Deli delight – A simple chicken salad sparks a following
Baton Rouge patrons ship it to family members overseas. Mothers enhance it for dinner. Party planners scoop it into pastry shells for soirees. LSU sorority girls eat it straight out of the container. Actress Elizabeth Banks even tweeted about it. And certain area restaurants buy it in bulk to serve from their own kitchens.
It’s the chicken salad from Calvin’s Bocage Market on Jefferson Highway. With almost 170,000 pounds sold last year alone, Calvin’s chicken salad has become a household staple in the Capital City.
“Every time my daughter comes in from New Orleans, I buy Calvin’s chicken salad,” says Karen England. “That’s the first thing she wants when she comes home. I can’t keep enough of it.”
Calvin Lindsly is the mastermind behind the special sandwich and cracker spread. He and cookbook author Chet Beckworth started creating chicken salad recipes for the market in 1995. After a year of testing ingredient combinations, the duo landed on a winner.
“As long as he’s been making it, we’ve been buying it,” says Becky Miller. “Just this week, we had nothing to eat and didn’t feel like going out to dinner, so we bought chicken salad, went home and ate it on crackers.”
In 1996, the store itself was not doing as well as its new chicken salad recipe. Previous storeowner Jerry Ziegler filed for bankruptcy. Calvin, who was store manager at the time, mustered all of his savings and secured a loan to purchase the business. The Bocage Supermarket was reborn as Calvin’s Bocage Market.
“Calvin and I met 29 years ago, and I knew from the beginning that his dream was to own his own grocery store one day,” says Calvin’s wife, Rhonda. “He even showed me his sketchbook, which laid out his vision for the store.”
Calvin cultivated his vision from an early age. At 16, he began as a bag boy at the Bocage Supermarket. Stuffing bags, mopping floors and stocking shelves, Calvin worked tirelessly with the goal of one day becoming owner. That was 37 years ago. “Certain customers have seen me grow up,” says Calvin, which may explain how he can credibly claim to know 80% of patrons by name.
Today, many frequent the store for necessary grocery items while stocking up on chicken salad by the pint and quart. Calvin sells 350 to 400 pounds of chicken salad on an average day, but he produces greater quantities for special occasions.
“On an LSU game day, I’ve sold as much as 2,200 to 2,500 pounds,” says Calvin. “In the two days leading up to Christmas, I sold 5,600 pounds.”
While Calvin may be selling an abundance of the highly sought-after spread, he maintains that quality is never compromised. It’s the same recipe every day; the cooks do not deviate from it.
“If it’s not right when I go back there and try it, we’ll throw 300 pounds in the garbage,” he says. “I had a company approach me last year about mass-producing it; but when you do something like that, you have to add MSG and other preservatives. We’re not going to do that.”
Instead, Calvin, his son, Brandon, and 16 deli workers come in at 5 a.m. every day to put chickens on the boil. The cooked chickens are ultimately ground by machine and packaged by hand.
“We’re semi secretive about the recipe,” Calvin says, adding a smile, “If anybody quits, we usually kill them so they can’t work anywhere else.” While certain ingredients are rumored to be included in the recipe—everything from marshmallow cream to highly addictive drugs—Calvin asserts that nothing unusual is necessary to make it delicious.
It’s just a good, tried-and-true combination, he says. Patrons of all ages agree.
“I’ve used it when my babies wouldn’t eat any protein,” says Stacy Henry. “I’d break a whole-wheat foldover sandwich into pieces and put it on their high-chair tray.
Sometimes, when the kids were napping in the car, someone from Calvin’s would even bring the chicken salad out to me.”
Calvin has masterfully created a niche product that attracts business to the store. He controls the quality and sells it at a premium. But he does more than that. Calvin greets patrons as they enter. He answers the phones. He points shoppers to the right aisle and often walks them there himself. He reaches up to the high shelf to grab products for shorter customers. He carries heavy bags to cars. Bottom line: He’s there every day, and he’s accessible.
“We’ve come a long way in the past 16 years,” says Rhonda, “but that doesn’t go without saying something about all the hours and effort Calvin has put in for his dream to come true.”
Hours, effort, timing and availability. And don’t forget the extraordinary chicken salad. Calvin Lindsly realized a childhood dream and helped create a Capital City staple in the process.