It All Started with A Produce Truck
City Produce is the first company that the Rouse family started after arriving in America from Sardinia.
“Around 1899, my great-grandpa came over from Italy,” says Donald Rouse. “He came in through New York with a sponsor, and he had to get work. He had to be settled in before he could send for his wife — my great-grandmother — and my grandpa.” The immigrant moved to Westwego, adjacent to New Orleans, where there was a thriving Italian community. There, he found a job on a little farm, and worked tirelessly until he could afford to set up a sharecropper deal with the landowners. “That is how he started in the farming business.”
Donald’s great-grandmother, and two sons, came over in 1900.
Donald’s grandfather, Joseph “J.P.” Rouse, was barely a year old then.
In the early 1920s, J.P. moved to the Thibodaux, Louisiana area, because he felt the ground there was fertile and would be good for farming. Eventually, J.P. was able to buy 10 acres of land. At first, he planted watermelons, tomatoes and shallots — good, reliable local crops. To sell his produce, he opened a little stand on Jackson Street; he would load up whatever he had grown, then bring it all to the stand to sell. Over time, he managed to buy additional land and grow yet more.
“When he did that,” says Donald, “he started growing more shallots and bringing them to New Orleans to sell.” He founded his company in 1923, calling it City Produce.
City Produce Brings Louisiana to America
As the company grew, every day he and his small group of employees would load his big green truck with the best produce he had grown, and drive it all over to sell. Because his crops were so prolific, he also brought shallots to what, at the time, were called “the sheds” in Thibodaux, where wholesalers would buy the crops, load them up on railcars, and ship them to other markets. (The sheds were a lot like the stands on docks today where you can buy fresh shrimp.) J.P. quickly figured out that he did not need to sell his products to other people to do the shipping — he could do that himself.
Eventually, when a shed opened and J.P. could set up shop there, he started selling his shallots to other markets. When demand exceeded his supply, he started buying shallots from other local farmers as well. For the Rouse family, supporting local farmers has always been a priority, and this is one of its earliest instances.
Unlike other shippers, J.P. or a member of his team would actually go into the fields where farmers grew shallots, and would talk to the farmers to get a feel for the crops, their likely yields and their quality. J.P. would buy entire fields rather than what was later harvested. Though he never knew exactly how much he was going to get from a harvest, he guaranteed farmers a certain amount of money for the crops — which was a win for everybody — and many local farmers soon worked out similar deals with him.
J.P. and his men began shipping produce out of Thibodaux to markets such as Dallas, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh — even as far away as the Caribbean. And they extended the reach of where they bought products, acquiring such crops as potatoes and sweet potatoes from Fairhope, Alabama and rural Mississippi, and red potatoes from areas in South Louisiana.
When Anthony Rouse, who later founded Rouses Markets, reached age 14, he climbed into the truck driven by his father, J.P., and joined the family business, going dutifully to the sheds for the unloading, sales, loading and shipping of the produce. Much later, when Donald was a boy, he would join his father, Anthony, at those very sheds.
“I remember going to the shed as a kid and watching them load shallots,” Donald recalls. In those days, workers would load shallots into barrels, fill the barrels with ice, stack barrels in a railcar, and add more ice yet, to keep the produce fresh even as it traveled to places far from Louisiana.
City Produce to Ciro’s to Rouse’s to Rouses
The produce business had high times and low. City Produce weathered the Great Depression, though Anthony learned well the lessons of that hard time in American history. J.P. died, Anthony Rouse and his cousin, Ciro, took over City Produce. But there was trouble on the horizon. The produce export business slowed as more products began shipping from Mexico. Concurrently, the oil industry in Louisiana was reaching its peak, and Anthony realized that farmhands would have other work options and would soon be in short supply, which would make the company harder yet to keep going. So Ciro started looking far and wide for what could be the family’s next move in the food business, and soon settled on the idea of opening a grocery store in Houma.
“They named it Ciro’s because, when you hung the letters on the outside of the store, Ciro’s had fewer letters than Rouse’s,” says Donald. “That’s a true story.”
The two put all their money (and a lot of the bank’s money) into this tiny, 7,000-square-foot store, hiring two workers and doing everything else themselves: from stocking merchandise to working the register. Donald joined the company when he was old enough, bagging groceries and rounding up carts out front. When Ciro retired in 1975, Donald bought out Ciro’s interest in the company, and he and his father renamed the store “Rouse’s.” You might have noticed that Rouses stores today lack the apostrophe. The reason is because in those early days, the lightbulb in the punctuation mark kept burning out, and rather than continuing to spend the money fighting a losing battle, Anthony — ever a practical man — decided to take the apostrophe down from the store sign and solve the problem permanently.
Rouses Markets Still Has Trucks, and Still Does Produce the J.P. Rouse Way
“We still have relationships with local farmers,” says Donald Rouse. That is one of the best things about being a local company, he says, and generations after the founding of City Produce, Rouses Markets is more committed than ever to local farmers, and to bringing store guests the very best this region has to offer. “I feel like our responsibility as a company is to give back to the local community. Our responsibility is also to our team members and to our customers.”
To serve store guests today Rouses has also established a new partnership with Capitol City Produce in Baton Rouge.
For over 75 years, Capitol City Produce, a family-owned company, has provided the best produce of the highest quality for some of the most celebrated members of the culinary world — everyone from The Windsor Court hotel and Ruth’s Chris Steak House to the Ritz-Carlton. Now, shoppers at Rouses can enjoy that same quality, practically year-round.
“It’s a good partnership we have with them,” says Donny Rouse, the CEO of Rouses Markets. “We are two family-owned companies with strong roots in the produce business, and with our partnership, we’ll be able to expand our offerings and build more relationships with farmers throughout the Gulf Coast, so we can get that product to our customers.”
In addition, the Rouses team travels the country and goes around the world in search of the very best produce grown anywhere, anytime of year. Rouses Markets was one of the first grocery stores in America to offer organic produce and one of the first to bring in such once-exotic items as kiwis from New Zealand, guavas from Honduras and hatch chiles from New Mexico. Today, every Rouses location routinely offers hundreds of different fruits and vegetables for shoppers to enjoy.
When it comes to produce, Rouses prides itself on giving busy customers plenty of options. “One thing we continue to do in produce — that a majority of other retailers have gotten away from — is cut and package fresh fruit for our store guests,” says Donny. “We have that in every store — watermelon chunks, pineapple chunks, cantaloupe slices — we still do that every day. The national chains have stopped doing that just to cut their labor force, but that’s not important to me. We will continue offering cut fruit because it’s just what we do and how we will always do business. We offer our customers the best quality and convenience of fruits and vegetables there is.”
Innovation, quality and devotion to the community have always been essential parts of the Rouses ethos. They are intertwined with the entrepreneurial spirit that motivated J.P. Rouse and made City Produce a success. That dedication has carried across the generations, to every Rouses location. It is something the Rouse family has been doing for 100 years now. And it all started with a produce truck.