A chance to see a small private rice mill in operation? How could we turn that down? Jamie Gayle, of Duck Capital Computers and Patti’s Book Nook, managed to arrange a private tour for us of Stansel Rice Mill, and on Chelsea’s birthday, no less. Located only a mile north of Gueydan, the rice mill is set among rice fields, tucked back off a quiet road in a small community of a few houses and the rice mill.
Travis Richard now runs the rice mill that was started by his grandfather just over 50 years ago. It’s a low-key place, neat and clean and straightforward. The rice processing is in one building; the rice dryer is in another; and the office, silk-screening room, and packaging are in a third. We started out in the rice processing area, with Travis getting the machinery going for the day’s run.
With terms like “fumigate head rice – husk aspirator – rubber rollers – paddy separator – rice machine”, we were pretty overwhelmed with trying to remember it all and keep it straight. What impressed us clearly though, is the hands-on attitude that Travis has about the rice milling. He says that humidity and barometric pressure have a great deal to do with how the rice mills. Depending on the temperature, the rice and the mill both feel differently. Just like us, they have good days and bad days. Travis says their process is “designed to get your hands in it every step of the way”. He adds, “Computers can’t feel the food, they don’t have the life’s essence.” Instead, he “adjusts it right – by feel and by smell”.
The type of rice they grow and mill is Della rice. Travis told us that Della rice is one of the oldest rice varieties still grown in America. It’s considered an ‘aromatic rice’ and it’s a combination of basmati rice and long grain rice. When cooked, this rice expands in a manner similar to long grain rice (both directions). It becomes dry but the grains are separate, and rice devotees say that it has a natural flavor with ‘an aroma of roasted nuts’. Travis tells us that the Stansel rice has a light taste, it goes with anything, and it has a buttery aroma. It’s that buttery aroma that gives it the name “popcorn rice”.
The Stansel packaging is unique – all the rice is still packaged into cotton cloth bags. One of the mantras of Stansel Rice is “A woman never throws away a good cotton bag”. The cotton bags are far more expensive than other types of promotional materials, including business cards, but Travis is very clear that it’s their best marketing tool. Digging through a drawer to get a screw or a light bulb, a woman will come across the bag, remember Stansel Rice, and put in another order. It’s a marketing piece that doesn’t get used up and thrown away.
They screen-print their own bags right there on the premises. With a very simple design – blue letters on a white bag – they screen-print what they need, when they need it. They do create screen-print designs for bigger customers, and they do a Christmas bag for themselves. One of the walls in the main office hallway shows the clever items customers have created out of their cotton bags, from aprons to dolls. And when the screen-print presses aren’t being used for the bags, they work perfectly to heat the pizza for lunch.
The company and products
The company structure is just as straightforward as the milling and packaging processes. There’s an owner, a manager, and a secretary. If anyone is sick, the others take over the duties of the one who’s out. The work structure is very clear: on Mondays they fill orders; Tuesday – Thursday they mill; and Friday they clean.
They don’t take credit cards. They ship first and when the package is received the customer sends off a check. When questioned about how often they’ve not been paid, Travis replied, “It’s so rare that it’s not worth the hassle and expense of taking credit cards. It’s the old-fashioned way and we’ve found it works fine”.
In addition to selling about 350 tons a year of both white and brown gourmet rice, they sell rice flour, and their own patented low cholesterol fish fry (the only one on the market). They’ve also developed a ‘Clearly Cajun Hot Sauce’ complete with the garlic clove and red pepper in the bottle (we couldn’t resist getting a bottle for Alex).
Stores and restaurants are their customer base, with a 10 lb. minimum, and Stansel Rice has contracts they are required to fill. But they also have a healthy number of private customers who are dedicated to the Stansel Rice Mill, and are willing to wait up 6 months for delivery in case there’s a backlog.
Travis tells a few stories that are heartwarming. One is of an order that was shipped to Kosovo during the bombing and actually made it through – arriving on the 3rd day of bombing. The other is a story of a mom who ordered bags of rice for her kids as surprise gifts. There was a backlog on the orders at that time, so it was about 6 weeks before the order shipped. The mother died meanwhile, and a few weeks after her death, the rice packages arrived at her children’s doors. The kids told Travis it was like receiving a package from their mother from heaven.
It’s worth checking out the Stansel Rice website online, www.stanselrice.com. They’ve got Travis’s grandmother’s recipes (they look like great recipes); a list of products (you can order online); and a list of local Cajun products. We wish we could afford to carry the weight of the rice and the Clearly Cajun Hot Sauce on our bicycle trip!
Travis made sure we got our bag of rice a week or so later, and it was delicious, just as he had promised. We ate it over several meals with our freshly caught shrimp from Armand, seasoned with our bottle of Tony Chachere’s. And yes, we’re keeping the bag…