By: Brittany Racca
Konriko Rice Mill Owner Sandy Davis & local cook Dynell LaBiche
Konriko's tour crew pictured below on the right: Lanie Condra, Cheryl LeBlanc, and Wendy Guyote
As America’s oldest operating rice mill, founded in 1912, the Conrad Rice Mill and KONRIKO® Company Store in New Iberia has a reputation as unique as its products, and owners Mike and Sandy Davis plan to keep it that way.
“Inventing new products no one else has ever done is my favorite part,” Davis states. “To make a new product, then sell it around the USA and see it develop into something that really sells well and is good for you, is very rewarding.”
Most visitors know the company mill and store by its more colorful moniker, KONRIKO®, which was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1981. The name is an acronym: “Kon” is the “Con” in Conrad, “Ri” stands for rice and “Ko” is company.
“When P.A. Conrad built the rice mill, he applied for a brand name with the federal government,” Sandy explained. She points to the labels on the different packaging bags: “At first he put the c’s where the k’s are and sent it off, but they said, ‘You can’t have that name because it’s too close to another name.’ So, he replaced the two c’s with k’s and they accepted it, but it’s pronounced the same way.”
"The Conrad brothers, Julian and Allen (original owners), had reached an advanced age and were ready to retire,” Mike recalls. “One had health problems and the other had just lost his wife and wanted out of the pressure of running the business.”
Mike has a marketing degree from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and was teaching school and running a 600-acre, 100-cow operation, when he bought the mill in 1975.
“I was not getting what I thought I should for my calf crop so I began looking for a middle-man business where I could go up or down on pricing as the market dictated,” he continues. “I wanted to stay in agribusiness because I’ve always had a strong interest in farming and ranching. I met a man from Crowley who romanced the rice industry to me, and I began a two-year quest to find an opportunity in the rice milling business. Julian Conrad stayed with me for a few years and taught me how to mill rice and run the plant.
“If you have family or friends visiting, they can come see us,” Mike urges when describing the mill tour. “We can assure you, you will leave our old mill and store knowing more about rice and the local culture than you did when you walked in the front door.”
Step through the white swinging door of the country store and hear the jingle of the shining silver twinkling-tinkling bell. The moment visitors cross the threshold they hit an invisible doorway of enticing aromas and dizzying colors, enough to mesmerize the mind and ensnare the senses as the outside world quickly fades away. The entrance is like the Narnia wardrobe, transporting all adventurers to a Southern destination where the motto is “laissez les bon temps rouler” – let the good times roll.
To the right is a miniature rice cooker concocting the day’s samples, all KONRIKO® products, of course. In the center are neatly arranged rows of shelves that stand chest-high. It isn’t advisable to enter this store on a full stomach. The sweet smells of pecans and spices are mouthwatering. Visitors next head to the small back room where they sit in church pews to view a short film that adds some roux to the rice tour.
“In the store we have a 20-minute, historically correct, video presentation on Cajun culture and the beginnings of rice and the rice industry,” Mike notes. “We have some of our products for guests to sample, and fresh local coffee to drink. If you have French-speaking guests, we will have someone who can speak to them, too.
“I don’t meet all the folks who visit us, because we get almost 50,000 a year, but I have met Robert Duvall, and we’ve had Chef Paul Prudhomme here,” Mike recalls. “Many well-known chefs visit us. They don’t always let you know who they are, and tend to stay very low-key.”
After the video, guests are led out of the store and across the yard to the actual mill, which is surprisingly spookily silent. Walking through the open, faded royal-blue doors only enhances the otherworldly aura of this place. It feels as though the mill were frozen in time because of its vintage appearance, a necessity if it is to maintain its National Register title. The ethereal silence that sends a chill down the spine could make one believe it was haunted if the evidence of daily use weren’t obvious.
“When the machines are running, it’s really deafening and you can’t hear, and you definitely wouldn’t be able to do a tour,” laughed Sandy. “The guys come in early in the day and do what they need to where milling the rice is concerned and then we start our tours at 10."
The 105-year-old cypress floors are covered in what looks like fine sand, but is actually dust from the rice hulls. The bran that is taken off the rice looks like brown powder. Sandy encouraged guests to scoop some out of the bran post and taste the soft cocoa powder-looking seasoning. It’s rather bland at first lick, but the tangy sweetness is palpable once it’s had time to dissolve on the tongue.
“All in all, the mill and store are pretty cool places to visit,” Mike said. “I think we’ve helped New Iberia by continuing to operate here.”
“Conrad Rice Mill is America’s oldest rice mill, so naturally people are interested in experiencing the mill tour and learning about the process and the products they produce,” said Fran Thibodeaux, executive director at the Iberia Parish Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Being known for specialty items, not only rice products, also attracts people. They are a major tourism asset for Iberia parish.”
“Hiring local employees and selling locally made food products helps the local tax base of New Iberia,” Mike concurred. “However, we’ve benefitted way more by being in New Iberia than the other way around. This is a great town to do business in. Selling food products that honor the great food tradition of South Louisiana is a great benefit.”
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