“A guy came up to me at a food show once,” laughs Nick Chisesi. “‘Man, you guys have a cult following,’ he says.” It’s true: Few products have a deeper identity with the local market than Chisesi Ham. In fact, for many Louisianians, the words are nearly interchangeable — for them, Chisesi is ham.
The company traces its roots to the first decade of the 20th century, when Philip Chisesi sold chickens, rabbits, ducks and turtles in the French Market. An immigrant from the Albanian enclave of Contessa Entellina on the island of Sicily, Chisesi sailed for New Orleans in 1878, joining the unique Albanese culture of the city. By 1908, he’d opened a saloon and grocery on the corner of St. Philip and Chartres, at the Quarter’s Italian epicenter.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was not ham that laid the early foundation of the Chisesi family. Much like J.P. Rouse had done in the 1920s with fresh goods, Philip Chisesi concentrated his business efforts on the distribution of groceries in the growing city, emerging as one of the metropolitan area’s popular suppliers of meat and, in particular, chickens.
His great-grandson and namesake, the Philip Chisesi who today runs the company with sons Nick and Cody, remembers this much more homespun era of the company well. Born in 1936, the same year that his great-grandfather died, Chisesi likes to tell a story about coming home after school at St. Aloysius High School (today’s Brother Martin) and cutting up dressed chickens for distribution. It’s difficult to imagine in today’s Quarter, but it was a chore he performed underneath and in the backyard of the family home at 920 Governor Nicholls Street, a job he fondly recalled as “being all right” despite the nature of the task. The appreciation of hard work is a recurrent theme in the Chisesi family.
Philip is proud of the multigenerational lineage of the family, as well as that of many of the Chisesi employees. When discussing the early history of the company, he retrieved from a nearby office a ledger book from the early 1930s, setting it on a table and opening it. The names on the page read like a graduation list from St. Mary’s Italian in the French Quarter, where Philip went to grade school: Mancuso, Sciambra, Albenesi and so on. “Some of the people working here,” smiles Philip as he points to the ledger, “are their grandchildren.”
The company went through critical transformations when it moved out of the French Quarter in 1953, into what at the time were comparatively modern facilities at the corner of North Galvez and Lapeyrouse, just down the street from Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. The building was an old ice house with thick brick walls where, in the days before household refrigeration, 100-pound blocks of ice were made. It was perfect for the Chisesi’s growing business, which increasingly required ample cold storage. And it was here that the company began to transform into the Chisesi Brothers meat company we know today.
The move to Galvez Street coincided with an expansion into the sale of hams — other people’s hams — along with other pork products. In the late 1950s, the thought occurred to Philip’s father and his Uncle Frank that they could probably make their own smoked meat. “We had this wooden box, and put some wood chips in the bottom,” remembered Philip, “that could hold maybe six hams.” A man from Mississippi, who stayed in a trailer behind the warehouse while the hams smoked all night, showed them how to do it. The first Chisesi hams were essentially what we’d consider today a craft-made product, a process that continues to inform the way the company makes hams now.
Philip laughs when he recalls how they got into the sausage business. “We used to cut steaks. And the thing we were selling was the seven steaks, and the rest of the product we kept putting in the freezer.” Between the cutoffs from the beef and the growing number of cutoffs from the ham-making, meats had begun to pile up. “My daddy walked into the freezer one day, and said, ‘What are we going to do with all this?’ And then he said, ‘Well, we’re going to make sausage.’ And we got into the sausage business.”
The ham that we identify today with Chisesi literally “took shape” in 1971, the year that Philip’s father died. “We named it the V.I.P. ham,” noted Nick Chisesi, “because my grandfather was a Very Important Person to us,” and hams had been his vision. But it took a bit of trial and error to achieve Chisesi’s teardrop form, a process that remains in use today. A Chisesi ham consists of two boned-out pieces of trimmed ham. A skilled worker arranges these pieces together crosswise, then deftly places them inside netting. He then rolls and spins the ham to orient the meat, pressing out the air pockets, and shaping it into its signature appearance before placing it on a rack destined for the smoker. “Every ham is made by hand,” Nick proudly observes. In the late 1960s they had experimented with machines but weren’t satisfied with the quality they produced. “What makes it different? We make it different.”
As ham and house-made sausage joined a growing list of meat products that Chisesi Pride began to distribute, the company soon outgrew the facility on North Galvez. They kept buying nearby lots as the smoking facilities became more elaborate, but that still wasn’t enough room. “I had to unload trucks right in the middle of the street,” Cody Chisesi recalls. “It was difficult and dangerous.” With Philip’s sons engaged in the business, in 1978 this next generation put down roots — in the shadow of the recently built Superdome — at 2419 Julia Street.
A twist of fate contributed to Chisesi becoming the most widely recognized ham in Louisiana. Chisesi’s main competitor in the cured meat business in the early 1980s was Schott’s, a local, family-run company with a loyal following that had been in business in the city since 1879. A fire at the Schott facility right before the holidays prevented the company from filling orders, and customers turned to Chisesi as an alternative. These customers soon discovered that they liked what they tasted. Within two years, the heirs of the Schott company sold the business, including its recipes, to Chisesi, which still distributes some of the Schott products including its popular chili meat. The Chisesi family is proud to keep the Schott name alive, recognizing as they do the value of local connections.
It was also around this time that the relationship with Rouses and Chisesi really began to grow, particularly as Rouses itself began to grow. “Oh, we have been supplying products to Rouses for a long time, almost from the beginning,” recalls Philip. “We sold to them when they had just the first store.” What impressed the Chisesis back then was how Anthony Rouse built his business from the ground up in a way that was familiar — because it was how they did it too. “Mr. Anthony was hands-on, no doubt about it,” Philip continued. “He would do the grunt work right along with the others” when they started building the stores in Houma, undoubtedly contributing to the grocery chain’s great success.
Nick smiles when he explains trips down to Houma when he was a young salesman in the late 1980s: “I remember walking into that Rouses Number One, and the house behind it was where you had the meeting rooms…and the bedrooms and the kitchen were offices. In those days Mr. Zerengue was the guy who handled chickens, and you would walk over to his office and do business.” The family quality of the business makes it an easy relationship to maintain. “I think we’ve helped each other,” Nick says. He emphasizes that Chisesi is proud to supply a local product to Rouses that their customers like, and that Rouses is a good partner in helping them reach that market because the two companies share the same values.
Both companies have grown in creative ways since Hurricane Katrina, but it was not without significant challenges at Chisesi, which lost 2.5 million pounds of meat in one day. “The cavalry isn’t coming,” Philip told his sons in those difficult days. “We have to do it ourselves.” And they did: After cleaning out a warehouse that even the USDA inspector refused to enter, they managed to get operations up and running, remarkably meeting their goal of turning out their first ham a week before Thanksgiving of 2005. Why? “It’s what we do,” the Chisesi men replied.
Chisesi’s Pride, like Rouses, is a multigenerational local family business, with the fifth generation of Nick and Cody running day-to-day operations, while a sixth generation is coming up in the wings. And so it is, too, with their employees. Their longest-serving employee has worked at Chisesi for 56 years, beginning her career at the old facility on Galvez Street. Walk through the shop floor at the company’s current Jefferson Highway location, and it’s easy to encounter personnel who have been with the family 30 or more years. They are as proud of the work they do as their employers are.
The family is hopeful about the future and some of its more recent innovations. These include partnerships with the fabled Louisiana spice Tony Chachere’s, while more locally they’ve teamed up with chefs from the Hogs For the Cause charity to develop a special-recipe sausage — and a percentage of the profits of this sausage go towards children’s brain cancer research. Both products are distributed regionally by Rouses. More recently, the company has become involved in National Sandwich Day (which locally manifests itself in the po-boy), often at events built around constructing the “world’s longest” variety. “I have a goal,” says Nick. “I want to make a po-boy that wraps around the Superdome.”