Paul Ballard fell in love with PJ’s Coffee as a student at Tulane in the late 1980s, while hanging out at the flagship Maple Street coffee shop near campus. He and his then-girlfriend, Torry, now his wife, would purchase their first PJ franchise in the early 1990s.
Some 30 years later, Ballard Brands, which Paul co-owns with his brothers Scott and Steve, owns PJ’s Coffee, along with three other brands: WOW, a fast-casual restaurant chain; New Orleans Roast, a packaged coffee company; and Ideation Hospitality, a Philadelphia-based restaurant group.
Covington-based Ballard Brands is perhaps one of the area’s best-kept business secrets, an underrated company that has quietly grown over the past 15 years and now has 50 employees. , more than 700 workers across its operations and revenues. over $100 million.
In this week’s Talking Business, Paul Ballard discusses how the Ballard brothers expanded their brands across the country and whether Louisiana has the resources to help food companies grow and go national.
Many people probably don’t know the story of Ballard Brands. How did you and your brothers come to own four different food businesses?
My wife and I opened our first PJ’s store in Covington in the 1990s. Then my brothers bought a PJ’s franchise for Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So we were all PJ’s franchisees. At the time, we were also Smoothie King franchisees. Then in 2001, I started WOW, and the brothers joined us. But as we grew it started to get a little confusing – we were franchisees of PJ’s but franchisors of WOW. Meanwhile, PJ founder Phyllis Jordan had sold her majority stake in the company to Raving Brands in Atlanta, which had moved the headquarters there. So in 2008 we got organized and that year we – Scott, Steve and I – decided to buy pajamas and bring them back to New Orleans and really grow Ballard Brands. That same year, we launched New Orleans Roast. Our intention was for this to be our line of packaged coffees for grocery stores, while PJ’s would be our coffee brand. It worked really well and New Orleans Roast is an awesome brand that has really grown.
Is this the same cafe – New Orleans Roast and PJ’s?
PJ’s is rather single-origin. With New Orleans Roast, we make mixes that people love. We have a smaller amount of SKUs (individual products) under the New Orleans Roast label, whereas with Pajamas we have Guatemalan, Sumatra, French Roast, etc.
What is the footprint of Ballard Brands?
PJ’s has 160 locations, including 14 company-owned stores in the New Orleans area, and WOW has about 50, including a company-owned store in Baton Rouge. WOW is in 30 states and PJ’s is in over 20 states. Most of the geography is the southern United States. We have grown regionally and externally. Our fastest growing markets are Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. We are also starting to expand into Virginia and Maryland.
What do your franchisees do?
We have 100 franchisees and 40% are multi-owners. The average unit volume for the top 25% of our franchisees is over $910,000 per year, which is exciting for us. It means we are playing at a high level.
Why did you start WOW, a fast-casual chain dedicated to serving up classic American fare, when you live in one of the world’s most unique and iconic foodie cities?
When I was in Tulane, I worked at Rosie’s on Tchoupitoulas Street, and we would bring out chicken wings late at night and I always enjoyed them and loved seeing how people liked them. New Orleans didn’t have chicken wings back then, just as hard to believe today, and that inspired me. So my friend George Rhode, who was the sous chef at Commander’s Palace and who was the chef at Al Copeland, collaborated with me and we opened WOW. Then my brothers joined, and it really took off.
Louisiana is known for its great food, but to scale up food and restaurant concepts, conventional wisdom says you have to go to Dallas, where they have the talent and infrastructure to grow food businesses. Why did you stay in the state?
New Orleans has some of the best talent in the world, and I am a student of some of the people who came before us – not just restaurateurs like the Brennans, but also the Copelands and Ruth Fertel of Ruth’s Chris. These brands are what inspired me and my brothers to really look at what brands can do. I think we have an advantage because there is talent here and I think we can evolve. It is true that Dallas, Orlando and Tampa have good infrastructure for middle management and supply chain and New Orleans could do a lot more in this area. We could use more assets in the region. But in terms of talent and ability, I think we can and have successfully operated in the New Orleans market.
What are the biggest pressure points you are facing right now?
Supply chain issues have been a challenge for everything – coffee, cups, packaging. Everything was disrupted. We have to be creative in trying to find sources. Inflation has also impacted us. From a PC’s perspective, we’re resilient because the consumer is committed to affordable luxury, which is coffee, and we have an accessible price that we try to meet. But going forward, we’re doing things with automation and development, both with our roaster and with technology and consumer communication around drive-thru and point-of-sale systems for make us more efficient so we can attract more people because the margins have tightened.
How do you deal with labor shortages?
We have particularly felt the effects of labor shortages with our WOW restaurants. It was much more difficult for them to recruit employees. More recently we’ve seen them start to come back, but we’ve really had to rethink the way we do things, especially when it comes to timings and being more flexible with timings.
In addition to the three local brands, Ballard acquired a Philadelphia-based catering company, Ideation Hospitality, in 2018. How’s that going?
It’s good. Ideation Hospitality was originally the Garces Group, founded by Jose Garces, who was a Food Network iron chef. With this, we acquired 15 restaurants under several different brands that operate in the Northeast – Philly, New York and New Jersey. Along with that, we also acquired the fast casual taco chain Buena Onda, which really caught our eye. We started franchising it this year and also opened branches. It’s a Baja-style taco concept – seafood, shrimp, and fish tacos – and we hope to bring it to the New Orleans market in 2024.
What keeps you up at night?
We have capacity issues with our roasting operations, so we are looking at ways to expand them. It’s a good problem to have. The other is the economy and hope inflation cools. Construction and material costs continue to be a challenge, but we continue to grow, which is great.