Tony’s Seafood has long been synonymous with home. When I would fly in from Washington DC, my mom would pick me up from the Baton Rouge airport, and we would head straight to Tony’s to get boiled crawfish, shrimp, or crabs (depending on the season). When I saw a Tony’s Seafood Market tour on our Baton Rouge weekend itinerary, I thought: Neat. This is good. This place is very special to Baton Rouge locals, and they have the best seafood around.
Little did I know what was really in store for us.
When we arrived, we had a chance to look around the market, the Louisiana swamp décor setting a nice authentic vibe for the group.
Then came the catfish. Tony’s is known for their ponds, and they are the only seafood market in Baton Rouge that carry live catfish. One of the store employees netted a few and placed them on the ground for us to watch flop about (then he put them back in the pond).
OK. So, nothing quite new for me. When do we get to eat? That’s where my mind kept going.
Then we met Steve LeBlanc, who has been with Tony’s for centuries and helped steer its growth towards its current success. As soon as he opened his mouth, I said, “Oh, yea, he’s a real Cajun” with that uniquely inflective accent. He affirmed my commentary by soon after proclaiming to be a coonass (which is what I probably meant to say instead of ‘cajun’). Smiling, I felt a little homesick.
Steve was the life of the party to be sure. I was immediately enthralled with his mock-condescension when he scolded us for not following his rules. “Now come on class! Why y’all gotta disobey me?!”
He instructed us to follow him towards the back to the fish fry factory and warehouse, without stopping to look at anything ‘behind the scenes’ in the seafood market. I guess he didn’t want us to spoil our tour appetite by seeing the finale first. And what did we do? We stopped and took photos of all the pretty blue crabs as they brought them in. “Caroline is the only one. She knew y’all were doing something bad. She didn’t stop and look at those crabs, yet. She gets to be in the picture. I’m not taking a picture of y’all. You didn’t listen.” (Someone asked Steve to take a group photo. This was his response.)
Steve had us rolling the entire hour or so that we toured Tony’s Louisiana Fish Fry seasoning factory and seafood warehouse. He made the tour more like an amusement park ride than museum visit. You know how those tours are, like something you just have to endure to get to the end- so you can eat the good stuff. No, he had our complete attention the entire time. The subject matter was somewhat interesting to begin with (at least for me), but he raised the bar to be sure.
Steve told the story of Tony’s Seafood owner Bill Pizzolato’s family first migrating to the U.S. from Italy generations ago. Their family name was shortened by officials at Ellis Island, and then the Pizzolato family made their way down south to Louisiana. What started off as a fresh fruit stand evolved in to a shrimp and fish business. Pizzolato realized the demand for fresh catfish and met it by bringing them in from the boats off of Louisiana’s Gulf coast. To help business growth, Pizzolato started supplying bags of fish fry as an added bonus when customers bought catfish.
The recipe, a magical mixture of salt, peppers and spices, stemmed from accidental leftover ground-spills, which workers would sweep up and use for their own fish fries. The concoction was so popular that Pizzolato saw an opportunity for profit and growth. Today, Tony’s Louisiana Fish Fry is the leading brand sold across the United States. It really impressed me that Tony’s employs so many locals and maintains a very high retention rate. Many of their employees have been working at Tony’s for over twenty years.
When the tour concluded, we were invited to a conference room where we gorged ourselves on the most delectable fried catfish, fried shrimp, and boudin balls around. Such a sweet ending to a perfect occasion.
I was so impressed with Steve’s guidance and knowledge that I immediately started messaging my fellow Baton Rouge friends about it. How is it that I grew up in this city and never knew the depth of this fascinating operation? I don’t even think I realized that there was a fish fry and seasoning factory and warehouse behind the market! When I learned of its success, I felt a sense of pride for my hometown’s famous product. Now that I’m thoroughly informed, I’m spreading the word! Buy Louisiana Fish Fry products, and make sure you check out Tony’s Seafood Market when you travel to Baton Rouge!
Disclosure: I was a guest of Visit Baton Rouge, but these opinions are my own, as always.