By Scott Branson | LSU Student
NEW IBERIA - P.A. Conrad built a rice mill in New Iberia in 1912 to save him the hassle of frequent trips to the nearest mill, hours away in New Orleans. One flood, three owners and 100 years later, the mill still produces "Konriko" brand gluten-free rice and is considered the nation's oldest belt-driven rice mill.
The equipment works just as it did a century ago save a change from steam power to electricity.
Former school teacher Michael Davis, who purchased the mill from the Conrad family along with his wife, Sandy, in 1975, said P.A. Conrad grew much of New Iberia's rice in the early 1900s and originally took it by steamboat to New Orleans to sell.
"Conrad was a pretty sharp guy," Michael said. "His thought process was 'If "I can send it all the way to New Orleans and they can make a profit on it, or I can do that right here.'"
Conrad first built the mill across town, but a year after completion a flood forced him to relocate to its current location at 307 Ann St. in New Iberia.
"This was the country at the time and everything grew up around you," Michael said. "Conrad called the company, 'Conrad Rice Milling and Planting Company,' because he was really a grower."
Conrad would cut the rice by hand and leave it on the levees to dry before putting it through the milling process. From humble beginnings, the business grew until Conrad could no longer meet the needs of his buyers with his own farming and began supplementing his crop with rice from other local growers.
In the 1950's, Conrad tried to trademark the company as 'Conrico,' by combining parts of "Conrad," "rice" and the abbreviation for "company." The United States Patent and Trademark office rejected the name so Conrad switched the "C" for "K" and 'Konriko' was born.
Soon after, Conrad retired and passed the company to his two sons, Julian and Allan, who ran the operation until 1975 when they sold it to Michael and Sandy Davis.
Michael, 66, was a high school teacher in Chicago. A New Iberia native, Michael walked into the mill on a return trip to his hometown and asked if the mill were for sale. By January 1975, he was the new owner.
Konriko sold white rice to only three local stores when the Davises purchased the mill, but it now produces a multitude of products with 30 employees.
"Everybody is cross-trained," Michael Davis said. "One day we may be making chicken coating mix, and the next day we may make brown rice or crackers. They can do it all."
The mill is several times a year by the Gluten Intolerance Group for "gluten-free" certification. While the rice is gluten-free, the inspectors ensure nothing with gluten is added in the milling process.
Konriko reaches all 50 states and Canada, specializing in wheat and gluten-free products specifically for those affected by an auto-immune ailment known as celiac disease. With more demand for gluten-free foods, Konriko now aims its marketing toward those with a gluten intolerance.
"We're basically selling products to people that have food allergies. We want to keep everything as natural as it can be."
Sandy Davis says as a small business it's important for Konriko to keep up with an ever-changing market. "Some food fads come and go, but celiac disease is not a food fad. It's a true diagnosed disease and more people are being diagnosed with gluten intolerance every day."