A good entrepreneur can build a business from the ground up. A great entrepreneur can build a business from the ground up, literally. That was Anthony Rouse, the founder of Rouses Markets. Those who remember him recall the family man in coveralls who was always the hardest-working man in the room — or on the back of a bulldozer. He was a businessman’s businessman who pioneered an industry, brought innovation to the Gulf Coast grocery business, and founded a company that has grown for three generations and counting.
But such successes don’t just happen; they are made to happen, and require sacrifice, dedication, and the kind of commitment to quality and service that few possess — and fewer still can keep going across a lifetime. Anthony was one such man, and if you are holding this magazine, it means you walked into one of his stores and cast your eyes on an enduring legacy with no sign of stopping. Here is his story.
LOCALS SUPPORTING LOCALS
Joseph “J.P.” Rouse immigrated with his parents and brother to the United States from Sardinia, Italy, in 1900. As a young man, he got into the produce business, eventually founding in 1923 a packing and shipping company named City Produce. The company bought from local farmers, then loaded fruits and vegetables on railcars, and shipped the goods as far as Alaska. If you were a farmer in Thibodaux, Louisiana, it was a pretty exciting deal, and local families benefited mightily from the company’s national reach. City Produce also sold locally, including from stalls at the French Market.
In 1929, J.P.’s wife gave birth to a son, Anthony; 14 years later, the younger Rouse joined his father in the family business. No two ways about it: To do the job, you needed a strong back and a strong will, because this was hard work in a fiercely competitive industry. And Anthony came along during the back half of the Great Depression. For the Rouse family, success was the only option — it was the only way to keep food on the table. Success, however, was by no means guaranteed.
City Produce weathered the storm, and 11 years later, Anthony and his cousin Ciro took over the company when J.P. passed away. There they remained until 1960, when Anthony spotted trouble ahead for the produce business. The oil industry in Louisiana was reaching critical mass, and Anthony realized that workers would soon be in short supply, which meant produce would be in short supply, which meant business would soon go flat, if it could survive at all. So he and Ciro decided to make the leap to the grocery store business.
“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 Rouse with a laugh. He is Anthony’s son, and chairman of Rouses Markets today. “That’s a true story.”
Anthony put every dime he had into the new business, borrowing from the bank what he didn’t have. He and Ciro eventually opened a small, 7,000-square-foot store in Houma, hiring two workers to help them. Donald eventually joined the team, pulling carts from the parking lot, bagging groceries, learning the business even as a boy. (This would become a family tradition that endures today; age 16 is a rite of passage for young Rouse family members interested in learning a trade that has served the community for three generations.)
In 1975, Ciro retired and Donald bought his interest in the business. They renamed the store Rouse’s, though that apostrophe didn’t last long. The bulb always burned out on the lighted sign, and Anthony, ever the pragmatist, did away with it completely. The following year, Anthony and Donald began work on a new grocery store on St. Mary Street in Thibodaux. And from the start, when Anthony saw the contractors at work, he knew right away that this wouldn’t do at all. He knew he could do it better.
“He did everything himself,” says Jeaneen Rouse, his daughter. “He didn’t like the way some contractors were building his store, so he got his contractor’s license. He taught himself everything. He wasn’t young when he did that, but he came from that generation where men did things for themselves. If he didn’t know how to do it, he was going to figure it out.”
She adds with a smile, “We wanted a pool and we got a store.”
Donald remembers the construction of that store well. “It was exciting. You know, it seemed like a big store at the time, but it wasn’t when we look back at it now. I remember business just picking up and growing slowly in volume. Same thing at Ciro’s in Houma. And I remember telling my dad one day, ‘Wow, we did this much business today — we used to do three times less.’”
Donald’s favorite times were always when he was in the store, on the floor, working at Ciro’s or at that first Rouses. “Those are the most fun memories for me — it’s something my dad instilled in me — taking care of customers and serving customers and bagging groceries if I needed to do that, or bagging potatoes if I needed to, mopping the floors after we closed. Anything. Anything. Being at that level — I like serving people. My dad was the same way.”
BUILDING THE BUSINESS
Ask anyone who knew him and they’ll tell you the same thing: Anthony Rouse loved to work — and work hard. It wasn’t enough to work tirelessly in the stores. After he got his contractor’s license, he liked to build them, too — particularly the work involving heavy equipment.
“I wanted to talk to him a lot of times,” says Donald, “I don’t know how many hundreds of times, and I would have to go out there and catch him on a bulldozer, or working outside moving trees or lumber, and I’d have to stop him so I could ask him some question, or perhaps tell him what’s going on, or just see if he needed help with anything. So many times I had to walk out through the mud to go talk to them that I started carrying boots in my truck!”
Says Cindy Acosta, Anthony’s daughter: “He loved to work. He lived to work. His attitude was: ‘If somebody else could do it, I could do it.’”
Donny Rouse, the third-generation (and current) CEO of Rouses Markets, agrees with that recollection of his grandfather. “He loved everything he did,” he says. “When we had construction going on, he wanted to be on that bulldozer. When he had family over to the house, he wanted to do the cooking. Walking in the stores, if the stocker was putting [groceries] on the shelf, he wanted to put groceries on the shelf. He loved being around people and he loved having his hands on everything.”
But Anthony Rouse was not one for putting on airs, which could sometimes have humorous results. “My dad always wore these overalls, so nobody ever knew who he was,” says Cindy. “He blended in. One day I was at the store in the back, and he walked in and told this young stock boy to do something. And the boy said, ‘Who are you, old man?’ He found out!”
Henry Eschiette, who handled the Rouses Markets accounts for Bunny Bread and Evangeline Maid — a major task in the grocery business, bread being perhaps the ultimate staple — remembers Anthony fondly. “We talked at least once a week. He was always in the store, in those coveralls, and he was always looking at everything — what’s going on, you know, and seeing that it was done right. And nobody knew who he was!”
He says that Anthony would stand around, or sit down somewhere, and just watch. “You’re going to laugh at this one,” he says. “Here I was, just talking to him in a store. And he noticed a bag boy sitting on the floor putting groceries on the shelf, and he was only using one hand. And Mr. Anthony told me, he said, ‘Henry, I think I paid for two hands.’”
Anthony went over to the young stocker and patiently demonstrated the best way for stocking a shelf.
This was hard-won knowledge. When Anthony first decided to open Ciro’s, there was no instruction manual for how to run a grocery store. He had to learn it all. Ordering product. The best way to shelve items. How to handle refrigeration and keep those coolers running. How to handle drains and plumbing. Inventory. Sales numbers. Figuring out what needed ordering when. How to keep the parking lots clean and the buggies in order. How to price items and keep those prices competitive. Payroll. How to handle ads and marketing. He had to figure it all out.
Every time the family traveled, they would visit grocery stores across the country to see what they were doing, and how Rouses might innovate back home. Anthony and Donald were the first in the area to bring a deli to their stores. The first to boil fresh crawfish on-site. The first to bring a florist. A bakery. Electronic barcode scanning at the checkout. That young stock clerk may not have realized it, but he was getting a master class in shelf stocking from a pioneer in the field.
And the business lessons from Anthony’s City Produce days applied neatly to the grocery store business. “One time my dad and I were talking about competition,” says Donald, “and I was telling him about a big national chain that had a certain price on a specific item. And he says to me, ‘Well, let me tell you about that…. Back in the City Produce days, I would ship one packing car of shallots to, say, Chicago, and maybe my competitor next door would be shipping 10.’ So one day my dad and that business rival got into a little, I guess, competitive thing over pricing, and my dad said: ‘No problem,’ and Dad dropped his price below what it was costing him to ship the item. My dad said: ‘I’m shipping one car, you’re shipping 10. Now let’s see who’s gonna last the longest.’”
Donald continues, “And when I was talking to him about that, we only had, maybe, a couple of stores at the time, and this national chain had a lot of stores. And my dad said, ‘I’ll tell you what to do. Sell the item at cost. They’ll get the message. They’ll back off of you. Put it at cost. You’re going to sell one truck and they’ve got to sell a hundred trucks.’ And it worked.”
FAMILY FIRST, THEN BUSINESS
“He and my mom liked to go out,” says Cindy. “They went out every Saturday night dancing. They always told us they’ll babysit any night besides Saturdays. The thing is, they were going dancing and we weren’t! Boy, he liked to dance.”
Donald adds: “My dad always preached to us that there is a price to success. And he wasn’t talking about money. He was talking about your time, your devotion and what comes first: family. Then the business and stuff like that. But he told us that and tried to make sure that we always put the first thing first.”
Anthony never retired. A man like that was a force of nature; he loved his job too much. But Donald gradually took over increasing responsibility from his father. He had prepared for the job his whole life. “I remember one time hearing in the next room one of my dad’s good friends,” he recalls. “I was pretty young, and my dad’s friend and him were speaking, and for some reason his friend said, ‘Why are you so hard on Donald?’ And his answer was: ‘Because he’s going to be the one.’
“It stuck with me, yeah,” says Donald, quietly.
Donald’s son Donny would likewise one day take over the business and, like Donald, he started out in the parking lots snagging buggies, working his way up over the decades. But the lessons from his grandfather started much earlier than that. “I rode around with him a lot as a kid, and he talked to me a lot,” Donny says. “I remember he just talked and talked and talked about everything. He wasn’t rambling — this was about the business or about life, and this is when I was young, eight, maybe 10. I still think about those talks pretty much every day. And I think I learned a good bit from them, because I am here today in this role.”
He continues, “There’s a lot of pressure being in a family business. My grandfather, and my father — they were the best, and just to follow in their footsteps — to keep the business going for 7,000 employees — is a lot of pressure. And I enjoy it.”
But that man Anthony could work.
“We were building a store in Houma,” recalls Donald, “and I remember one time pulling up to the job site, and I see six guys standing around a big hole. They’re looking down there. I hear a chain saw going, so I walk up there and ask, ‘Where’s my dad?’ They say: ‘He’s in the hole down there cutting something in the way.’ I say, ‘What is he doing down there? Why aren’t y’all down there?’ They told me: ‘You tell him that!’”
Donald recalls with a laugh, “I said, ‘You’re right,’ and I walked away.”
That work ethic, and Anthony’s honesty and integrity, is at the heart of the Rouses business philosophy. And the third generation running the stores and main office today learned from him firsthand. The lessons never stopped.
“I was 17 or 18 years old, and I was running the seafood department at one of the stores,” says Blake Richard, who is today a Rouses store manager. “It was about a week after Katrina, and Granny and Pa, they were back at home — they were by themselves because everyone was busy running the store. And I remember he came to the store and said, ‘I need you, boy.’”
Blake arranged to have his shifts covered and spent the next few days helping his grandfather clean up after the storm. “I woke at five o’clock every morning with Pa, and he would get on his tractor and I was helping with branches.” A tree had been uprooted in the back of the house, and when Anthony tried to pull the rest of it free, a root broke a water line. “It’s shooting out everywhere,” says Blake, “and I remember he said, calmly, ‘Come see, boy.’ And it’s hot as can be — I’m out there, it’s just me, Pa and Granny — and Pa gave me a shovel and said, ‘I need you to keep going down until you hit metal.’ And it’s a long way down!”
Anthony had Blake searching for a water valve. “I had no idea what I was doing. So finally, I hit metal. And he says, ‘OK, boy I need you to dig three feet down and five feet across.’ And I’m like — all right!” he laughs. “He would even comment on it the whole time — I was digging the hole wrong, according to him. And finally, I dug this enormous hole, shut the valve off myself, and we grab this big Bobcat tractor; we go out there and I have to wrap chains around the trunk covered in fire ants, and Pa takes off and this thing is popping wheelies dragging this big old tree.”
The tree’s remains finally removed, Anthony looks at Blake and says, “Now don’t do what I did and break the water line, but that’s how you fix everything else.”
Blake says, “I’ll never forget that. He wanted to make sure we knew how to dig a ditch right. He would do everything in his power to teach us.”
A LEGACY OF SERVICE
Anthony Rouse died in 2009 at the age of 79. Today Rouses Markets has grown to over 60 locations along the Gulf Coast.
“Toward the end of his life,” says Cindy, “he still went into the office every day, but he never had his own office. He never wanted one.”
Donald says, “He was a shrewd businessman, but a good-hearted businessman. He raised us, showed us how to live, and showed us how to live in the business world. And then in his final days, he showed us how to die. He died with integrity.”
But he worked until the last. “I remember the day before he died, he was in his room, and he was on oxygen. And he asked me, he says, ‘What were the sales yesterday?’ So I gave him a rough number. And he said, ‘No, no. Per store.’ So I said, ‘All right!’ I went to get my computer, opened it up, and he sat there and listened, and would question me on specific stores. And the old man was dying, but he still had it in him — that amazed me. What he was going to do with that information, I don’t know, but he wanted to know, you know, how we were doing. And we were doing well, and that pleased him.”
His legacy lives on, both in the Rouse family and in the thriving, family-owned business he built. “I am proud to say we have 7,000 team members,” says Donald. “We are not only responsible for the company, but for them as part of the company.” The Rouses experience applies not only to the men and women who work there today, but those who have worked at one store or another for decades. “I’ve had so many people come up to me and say their first job was at Rouses. You can’t imagine. If I didn’t hear that 5,000 times I didn’t hear it once. And that’s a good feeling, to know they still remember it, and to hear how it helped them. That’s one of my proudest achievements.”