Tom and his wife Gayle Benson said Wednesday (July 26) that they purchased a majority of Dixie Brewing Co. LLC for an undisclosed price. Longtime owners Joseph and Kendra Bruno will keep a minority interest. As part of the agreement, a brewery will be built in Orleans Parish within the next two years, possibly in New Orleans East.
“Here’s something that represents New Orleans for me,” Tom Benson said Wednesday. “I think this is a good thing for New Orleans. This is why I wanted to get involved. I believe we need a little stimulus here in our city. We need something that’s made here.”
Starting Thursday, the first batch of Dixie Beer brewed under Benson’s ownership will be rolled out to 250 bars and stores around New Orleans with expansion planned throughout Louisiana and into Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.
Dixie, founded in 1907, was displaced after Hurricane Katrina and struggled to stay alive while being brewed under contract in Wisconsin. Dixie’s towering historic Tulane Avenue brewery never reopened after the flood. The beer strayed from its original recipe over the decades, and production dropped to less than 20,000 cases a year.
Under Benson’s ownership, the beer is now made under the watch of Dixie’s own brewmaster at a brewery in Memphis, Tennessee, using the original 1907 recipe. It also produces a new Dixie Light brand and Dixie Blackened Voodoo Lager, Benson’s executive team said. The recipes have been tested at an undisclosed West Bank brewing facility.
Benson, who turned 90 this month, is adding the beer brand and brewery to his estimated $2.6 billion fortune that includes the Saints, Pelicans, car dealerships and real estate.
The Dixie deal didn’t come easily. About two years ago, Benson asked his team to look into buying New Orleans brands in the “ain’t dere no more” category, iconic companies that were struggling or dead, his executives said.
Saints President Dennis Lauscha said they had exploratory talks with at least 10 companies. “We all said that the one we all would love to bring back was Dixie Beer,” Lauscha said. “Word on the street, though, was the owners weren’t very interested in selling Dixie Beer … We knew we had to convince them that this was the right thing to do, that we were the suitor that was going to bring it into the next generation.”
Bruno, who bought Dixie with her husband in 1985, said they sought investors for many years, but they had no intention of selling the brand, despite dozens of purchase offers. “We knew it was bigger than us,” Bruno said. “It was not just our beer. We were caretakers. We were looking for the right people, the right circumstances … It wasn’t until we met the Bensons and their crew that we felt really good that, maybe, here was something.”
Site selection for the new brewery is underway, including deciding whether it will be purely industrial or include public entertainment, according to Benson’s team. They hope to make a final selection within a month. Lauscha declined to say how much Benson would invest in the project. The options range from a 250-acre site in New Orleans East that incorporates a bike trail and a wildlife center to developing a facility in Central City or other neighborhoods in need of revitalization, he said,
“This beer has historically brought people together … this is a neighborhood community beer,” Lauscha said.
Dixie once claimed a 30 percent market share in local beer consumption, but increasing competition from national brands chipped away at the business. After Katrina, the landmark Dixie brewery’s facade was incorporated into a new research building on the VA hospital campus.
Bruno said it’s difficult to see Dixie’s original home gone. “That wasn’t really our brewery,” Bruno said. “That was Dixie’s home. It belonged to Dixie. It belonged to the city.”
“We knew we would come back,” she added. “We didn’t know exactly when or how.”
The Dixie Beer purchase is the latest of several business moves in recent months, and Saints executives indicated there are more to come. Benson’s recent high-profile legal fight with his estranged daughter and two grandchildren over control of his empire and financial interest in the sports teams settled earlier this year.
He bought Cadillac of New Orleans in Metairie and sold off his majority stake in WVUE Fox 8 to Raycom Media in April. On Wednesday, the Saints and Pelicans also announced Ochsner Health System signed an eight-year deal for naming rights to the teams’ practice facilities.