A native New Orleanian, Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
At 31, Pepper Baumer may seem a little young to be at the helm of a near century-old company, but in the eyes of all who know him, he was the perfect choice when last fall he stepped up to become president of Baumer Foods.
His fitting moniker predates birth, when his grandmother, Dottie Brennan, decided if her daughter, Brenne, and Al Baumer Jr. were to have an Al III, she would call him “Pepper.” The predestination of Pepper’s name originated in 1923 when his paternal grandfather, Al Baumer Sr., purchased Mills Fruit Products, a company chiefly known for snoball syrups. Within the company’s archives, however, Baumer Sr. discovered a formula for Crystal Pure Louisiana Hot Sauce. It was a discovery that would change the family’s destiny. That simple combination of stone ground cayenne, vinegar and salt still dominates the company’s sales today.
Al Baumer Jr. began working in the family business at the tender age of 10. Soon after, his dad was cited by the U.S. Labor Department, when an official spotted the precocious youngster working the company’s switchboard. From running the production line to operating forklifts, loading railroad cars and even driving 18 wheelers, Al Jr. did it all before assuming the reins at Baumer Foods in the 1980s.
Tragically, Pepper Baumer lost his mom, Brenne, to a sudden heart attack in 2004. Baumer remembers the entire Brennan clan providing support. “When I lost my mom, I gained eight moms,” he said. Throughout high school, countless time was spent with cousins under the watchful gaze of the Brennan aunts and uncles.
His closest advisor has been his aunt, Ti Martin. After Baumer graduated with a degree in restaurant and hospitality management from the University of Alabama, Martin recommended he intern at the Idea Village and with Mark Romig at the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corp. to learn about entrepreneurship and the city. When he asked for a job at Commander’s Palace, she warned him, “You’re starting at the bottom. You’ll be first in the dining room and the last out.”
Eventually, Baumer’s hard work and enthusiasm were rewarded with a desk in Martin’s office.
“He would work mornings with me and evenings in the restaurant,” she remembered. “Countless times, he would stand behind my desk and say, ‘Question?’ He’s like a sponge, with remarkable intellectual curiosity.”
Martin shared the business financials with him as Baumer learned the art of negotiation, silently sitting in on company conference calls. Every afternoon at 3 p.m., he and his great-aunt Ella would pore through The Wall Street Journal together, discussing business situations from every angle. “In essence, I received the equivalent of an MBA at Commander’s, with Ti and great-aunt Ella serving as my professors,” Baumer said.
But even as a small child, Baumer had been quick to insist, “One day, I’m going to be in the hot sauce business.”
After two years at Commander’s, Al Baumer Jr. welcomed him into the family business. There, he would work alongside many long-time employees of Baumer Foods. Al Jr. quickly informed his son that intelligence and a strong work ethic would not be enough to make it in the family business.
“You’ll have to earn their respect as a person,” he advised.
Baumer Foods Vice President of Operations Doug Wakefield and Vice President of Sales Michelle McDaniel attest he’s done just that.
“You can tell a lot about people from their questions,” said Wakefield. “He asked a lot of questions.”
“He’s listened, learned and respected everyone’s position and years of experience,” added McDaniel.
McDaniel said she has fond memories of Baumer as a toddler who would always visit her desk for the strawberry jelly cookies she kept there. When teased about it back then, she’d say, “One day, he’s going to be my boss!” The day he arrived to work at Baumer, McDaniel was ready with a bag of jelly cookies.
Martin has high expectations of Baumer Foods’ young president.
“I fully expect Pepper to be a force in his industry and in his city,” she said. “He has the fire in his belly to push his business and beloved brand, along with the heart to help and lead our community. He is one of my life’s greatest joys.”
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.