Michael Maenza of MMI Culinary comes full circle as the newly appointed LRA Chair
Life is certainly full of ups and downs, but it is also filled with small wins that can equal great success if you’re looking through the right lens. Picture these next few sentences as you read. You’re pushing your grocery cart down the egg aisle and come across a dozen eggs for under $3. A wrong exit taken off the interstate has landed you right in front of a gas station with regular unleaded for $2.75. Or, a trip to Goodwill brings a brand-new pair of running shoes into your life for only $10.
The small wins in life are what can bring the most joy, and the most success. Imagine, you’ll be driving on that tank of gas for longer, you’ll be able to buy two dozen of eggs and your weekly runs will reach a new level of comfort. This same idea is what has kept our newly appointed LRA Chair running for his nearly 40-year career.
Michael Maenza of MMI Culinary is the 2023 Chair of the LRA. He’s played his hand in foodservice & hospitality time after time. He’s been a crawfish boiler, a caterer, a food manufacturer, a restaurant owner, and a logistics operator. Now, he does double duty operating his 150,000 square feet food manufacturing facility, and governing as the LRA’s newest volunteer leader. Maenza’s success today is owed to one small win that fell into his lap back in the 80’s—a broken down trailer and kettle.
His food manufacturing business MMI Culinary has grown to be nationally known for their dedication to providing quality prepared foods for multi-unit operators, national restaurant chains, retail outlets and large foodservice venues. The manufacturing plant also serves as the producer for his catering business. Mr. Mudbugs and 12 Seasons Catering are where it all began to grow big for Maenza. His decades of industry experience even tie back to the banana business in New Orleans.
“I came out of the womb in the food business,” said Maenza. “My grandfather and my dad were in the produce business, and at the age of six years old, for .25 cents a day, I would help out in the banana room at their warehouse under the Mississippi River Bridge.”
The bananas would come in on big stalks and then they were broken down into bunches, that were then sold to restaurants and groceries stores. Eventually, he started delivering those bananas across the Greater New Orleans area, helping him meet the players in the industry.
This is where Maenza’s small win comes into play. Around the mid 1980s, his family’s business was expanding to include seafood, and Maenza’s friend, Tommy Martinez, then of Bocage Supermarket in Baton Rouge, connected him with a gentleman named Eugene from Pierre Part. Eugene had a seafood picking plant – shrimp, crab and crawfish—and the facility was immaculate. “Eugene was thinking we might buy the plant or a huge amount of seafood,” Maenza said.
While they toured the grounds, a broken-down trailer in the long grass caught Maenza’s eye. It had a giant kettle for boiling. He made a mental note.
Fast forward a few weeks and Chip Aboud gave him a call. He was the owner of what’s now known as Generations Hall, but then it was a night club and restaurant called The Park. The call was Maenza’s big break. Aboud asked Maenza, on a Monday, if he could boil 500 pounds of shrimp and 1,000 pounds of crawfish for the Spring Fling on the coming Sunday. He said, “I’ll do better than that, I’ll boil it onsite so the shrimp and crawfish are hot out of the pot.”
In one week, he borrowed $3,500 from his dad, bought the rig from Eugene, outfitted the rig and procured the seafood, all the while telling Aboud that everything was on track for Sunday. On the Friday, he realized he needed a name for this venture, plus a uniform.
He came up with Mr. Mudbug, and then he set out for the hardware store to look for red jumpsuits and white shrimp boots. A seamstress who worked for his father’s produce company added Mr. Mudbug Catering to the back. Maenza fondly remembers the look, and says he still has that first pair of shrimp boots.
Towards the end of the Spring Fling, where 1,000 guests enjoyed hot boiled shrimp and crawfish, Maenza was finishing up with the last batch of crawfish. He and his team were drinking a well-earned beer when Aboud came out back and asked how everything was going.
“I told him it was great, and he told me to turn around,” laughs Maenza. “The rig had caught on fire! We didn’t anticipate the burners getting so hot and we had some wood planks for support on the rig that just burst into flames.”
Despite the rig going up in flames, the business started growing from that moment on. The onsite boiling became very popular and Maenza began booking events from that one crawfish boil with Mr. Aboud. His successes quickly multiplied.
“From that function, more and more onsite boiling jobs came in and it just grew,” said Maenza. “And, from there, the catering expanded beyond boiled seafood.”
With a name like ‘Mr. Mudbug,’ it became clear, very quickly, that it didn’t have the same appeal for more formal events like weddings. He and his team swiftly created a second name by offering ‘12 Seasons Catering.’ So, when it’s a casual outdoor party, you call for Mr. Mudbug. When formal attire is required, it’s 12 Seasons Catering who will be at your service.
“We wanted to match the ambiance,” Maenza said of Mr. Mudbug’s growth. “In New Orleans, it’s a different season every month. We don’t have 4 seasons, we have 12. We’re always celebrating something different.”
Maenza entered the restaurant industry in the early 90s by opening King Creole Restaurant on Metairie Road. As an Elvis Presley fan, he always loved the movie filmed here in New Orleans, and as history tells it, it happens to be Elvis’ favorite movie that he ever filmed.
Maenza himself is a former king, reigning as the King of Argus XXXIV in 2018. His joyful personality keeps the businesses simmering at a nice pace, and after King Creole’s final curtain in 1996, Maenza noticed a niche waiting to be tapped.
A market for high-end, prepackaged foods for restaurants caught his interest. He continued to work primarily with Mr. Mudbug and 12 Seasons after closing the restaurant, while working to form a new operation named Base Logistics.
The aftermath of Hurricane Isadore left parts of Southeast Louisiana without power for a few days, and it was Maenza’s catering company who stepped in to start feeding the line workers. That was the start of Base Logistics, acting as a helping hand to electrical companies after a natural disaster. In the wake of a hurricane, it is easy to feel helpless without power. People want to return to their normal day-to-day, but if the linemen are not taken care of, it slows down the progress.
“Our goal was to get the lights turned on faster,” Maenza said. “One of the ways we could achieve having everyone return to work was to keep the workers on the power lines fed, so they wouldn’t have to go elsewhere to go eat, and come back. Entergy was our first customer. It soon grew to almost every utility company in the country that we had a contract with to produce food for their workers.”
The success of Base Logistics fueled the growth of MMI Culinary, which is now a 150,000 square feet space in Kenner. The food production, research and development center also became the catalyst for Maenza’s next business venture which was SWEGS Kitchen. The acronym is Small Wins Equal Great Success, and this thought is something that follows Maenza in his everyday business practices.
When you’re eating a classic New Orleans food that’s lower in sodium, that’s what you call a small win with a highly positive outcome. Every small win in life can equal something bigger than itself. SWEGS was a way to bridge the mental gap between healthy eating vs. not so healthy eating.
“It was about nutrition meets culinary, lab coats meet chef coats,” said Maenza. “It’s about hidden health. We started producing mass quantities of red beans and rice without all the sugars and excess salt. We brought in food scientists and nutritionist to help develop the food. We started delivering those foods, and sending them to schools around the country, and we still do today.”
He’s undeniably left his mark, having had his hand in varying aspects of the industry which gives his appointment to LRA Chair a unique perspective. He’ll always remember that trip to Pierre Part, however, and the moment he eyed that broken-down trailer and kettle. A huge ‘small win’ in his book.
“It all goes back to the kettle,” said Maenza, “and cooking from the heart. From that kettle, I said ‘yea, we’ll figure it out,’ And, now, here we are. There’s no I in our team, and same goes for the LRA. There is no I in the LRA’s team.”