downtown Baton Rouge, we could see the levee off in the distance and at least imagine the Mississippi River on the other side. We asked Mary Ann if there’s been any change in Baton Rouge, in her lifetime, in terms of people’s relationship to the river. “No,” she said, “because the levee was here, and they built a new bridge right before I got here.” She went on to explain that people just take the river for granted. Apparently the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, a local powerhouse for community change, had initiated a project that would create a batture park on the other side of the levee, with natural spaces and interpretation about the landscape as well as explication about what happens in flood season. People could have gone over and enjoyed the park and learned something about this great natural resource, but in the end the railroad running parallel with the river was an adversary to the plan. “This just would have been educational for people,” Mary Ann said in exasperation. “This is how your river behaves kind of thing, because people, you know, until the news tells you the river’s up within a foot of the top of the levee, nobody pays attention!”
While Baton Rouge has not always been Mary Ann’s home, it seems like the river has always been running through her veins. She grew up in New Orleans, and when I asked her whether she’d call Baton Rouge or New Orleans home, she meditated on the question for a few phrases before summing it up as, “Baton Rouge is home, but New Orleans is my soul.” We immediately told her we were going to quote her on that, and she said, “No! Don’t do that. If it gets back to Baton Rouge, I’ll get kicked out.” —I’m hoping everyone involved will be more forgiving now that it’s here in print! But back to Mary Ann’s origin story. New Orleans birthed her, then she left home for Vasser College in upstate New York. Entirely unprepared for the north, she started her first semester without boots. On the first snow she had to wrap plastic bags around her shoes. “It didn’t work well,” she plainly said. While she did end up adjusting to the cold—presumably buying some boots—the north didn’t have a hold on Mary Ann. After graduating from Vasser four years later, she ended up back in Louisiana, unlike her three children who have all moved away—at least from Baton Rouge. Why do you think this is, we asked. “Cause I made the stupid mistake of—their father and I made the stupid mistake of sending them off to college, and they saw the world and they kept going!” She went on to clarify that there’s apparently a perception that Baton Rouge is the way it was twenty-five years ago, and according to Mary Ann it really isn’t. It’s a lot better. There are still a lot of problems with the educational level, so there are an awful lot of people who are not working and don’t have the skills to be working. However, a lot of younger people have come in, she says, which is nice. A lot of it thanks to Teach for America. It would be nice if the town were more progressive, Mary Ann feels, but it’s not.
Change is hard to come by, and Mary Ann acknowledges that—“Oh sure. I’d like to make [Baton Rouge] broad-minded and tolerant and liberal and progressive and all with a sweep of my wand, but my wand broke.” And yet, if we don’t speak to the things that need change, and work toward them, … well we wouldn’t be us! So we asked Mary Ann, and she had several ideas that might not need a magic wand (we hope). She would like to change our appreciation of the river, which seems like something she actually is working on with the writing she has already published and continues to produce. Her hope for change in the education system feels connected to a realizable outcome—“so that everybody had a better shot at a better life.” Racial intolerance was last on her list, but perhaps only because it felt hardest to tackle.
In the end, we had perhaps found a kindred spirit in Mrs. Mary Ann Sternberg, another storyteller invested in place and people’s lives to create new relationships. Our Baton Rouge days have been spent with some wonderful new faces, now feeling more like family, and also my very real family—brother and his clan, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, many people coming together in this one of many homeplaces I claim in my home state.