(Photography by Don Kadair: Jay Ducote)
Kegs stacked atop cinderblocks prop up a caramel-colored, reclaimed wood desk where the three-person Bite and Booze team types, feverishly writing new blog posts, answering emails, selling sauces and posting to social media.
Chef, writer, speaker, culinary personality and food blogger Jay Ducote sits on the other side of the room in the only other chair available: a faux cow skin-covered accent chair—complete with ottoman—squeezed next to a cabinet doubling as a makeshift bar. It is packed with a variety of craft and high-end whiskeys.
He lets out a modest chuckle, glancing from side to side at his compact operation. The roughly 150-square-foot office belies the substantial growth his business has experienced over the years—particularly since Ducote finished as runner-up on Food Network Star last summer.
During and after the show, his three employees say, business has been booming and fans are vying for Ducote’s attention everywhere he goes. The team still finds it hard to acclimate to Ducote’s newfound celebrity status—particularly given that just two years ago, he was still a one-man show.
“Not many people could handle that,” says Bite and Booze’s Content Sheriff and Warden of the Web [her actual title] Sydney Blanchard, who is responsible for managing blog and social media content. Blanchard started with Bite and Booze as an intern in 2015 and was hired on as Ducote’s second full-time employee in May to handle the influx of business. She describes Ducote as “endlessly patient” and the most “extroverted extrovert,” explaining that both are keys to his success.
While many around him attribute his success to his likability combined with his culinary and communication skills, Blair Loup, hired as Ducote’s first full-time employee in 2014 with the title of chief confusion coordinator and spin doctor, says the reasons for Ducote’s popularity go much deeper.
“A huge part of his success as a businessperson, not as a food person or a blogger, but as someone who has business skills, is that his brain never stops turning,” Loup says. “He’s always thinking things out in great detail.”
Blanchard agrees that most people never experience that part of Duocte. “People see the side of Jay that is a fun food guy, but Jay has a master’s degree,” she adds.
After trying his hand as a math teacher, a baseball coach and then working in health care grant writing and policy research, Ducote’s creativity combined with his love for tailgate cooking and culinary culture laid the foundation for his blog and have since translated into much larger successes.
BEGINNINGS OF A BRAND
With degrees in political science and economics, a minor in business and a master’s degree also in political science, Ducote was well on his way to living his 9-to-5 life from a cubicle each day. To fill the time between tasks at his desk job in 2009, he began to write about the part of his day he enjoyed most: lunch.
“I never really thought of it as a blog,” Ducote says. “I just kind of thought of it as a way to document where I was eating so I could keep track and try to eat somewhere different every day.”
But then people read it. Soon after, they commented. So Ducote commented back. He named it Bite and Booze simply because he liked the alliteration. Eventually, he created Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. People followed. He followed them back. He began to learn about what other food bloggers were doing and developed a niche for himself in the Baton Rouge community as the culinary personality for all things crafted and local.
His voice was fresh and friendly, and his content unique to the Baton Rouge market.
What began as Ducote’s modest hobby has since grown into a culinary media company and a product line beloved by Baton Rougeans near and far.
With the right formula, business savvy bloggers like Ducote are able to develop their craft into a full-time job capable of earning a six-figure salary. Whether the topic is food, fashion, business or politics, the best bloggers amass a following as a result of their brand and their voice conveyed through their writing and social media channels.
That following then begins working for them. By incorporating various revenue streams through ad networks, sponsored content, affiliate links (links directly to products the blogger is using in photos or posts and pay the blogger a commission for products sold) collaborations with other brands, e-books, or through the development of other products consistent with their brand, bloggers like Ducote undergo a natural evolution from writer to entrepreneur. However, success hinges on the power of the brand.
Ducote makes it look easy by just being himself.
From the start, he has adapted to the natural progression of his blog’s growth, expanding his business opportunities to support what he loves. By 2010, his hobby began to evolve from just an online food journal into a true blog with planned content.
“That led to me really looking at having a consistent message and using the platform I created to celebrate local stuff,” Ducote says.
To develop his voice as a food writer, he pursued freelance writing for culinary and cultural magazines like Town Favorites and Louisiana Cookin’ magazines, now among many others. He also began dabbling in barbecue and recipe creation, winning a tailgate cook-off in 2010 that propelled his career forward. In 2011, he was cast on Fox’s reality show MasterChef, which led to a stint as the opening chef instructor at the Viking Cooking School Outdoors at the Hilton Baton Rouge Capitol Center.
That same year, he also became a radio host with the start of the Bite and Booze radio show on Talk 107.3 FM, allowing him to develop a steady flow of revenue from local sponsors supporting both the show and the blog.
“From then on, the business development side became a big part of my strategy,” Ducote says. With that in mind, he quit his desk job in 2011 to pursue Bite and Booze full time.
THE PRODUCT PROJECT
With strong promotional channels in place, Ducote began to consider the broader possibilities for utilizing the power of his growing brand as a lover of all things culinary and cultural in Baton Rouge and the cities beyond.
“I have this blog. I have this radio show, these promotional channels,” Ducote says. “What I don’t have is a way to monetize that from my listeners or readers. For someone who listens to my show and wants to support me, how can they support me?”
Stemming from his love of barbecue and his participation in countless competitive barbecue competitions— combined with his experience as a seasoned tailgater—he developed the idea for a Louisiana barbecue sauce featuring cane syrup, adding a little local sweetness and a regional spice profile. It wasn’t until 2014 that he found a co-packer for his sauce: Louisiana-based Panola Pepper Co. The company makes, bottles and ships it to Ducote for distribution. The company also produces of Ducote’s newest product, Louisiana Molasses Mustard.
By 2013, Ducote had laid the foundation of what his business looks like today, with a number of diversified projects like local video campaigns, television appearances, pop-up dinners and private chef events, all while creating content for the blog and the radio show with the idea of products on the way.
In 2014, he hired Loup as his first employee to help him with everything from ghost writing for the blog to chopping onions, answering emails and coordinating events.
When the barbecue sauce launched on the July 4 weekend in 2014, Ducote also introduced a corresponding personal brand to Bite and Booze called Hug Jay D.
“In late 2014 [and] early 2015, I started to see that value of separating myself from the Bite and Booze brand—not a total separation, but allowing myself to be bigger than Bite and Booze,” Ducote says. “I thought maybe a good way to start doing that was for everyone who writes for Bite and Booze to start writing in their own voice. That also makes Bite and Booze feel bigger.”
TWO OF A KIND
Today, Bite and Booze LLC is a culinary media company that celebrates the food and beverage of Louisiana, along with the local culinary and consumption scenes wherever they travel around the country. Hug Jay D LLC markets and sells Jay Ducote’s products, which include Jay D’s Louisiana Barbecue Sauce, Jay D’s Louisiana Molasses Mustard and Jay D’s Blanc du Bois, created as a collaboration with Landry Vineyards, a West Monroe winery.
“It is crazy sometimes having two different companies to run,” Ducote says.
Despite the seemingly natural evolution of his business, Ducote has been mindful of the cardinal rule of blogging: maintaining a consistent brand.
These days, that task falls to Loup, Blanchard and Chuck Pierce, hired in the September 2015 to be product czar and sauceror of sales, ensuring that the product distribution grows and sauces move off grocery store shelves.
“The way I look at it is that bottle of barbecue sauce, wine or mustard on a store shelf is advertising me whether anyone buys it or not,” Ducote says. “It is just another point of contact to grow everything else I do. Having those products on the shelves help drive people to the radio show, but the radio show drives people to buy those products. That is one of the reasons why I wanted that branding to be consistent. The products are a promotional tool as much as they are also a revenue stream.”
Ducote says that while his product line is currently breaking even, he sees exponential room for growth and anticipates his latest product, the Louisiana Molasses Mustard, will be even more popular than the barbecue sauce.
This year, Bite and Booze will gross between $130,000 to $140,000. Ducote says Hug Jay D will have about $30,000 in sales for 2015.
“I would say that my goal there for 2016 is to at least do $100,00 worth of sales, since we’ll have the Molasses Mustard and the barbecue dry rub,” Ducote says.
While plenty of work must be done to get to that point, Ducote says it has never really felt like work.
“I think the fun of trying to build something, that kind of entrepreneurial spirit, that is a big part of the fun of it,” he says. “The other unknown is what is going to be next on the national stage. I think Food Network Star was a huge launching pad.”
Ducote had a big social media following before the show, but as he advanced through each round, Blanchard says his likable character—combined with Loup and Blanchard’s digital campaigns to cheer Ducote on—drove more traffic to his social media platforms than any other contestant. “Our value as a brand on social media skyrocketed on the show,” she says.
Business has been nonstop since.
“Jay is up at night on his little Jay pillow tweeting up a storm,” Loup says. “I wake up to hundreds of Twitter notifications every day from his Twitter accounts. He is constantly all in to every aspect of this business.”
Loup says most of the team’s discussions in recent month have centered on the typical growing pains of any young business figuring out when is the right time to grow in the right places.
These days, a four-hour car ride to an event with Ducote is a four-hour meeting, and every dinner the team has together is a strategy planning session. This month the team also moved into a new office space with a homier setup—complete with a kitchen for recipe testing.
“I’m just trying to keep up right now, but I feel like I’m going through one of those entrepreneurial phases where I’m trying to manage how fast I grow with how much I can afford to grow,” Ducote says.
Looking back on his cubicle days now long behind him, Ducote identifies himself as a chef, writer, speaker, entertainer and hugger, but he also sees himself—now more than ever—as the entrepreneur he never expected to be.