Along Louisiana’s industrial corridor, catered meals are a big deal. Plants conduct routine turnarounds, or periods when equipment is taken offline for maintenance. Speed and efficiency are of the essence during these costly events, so employees work around the clock to complete them and restore operations. Keeping workers happy with satisfying, tasty food is critical, and few caterers have mastered cooking to this scale like Port Allen, La.-based restaurant Cou-yon’s Barbecue.
“We saw an opportunity in the Louisiana plant community, which was especially underserved on the west side of the Mississippi River,” says owner and managing member Paul A. Mladenka. “We wanted to be able to serve them both in our restaurant and in our catering division.”
There are dozens of chemical and manufacturing facilities along the lower Mississippi River, thanks to Louisiana’s robust natural resources and advantageous location. This legacy sector has sparked immeasurable impact on downstream businesses, including restaurants and caterers. Cou-yon’s first opened in the West Baton Rouge city of Port Allen in 2009.
Since then, the concept has made a name for itself with south Texas-style pecan-smoked pit barbecue, Louisiana seafood dishes, burgers, salads and signature smoked baked potatoes stuffed with a variety of different toppings. It also has a line of housemade sauces that are commercially available in regional supermarkets.
Within three months of opening, recalls Mladenka, the restaurant got an order from ExxonMobil for 1,500 lunches for a turnaround weekend.
“It was high stakes, but we knocked it out of the park,” he says. “We realized that there were not that many restaurants who could handle these big plant orders.”
Becoming an industrial catering specialist capable of feeding 800 to 1,000 people at a time became a focus of the operation, says Mladenka.
“It takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail,” he says. “It’s not something you can get wrong, when all these workers are depending on you.”
As Cou-yon’s catering business grew, so did day-to-day traffic at the Port Allen restaurant. Numbers of barbecue restaurants were increasing in greater Baton Rouge, but there were still virtually none in West Baton Rouge Parish. Local diners were eager for real, pit barbecue with homemade sauces and side dishes. By then, Mladenka had also begun a digital marketing campaign that ultimately led to top ratings on both Yelp! and TripAdvisor. Those accolades have helped attract travelers to the restaurant as they pass through the area on Interstate 10.
By 2015, Mladenka found himself at a crossroads. He needed more physical space and staff to continue growing.
“With the plants, there is so much business in the area, and we knew we were losing new business simply because we didn’t have the capacity to keep up,” he says.
After looking at a few possible locations across the river in Baton Rouge, Mladenka worked with his landowner to construct a new 1,200 square foot catering and prep kitchen on the grounds of the Port Allen restaurant. Completed in 2016, the new space allows Mladenka and his team to smoke 2,000 pounds of meat at a time and prep hundreds of plates of food every hour.
“Our capabilities have increased exponentially,” Mladenka says. “The restaurant is able to complete 15 to 20 catering orders a day before the first person even sits down in the restaurant. We’ve also hired a full-time catering director and increased our team from 16 to 60.”
The restaurant has also become an LSU-approved vendor. The Cou-yon’s food truck is routinely stationed in the heart of the Baton Rouge flagship campus, serving students signature barbecue brisket and pork sandwiches and stuffed potatoes between classes. Meanwhile, the Port Allen restaurant continues to draw new patrons, and its catering division is seeing steady growth, especially from business and industry.
“It’s important to be able to deliver great food on time and on budget,” says Mladenka. “Our customers expect it.”
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