If Taylor Stokes has her way, Downtown Lafayette might one day smell like kale chips.
Although she’s currently working 12-hour days making kale chips out of a former tanning salon in Grand Coteau, Stokes says she dreams of being based Downtown and helping to create the type of local business that fuels Lafayette's economy. The olfactory stamp would be a bonus.
After being scouted at the Lafayette Farmers & Artisans Market by Whole Foods in 2014, Stokes’ chips made their way from Lafayette to all seven Louisiana Whole Foods locations. Now she’s expanding to the Houston market (a whopping 10 locations deep) with the hopes of eventually distributing her products regionally. That would mean supplying a total of 53 Whole Foods stores across Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Not bad for someone who just turned 29.
Stokes attributes her flavor prowess to growing up in Lafayette, surrounded by cooks who, "can make anything taste good." Her health food epiphany came while waiting tables at Dwight's in college.
“I was eating so much boiled crawfish,” explains Stokes. “I had to counterbalance that. I would barely make it to the farmers’ market before it closed. At the time kale wasn’t a big deal, so they always had a ton left over.”
Stokes says she came up with the idea for making kale chips as a more nutritious alternative to her other junk food vices — chips and salsa and fries. After trying her kale chips, a friend and veteran farmers’ market vendor encouraged her to start selling them. What began as a way for Stokes to increase her organic produce budget blossomed into a steady income stream. But once her product hit Whole Foods, everything changed.
“My first kitchen was a shipping container converted into a kitchen,” says Stokes. “My nanny is a retired Pre-K teacher. She and all her retired teacher friends volunteered to help. We quickly realized we weren’t going to keep up.”
Stokes expanded her wholesale business about two years ago, landing in her current location near The Kitchen Shop in Grand Coteau. After years of playing catch-up to keep her products from selling out, Stokes credits a manager at Lafayette Whole Foods with giving her the career advice she needed to take things to the next level.
“He said, ‘If you can figure out how to keep up with your sales, you could retire in 10 years,’” says Stokes. “That lit the fire for me to realize what I needed to do to keep up.”
Now, she’s investing in the type of industrial equipment she needs to make batches quicker and is looking into hiring a small staff. Stokes says she listens to business audiobooks and podcasts any chance she can and is especially motivated by the idea that a business doesn’t have to be huge to be considered successful.
“You don’t necessary need to grow your business to this big conglomerate,” she says. “Grow it to what’s best for you and what you believe in.”
She says she hopes to eventually have time to return to the farmers’ market at Moncus Park where she got her start. The personal feedback from customers continues to drive the evolution of her products, and she has something new up her sleeve she hopes to soft launch there soon.
For now, though, one batch of Cajun Cheddar kale chips at a time, she’s sprinting toward her goal.
A rotating kale-chip-bag billboard might not be that far off.
“I just work as much as possible,” Stokes says with a smile. “I’m on record of missing every cousins’ wedding now. I hope I can make it up to them.”