(printed in the Bonnes Nouvelles Evangeline, June 2016)
Memorial Day celebrations are the beginning of the backyard barbeque tradition in many South Louisiana families each summer. For 75 years, many area residents have relied on Jack Miller's Cajun Bar-Be-Que Sauce to enhance their cookouts.
Jack Miller developed his tangy sauce in his American Inn restaurant in Ville Platte. However, the story really started in Sunset, La.
Four Muller brothers from Germany settled in St. Landry Parish in the 1800's. A descendant, Alexon Miller married Alicia Leger. One of their sons, Dosite "Zick" Miller married Olivia Faul, daughter of Phillip Valmon Faul and Eva Boudreaux. The "Zick" Miller family included 12 children: Charles, Lillan, Rose, Odile, Alice, Jack Dosite, Alexis, Simon, Louise, Eva, Phillip and Theresa.
The Zick Miller farm produced most of the family's food, fruits, vegetables, and animals for meat. They operated a small store in Sunset. Zick and the boys tended the farm and the store while Oliva and the daughters kept house, cooked and sewed the family's clothes. Jack worked in the store and enjoyed cooking when he got the chance.
For the times, the Zick Miller family was well off. He loaned money to help others get started. When the Great Depression hit and money could not be collected and the sweet potato crop could not be sold, the family was in trouble.
One son borrowed $25 and Jack began driving a delivery truck for Tony Chachere's pharmaceutical company in Opelousas. In 1929, at age 19, Jack started hauling sweet potatoes in a Model A truck to the Houston Farmer's Market where a 100 lb bag sold for 45 cents.
Soon Jack embarked on an entrepreneurial quest of many ventures. He traveled over 13 states going house to house in cities to buy and later sell old gold items. He even sold furniture. His desire to cook drew him back to St. Landry Parish in 1935, and he began his cooking career at the Dixie Cafe in Opelousas. He managed the Acadian Inn and worked at the Cedar Lane Club, too. At those establishments he associated with several well-known chefs - Toby Veltin, Levi and Etienne Daigle and John Mamalakis.
In 1937, Jack married Joyce Chapman of L'Anse aux Paille, Evangeline Parish. Joyce worked at the Cedar Lane Club as a hat check girl.
Jacks's dream was to have his own restaurant, so in 1941, he opened the American Inn in Ville Platte. Jack and Thaddus Winfiele leased a building from Burke Coreil located on East Main Street named the Pig Stand. Jack borrowed $300 from his father to match Winfiele's $300 to open the American Inn in Ville Platte. It was a drive-inn like the Acadian Inn in Opelousas. Barbeque plates, hamburgers and hot dogs were the main fare. Hamburgers sold for ten cents and labor was $3-$5 per week for a 12-hour day.
In five years, Jack bought out Winfiele's share. Jack's dream had been to open a chain of drive-inn food places, but World War II dashed those hopes.
To survive during WWII, the menu had to change because beef and pork were rationed. Those hungry GI;s coming from Fort Polk were ordering hot dogs and hamburgers and Jack could not meet their demands. The only meat he could obtain locally was chicken. He changed the menu to barbequed chicken and sent Joyce out to buy chickens from local farmers.
Jack began to experiment with his own barbeque sauce. After three months he had a sauce that pleased his palate. He knew it was good because his customers began asking to buy some to take home.
In 1953, Jack built his own restaurant, the American Inn on the east end of Ville Platte. People going to Chicot State Park would stop and buy bargeque sauce. Before long, the sales were almost equal to those of the restaurant.
In 1955, Jack obtained a license to manufacture and sell barbeques sauce wholesale. To market the tangy sauce, Jack and Joyce went on the road in Acadiana. They would put the sauce on a piece of bread and after a taste, the store owner placed an order.
One-fourth of the American Inn building was closed off to create the sauce factory. After a restaurant fire in 1962, the restaurant was closed.
When the sauce factory was opened, the sauce was cooked in 6-gallon pots on the restaurant stoves. Everything was done by hand, cutting onions, cooking, bottling and attaching labels.
To satisfy Jack's desire for cooking, he did a lot of catering in the 1960's. In New Orleans, he catered at Dominican College and de la Salle High School. Probably the largest function he catered was serving 7,000 barbeque sandwiches for a regional John Deere company picnic.
In the late 1960's, Jack bought two 150-gallon stainless steel pots and a boiler unit to heat the pots. At the time, his son, Kermit, was assigned to a boiler room on a naval ship off the coast of Vietnam. Jack sent Kermit a picture of the new equipment with a note that read, "You better learn to run the ship's boiler, so you can run this boiler."
Kermit joined his father in the business in 1970. He made deliveries and managed the books and observed the production as often as he could. "I was an apprentice to my father and Chester Meche. I took over in 1980," shared Kermit. Jack and taught Kermit the basics of running a business. A good businessman knows every aspect of his business - he can cook the product, run the machines and greet the customer.
In 1980, the state of Louisiana expropriation Jack's property on the Opelousas highway to make LaSalle and Main one-way streets. Jack moved his home and built a new plant at 646 Jack Miller Road.
Shortly after the new plant was completed, Jack retired. He passed away in 1988. Besides his son Kermit, Jack and Joyce Miller were the parents of three daughters, Lena Joyce Coreil of Ville Platte, Jackie Ballard of Beaumont, TX and Olivia Dodd of Eunice.
During his life, Jack loved to be with people. He served them food in his restaurant and also helped the community. He was the first recipient of the Ville Platte Chamber of Commerce Businessman of the Year Award. He served as Opelousas King of Corinth X in 1976 and he was the 1981 Cotton Festival Parade Marshall. He and Joyce were recognized as the Evangeline Parish Great American Family in 1988.
In 1990, the Ville Platte Rotary Club awarded Jack the Paul Harris Fellowship posthumously. Jack also belonged the Lion's Club, the Woodmen of the World and had been a volunteer fireman.
After his father's retirement, Kermit became the head of Jack Miller's Food Products. He and his wife, Sheila, introduce two new products - Jack Miller's All Purpose Seasoning and Jack Miller's Cajun Cocktail Sauce.
Kermit followed in his father's footsteps in other areas. He is a member of Vietnam Veterans Association, holds a Paul Harris Fellowship in the Rotary Club, is a member of the Ville Platte Chamber of Commerce and a lecturer at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. His community service has been honored as Kermit was the Ville Platte Man of the Year recipient in 1977 and was Colonel Cotton in 1991.
On May 27, 2004, Kermit Miller, president and general manager of American Inn/Jack Miller Food Products was presented the 2004 Lantern Award for Agribusiness/Food Technology by Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco and the Louisiana Economic Development. The presentation was made at the Governor's mansion in Baton Rouge.
Kermit exhibits pride and admiration when discussing his father's business. "It is amazing how my father started a business with so little and became a success. He always did the right thing at the right time and he had the personality to market his product," shared Kermit.
Over the years, Kermit and Sheila have attended numerous food shows to remain in contact with customers. Other family members have worked at Jack Miller Foods Product Plant at various times. In recent years a third generation, Kermit and Sheila's son, Christian, has joined his parents at the barbeque sauce plant. Maybe some new products will also be offered, too.
Yes, the third generation of Millers is now making barbeque sauce. The Jack Miller Dynasty Lives On!
Recipes for Jack Miller products are available on their website www.jackmillers.com.
Related blog on Dosite (Do za' ta) Miller.
George Miller Louisiana Family book