Story and photos by Bruce Shultz
BREAUX BRIDGE – Barbara Melancon looks back 25 years ago and she still wonders how she kept the Atlas Feed Mill going.
“It’s been a hard road,” Barbara confided. “It’s not been easy.”
Her husband, Ronald “Boze” Melancon, had died of cancer, leaving her with three girls, ages 1, 3 and 4, and the business. “I didn’t know anything about a feed mill.”
But she credits an area businessman, Jessie Smith from the business mentorship organization SCORE, for getting her on track. “He gave me the confidence I needed. I had what it took but I just didn’t know it.”
After her husband died, she said, potential buyers were interested in purchasing Atlas, but she held out. “That’s all we had to make a living.”
And Boze had asked her to try to keep the business going until their daughters finished school. She kept her promise and all three daughters graduated from college. An Atlas employee, Randy LeBlanc, was her right-hand man until he died, and then she had to learn what he knew.
She learned one of the hardest parts of being a business owner when she had to fire an employee. “I always cry because it makes me sad. But every single person I’ve fired has always come back to say hello. They always know they’re welcome here.”
The Atlas Feed Mill originally was a rice mill, started in 1949 by Sidney Melancon, her husband’s father. While Boze was a junior in engineering at LSU, his father called and asked him in 1952 to come home and help with the business. The rice mill was converted into a mill to mix livestock feed to be sold in the business’ store where a wide range of farm-related items are sold. The name Atlas was chosen because it would show up first in the phone book’s Yellow Pages.
Fast forward to 1986. Barbara and Boze met at Mulate’s Restaurant (now Pont Breaux Cajun Restaurant). Boze could cut a rug on the dance floor, and so could Barbara, but Boze wanted more than just a dance partner. “I told him I can’t date you. You’re older than my daddy.”
But later that changed when she saw him at La Poussiere dance hall in Breaux Bridge. “He was dancing with everybody but me. I guess I got jealous.”
They married in were together 7 years and had three children before Boze died of cancer 3 months after the diagnosis.
She gives her workers much of the credit for keeping the business afloat. “God sent me the best crew in the world. I have a crew that can’t be beat.”
Several employees have worked at Atlas for more than 10 years. Operator David Noel has been there for 25 years, and manager Brandon Cormier has been with Atlas for over a decade, starting when he worked there in high school.
But she said her customers also deserve credit for sticking with her through the years, even during the toughest times.
She said the business suffered in 2010 after the BP oil spill. With the reduction in drilling, oilfield workers started cutting their expenses at home and many sold their animals which affected feed sales. After the flood of August 2016, many livestock owners reduced or eliminated their herds, and that also affected feed sales. Barbara also worried that the new competition in the area could put Atlas out of business. But she said she managed to compete with expertise and custom service.
She maintained her poise, and adapted. She continued with the parts of her business that were working and she added new things. She started stocking materials for organic gardening and lawn care. As the demand for backyard chickens grew, she started selling those too. Now schools kids are brought to the store to see the birds. “You cannot imaging kids who’ve never seen a chicken.”
She allows poultry owners to use the store for rooster shows, with owners coming from across the south to see who has the best looking birds.
But the feed mill continued to be the backbone of the business. Fresh feed is critical for many livestock owners, she said, and that’s an advantage held by Atlas, and no preservatives are used in Atlas mixtures. The feed mill mixes grains and ingredients for several different animals including sheep, horses, cows, pigs, chickens, goats and deer.
Customers can get custom-blended formulations for their livestock, and many owners of show animals insist that the mill keep their recipes secret.
Samples of the standard Atlas feeds are on display for customers to inspect. Customers come from as far away as Shreveport, east Texas and Mississippi to buy feed. The feed is sold in hardware and farm supply stores across Louisiana, and she is working on a deal in Mississippi.
She also is in the process of getting Atlas feed in Lowe’s stores.
Hay has been in short supply this year, but she said the longest Atlas went without a supply was 4 days.
In addition to the blended feed mixed by Atlas, the store also carries feed brands such as Purina, Nutrena and Lone Star. With crawfish season about to get in high gear, Atlas will be selling bait, and wire for making traps.
Barbara relies on outside expertise. “We work real closely with our county agent,” Barbara said, talking about Stuart Gauthier, LSU AgCenter county agent in St. Martin Parish. “We love him to death. Stuart is great.”
Atlas is a 4-H sponsor.
She said Gauthier and his counterpart in Lafayette Parish, Stan Dutile, are major assets to the area’s agriculture community. “You call them, and they’re going to your farm or they’re going to look at your yard. I paid for all my workers to be in the Louisiana Master Cattleman Program with Stan.”
She’s called in advisers who recommended doubling their greenhouse inventory.
If a product bought at the store doesn’t work, she wants to know. “If you shop here, you’re looking for quality. If you’re going to put something on our shelves, it’s because it’s good.”
Barbara has experts give presentations on a wide variety of subjects, such as canning fruits and vegetables, animal husbandry, soap making and gardening.
At her daughters’ urgings, Atlas Feed Mill has a Facebook page, and she is amazed at the result. “I can’t tell you what it’s done for us.”
And the younger people who look at Facebook come to the store.
“I don’t know why people almost look at us like a tourist attraction.” She said it’s not uncommon for young people and city folks to visit the store with no intention of buying anything but to peruse the merchandise. For some older folks, it’s nostalgia. For younger people, or the millennials, it’s a glimpse at rural life. “I love it,” Barbara said. “I love to see people happy.”
Barbara speaks French, and it’s often an asset to talk with older customers who might be more comfortable with French. “We still have people who come here who garden in their 90s.”
Two of Barbara’s three daughters, Hailey and Kaitlyn, work with her. A third daughter, Marla, now lives in Georgia where she is a stay-at-home mom with her two young children.
Youngest daughter Kaitlyn has worked at Atlas for a year after graduating from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in marketing and interning at Lafayette advertising agencies. “I like working the cash register because our customers are so great.”
Kaitlyn said her mother taught her about treating customers as the No. 1 priority.
“Mom has always raised us to be quality first and to accommodate customer and be the best you can.” She said the business’ reputation started by her father and continued by her mother has created a solid base of word-of-mouth referrals. “It’s the most solid form of marketing but it’s hard to measure.”
Kaitlyn has started a sophisticated system of working with Google to fine-tune the sales system so Atlas Feed Mill shows up in the first hits of a Google search.
“That’s all above my head,” Barbara admits. “I just sit there and feel lucky it works.”
Kaitlyn said on every vacation, her mother has to include a side trip to a feed store to see how other similar businesses are operating.
Barbara has bought land adjacent to the mill for possible expansion, and she said Hailey is insisting that the business might open another store between Lake Charles and Lafayette.
Hailey worked in real estate in Texas for a few years, and she returned to Breaux Bridge to join the business. She saw how the business could be modernized. “I was very excited to put to use all the stuff I was learning in Texas.”
The business now has a web page at https://atlasfeedmills.com/, and it’s on Facebook and Instagram.
Hailey said her mother made it clear that her Dad never wanted to force his daughters to be a part of the business. “My Dad asked our Mom to always encourage us to do what we really were passionate about in life, and to allow us to find our own paths.”
Hailey said she realizes the old-school business approach of customer service needed to be kept. “Our business is built on a family that supports each other.”
She also realizes her mother is the central cog in the Atlas operation. “She does it all. She’s in every aspect of the business."