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Great American BBQ Tour - Avery Island TABASCO Tour

April 6, 2009
Chris and I were lucky enough to get a private tour of the TABASCO® plant on Avery Island after our Hammond, LA competition. TABASCO® has been a part of the Great American BBQ Tour for the past two years but this was the first time we were close enough to take the tour. We knew it would be a special experience because a BBQ fan from last year loved TABASCO® so much that they named one of their kids “Avery”. We weren’t disappointed with our visit.

We spent the night in Broussard, LA. As we pulled into the hotel, we were stopped by security because the Nationwide PGA Tour had a stop in Broussard and was completing their final round at the country club next to the hotel. I guess we could have set up a special PGA demo, if they had asked. Who doesn’t love BBQ?

We got up early on Monday and trekked the thirty minutes or so to Avery Island. Besides just the TABASCO® factory, Avery Island is also home to Jungle Gardens and Bird City. This wildlife refuge encompasses about 250 acres on the Island. As we were driving down the road toward the plant, we noticed all the swamps and marshes that reminded us of a trip to South Florida that we took a couple of years ago.

We pulled up the Toll Booth for the island and were greeted by the smiling face of one of the employees manning the gate. That was the first of many wonderful people that we got to meet that morning. He directed us to the factory and we noticed the cottages and homes that were on the island. These homes are still being occupied by some of the current employees of the company. We met with Troy, the Vice President of Operations, for our tour. He showed us a picture of the island and pointed to a spot on the island that is the highest point in South Louisiana, 163 feet above mean sea level. They are currently in the process of building a levee around the plant in case of hurricanes, like Rita, which hit the gulf coast in 2005.

Our tour wasn’t available to the general public (just another job perk) and we walked into a warehouse with huge wooden barrels mixing the famous TABASCO® Pepper sauce. Troy let us know that the peppers are Capsicum peppers, which are all still grown for seed on Avery Island. The seeds are then planted in different locations, in case of disease or drought, and then the pepper mash is shipped back to the Avery Island factory for aging for three years in white oak barrels. This reminded us of our tour of the Jack Daniels plant in Lynchburg, where they store barrels in different places in case of catastrophe.

TABASCO® will not use wine barrels, as it is a kosher product. TABASCO® reuses the barrels and even chips them for use in your smokers. We saw a fresh barrel of the pepper mash and were even offered a taste (we passed but the smell was wonderful). The next part of the process was mixing in the high-quality distilled vinegar and screening out the skins, seeds and pulp over a 28-day process.

Our next stop was quality control, where they test the incoming mash and the completed product. It was interesting to see the ledger style notebook with handwritten notes on the counter. I bet this is how it has been done since 1868. I have worked for many different companies and noticed something a little different along the tour; all the employees were wearing TABASCO® branded clothing. It didn’t matter who it was. Everyone seemed proud to be working for the McIlhenny Company.

The next room on the tour was for production. This room had two lines of product running for their 5 ounce and 2 ounce bottles. I used to be the plant supervisor of an egg processing plant so this brought back a lot of memories. I believe Troy told us that they produce 700,000 bottles a day. That is a lot of pepper sauce! Each run went through an empty bottle getting labeled, filled, topped, sealed and then boxed at a high rate of speed. I took some pictures of the 5 ounce line but the 2 ounce line was just a blur. The TABASCO® Pepper sauce gets shipped to 160 different countries and the labels are printed in 22 different languages.

The next room included the finished product that was waiting for shipment and Troy told me that it was low due to the time of the month. There is a three-week turn around for product to be shipped internationally. When we talked about the product’s shelf life, we found that the product can be kept for over 5 years. With the amount of product that we saw being produced and shipped, I don’t think a bottle would last that long!

We have the little TABASCO® Chipotle bottles that we give out on the tour and we saw the machine that bottles these bottles. They can actually produce smaller batches of 100 bottles each with labels customized for special occasions. We saw some of the labels produced for wedding parties, companies and even some with the presidential seal for Air Force One when George Bush was president.

We spent some time visiting and looking at some of the black and white pictures from earlier days. One of the recent retirees had 23 years with the McIlhenny Company. When looking at one of the black and white pictures, we found someone with the same last name and realized that she was probably a second or third generation employee.

After the tour, we hit the Country Store and they even had TABASCO® Ice Cream there! Along with about every branded TABASCO® product you could think of. Billie of Do Rag BBQ would be glad to know that they even had a couple of “do rags” with that familiar TABASCO® diamond logo.

Before we left the property, the McIlhenny President and CEO, Paul McIlhenny or Mr. Paul as the ladies in the Country Store called him, pulled up and checked out the trailer with some of the other employees from the corporate office. We had a great time talking about our travels and all the positive responses that we have gotten about the TABASCO® brand Chipotle Pepper sauce on the road (people are always pleased after they taste the product during our demos).

If you are ever in South Louisiana, we highly recommend a trip to Avery Island for a wonderful look into the world of TABASCO®.

Mike & Chris Peters
Our Best of the Best 700 180 100+