The official press release about the death Saturday of Paul Carr Polk McIlhenny, CEO and chairman of the family-owned company that makes and markets Tabasco Sauce, tells us that he not only fostered new products such as Buffalo Style Hot Sauce, broadened distribution to 165 countries, expanded the name of the condiment with co-branding ventures such as Slim Jim and merchandising like the “popular” neckties, but he also was an ardent defender of the Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, an epicure who co-wrote a popular cookbook with Barbara Hunter celebrating 125 years of Tabasco, and he mixed it all up with an “irrepressible sense of humor.” That latter quality will land you on Top of the News any dark Monday morning in February, particularly after an Oscars broadcast that never seemed to end (at least on the East Coast).
“Although Mr. McIlhenny was serious about coastal restoration and the preservation of Louisiana's wetlands, he generally was a merry man -- one friend described him as ‘Falstaffian’ -- who strove to inject humor wherever possible,” writes John Pope on NOLA.com, the website of the [New Orleans] Times-Picayune.
“A few days before he reigned as Rex [of the Mardi Gras] in 2006, Mr. McIlhenny quipped that if, during the ceremonial toast to the mayor at Gallier Hall, the subject of hot sauce came up, ‘I'll say that's one form of global warming I'm totally in favor of. We're defending the world against bland food.’”
Touring the warehouse with visitors, he delighted in asking an employee to crack open a barrel of the sauce and then would invite his guests to take a taste, Ken Belson recounts in a New York Times obit that features a William Widmer photograph displaying Falstaffian-girthed McIlhenny in front of those barrels.
“Tears flowed, air was gasped for and, at the host’s invitation, spit flew to clear tongues…,” Belson writes. “He still chuckled as he gave his guests small spoons that earned them entry into the Not So Ancient Order of the Not So Silver Spoon.”
“McIlhenny enjoyed a good joke contest and had won one on Friday during a lunch, and his death the following day of heart failure [at 68] came as a shock to the company and his family,” Mark Peters reports in the Wall Street Journal.
Humor aside, the company “experienced many years of record growth in sales and earnings,” during his tenure, according the company release. He formally went to work for the enterprise in 1967 and “directly oversaw the production of its sauces for 13 years,” as Reuters’ Jane Sutton puts it.
In a 2002 interview with Renee Montagne for NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the fifth heir of Edmund McIlhenny to run the company on Avery Island, spoke about the business begun by his forebear there in the late 19th century.
"I think he found cologne bottles that had stoppers with sprinkler fitments in them," Paul McIlhenny says. "The sprinkler would allow something to be dispensed by the drop or the dash rather than poured on and his sauce was so concentrated that it was practical, so the legend is that he found old cologne bottles and filled them with Tabasco sauce."
By the time of the interview, the website story claims, “Tabasco hardly needs to advertise. It is to hot sauce what Kleenex is to tissue and Xerox is to copying.”
Hot a brand as it might have become, you couldn’t find it in 2007 in a Los Angeles condiment shop called Light My Fire that carried 500 varieties of similar sauces, according to an interview Kai Ryssdal conducted for NPR’s “Marketplace” with Jeffrey Rothfeder, the author of a just-published history of the company called McIlhenny's Gold. Rothfeder says the company was “kind of caught in the middle” between cheaper knocks-offs that lacked quality and products such as “Da Bomb” that knocks the socks off of taste buds.
Rothfeder also sheds light on the company’s installation of a professional food marketer, Vince Pierce, as CEO in the Nineties “because they realized that their growth was slowing. So Vince Pierce put all this money into promotion, and sales were actually picking up. But the family couldn't stomach all the money it cost to promote the product -- they've just never done that before. And so after a year, they fired him.”
McIlhenny was inducted into the James Beard Foundation's Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America in 2010.
He was born on March 19, 1944, in New Orleans, where his family had relocated for World War II, and spent much of his childhood moving between New Orleans and the family compound on Avery Island, according to the Times-Picayune. He is survived by his wife Judith Goodwin McIlhenny, two daughters, and four grandchildren. Services will be Wednesday in New Orleans.