Off the Charts

True Louisiana

Cajun and Creole foods have long been on the national radar, but outsiders are beginning to see our value beyond the kitchen.

Not too many years ago it might have been difficult to find true Louisiana culture beyond the state line. But today you can have an Abita with your boiled crawfish in Los Angeles, add a dash of Tabasco to your cracklins on Fifth Avenue in New York, and throw something to the screaming crowd from the Mardi Gras application for iPhone.

Cajun and Creole cultures have been around for hundreds of years, with hard-working people living meagerly, but always persevering. Facing opposition throughout the years, Cajuns and Creoles have managed to maintain much of the culture and traditions that were created hundreds of years ago with heavy emphasis on faith, family and food. From the beginning, we worked hard and played hard, and that still holds true today.

While Cajun and Creole foods have been on the national radar for many years, people outside the area are beginning to catch on that we've got a good thing going here beyond the kitchen. The Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission uses the Burrelles Luce index to track how many published articles include the words "Cajun" or "Lafayette." Over the last three years Lafayette has received more than $7 million worth of free advertising through articles written about the area.

In Acadiana, we will celebrate everything from andouille to zydeco - and there is usually a festival to commemorate it. A strong tourism base has developed locally because of this festival network, our indigenous culture, and the hospitality of Acadiana's residents. Many out-of-town visitors have heard stories from their friends and colleagues and choose to experience Louisiana and Acadiana first-hand. They find the stories of jam sessions on a porch, dancing in the streets, and delicious foods are a reality that they want to bring home with them when they leave.

Jimmy Guidry, head butcher at Don's Specialty Meats, has seen more and more customers from all across the nation coming in to fulfill their curiosities in the past few years. He says he has seen cars from California to North Carolina pull up to try a link of Don's famous boudin.

"A lot of people from up north are interested in our culture, the Cajun culture," Guidry says. "They want to know, What is boudin?' People from all over the country come in and say, Y'all need to come out there and open a location.'"

Hebert's Specialty Meats took the advice of visitors and opened a second location in Tulsa, Okla. Hebert's sells its famous deboned chickens and other Cajun treats and even serves authentic beignets and café au lait for Sunday brunch. It also ships all of its products to hungry customers all over the U.S.

Companies like these are exporting more than just good food. They are showing people that our quality of life is the same as the quality of our food, which is unique and full of flavor.

It's not just tourists who are coming back for a second look at Acadiana; business owners have taken note that Acadiana is a place where they want to do business. Through the years, LEDA has brought many prospects to the region. In 2009, at least three major out-of state businesses decided that Lafayette was a place they needed to be. Along with strong state and local incentives and a steady economy in the face of national economic woes, our Southern friendliness drew in FlightSafety International (corporate offices in New York), ATC Associates (headquarters moved from Massachusetts), and Pixel Magic (based in Los Angeles). They all expressed that one of the reasons for setting up shop in Lafayette was the people - for both our practical business expertise and our hospitality.

Recently, we've been getting some high-profile visitors with the wave of movies being filmed around Acadiana. We've heard from actors, producers and crews alike that Acadiana is one of a kind. And just like we do with our rice and gravy at Sunday dinner, they want to come back for seconds. That's no surprise; not only do we have a culture that needs to be experienced first-hand, but we also have the necessary support services, variety of locations, and technology in place that make shooting and editing in Lafayette and Acadiana practical and cost effective.

Today, visitors are interested in our food, our music, our hospitality, and our business. Our cost of doing business remains low, unemployment is below state and national numbers, and wage and job growth have been steady over several years. Lafayette is poised to welcome not only leisure travelers looking for a good time, but also business owners looking to make good business decisions. As the sign visitors see on I-49 says, "Bienvenue à Lafayette."

Gregg Gothreaux is president and chief executive officer of the Lafayette Economic Development Authority.