It’s mudbug season and James Bernard, the king crawfish distributor in Louisiana, reigns over a seafood empire that good old-fashioned work ethics built. James and Georgia, his wife of 39 years, are residents of Mansura, in Avoyelles Parish. The two have built a hugely successful crawfish and seafood business that distributes products all over the nation and Canada. And although the Bernard family name has been synonymous with crawfish and seafood for decades, James says he will never forget how he got his start in business.
While attending Mansura High School, James worked in his father’s grocery store. After graduation though, he started working on a farm. “I was going broke farming. I thought, ‘I was raised in a store,’ so after about six months of farming, I decided to open a little convenience store of my own in Cottonport in 1980,” James recalls. Three years later, his business took off in a different direction. “I didn’t know too much about seafood or crawfish at that time,” James says with a laugh. But he was approached by some businessmen who wanted to know if he could buy crawfish from the local farmers who raised them. “I was getting a nickel a pound for crawfish in a sack, making about $10.00 to $12.00 a sack,” James remembers, adding that was a turning point in his career.
Bernard started buying and boiling crawfish in his little convenience store and business increased. Bernard Seafood Express Mart expanded and relocated. He and Georgia opened up a rustic restaurant called Bernard’s Cajun Sea-Fry, which has become a favorite for area folks. By 1989, the family’s crawfish and seafood industry had expanded to established delivery routes and processing and cold storage facilities. Today, 18-wheeler trucks with the name “Bernard’s” emblazoned on them, can be seen lined up at their plant in Cottonport, facing the picturesque Bayou Rouge that winds through town. The family distributes about 300 different seafood products, ranging from live Louisiana Red Swamp crawfish to frozen shrimp and oysters. And James’ convenience store still sells live and boiled crawfish by the sack full. “There’s a lot to be said about Louisiana crawfish – something about it being fresh. You can always taste the difference,” James says about the perennial popular mudbug.
May is one of the busiest months for the demand of crawfish, according to James. “Mother’s Day and Easter are two of the biggest days for crawfish. January through now was our busiest season, but since we distribute other products, we are staying busy. Of course, with crawfish season, the work doubles,” James notes.
The crawfish and seafood business has become quite the family affair for the Bernard family. But Georgia has not always worked in the restaurant and office. When she was in the eleventh grade at Mansura High School, Georgia started dating James. In school, she was active in the Beta Club and played the saxophone in the marching band. After graduation, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Louisiana College in education. “I graduated July 29, 1976 from LC, and then the next day, July 30th, we got married,” Georgia says. Besides teaching sixth-grade students, Georgia stayed actively involved as a parent volunteer and helped out at her sons’ football games. “My husband called me the Queen of Concession Stands,” Georgia laughs, “But it was a lot of fun.”
She taught school for 20 years, and retired in August 1997 from her teaching career. One hour after signing her retirement papers, Georgia recalls starting a “new” career in the family business. “I started from the bottom up. I did whatever I needed to do, from working in the kitchen to working as a waitress,” Georgia says, adding that after four years she started working in the business office.
The couple have three grown children. Their two sons work in the family business. Robbie, the oldest, organizes the truck routes, drivers and oversees truck deliveries. Jake, the youngest, does a variety of things, including truck maintenance. Jamie, their daughter, is a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Cabrini hospital. “We are very proud of our children. And I am real happy that our boys wanted to be a part of what their daddy started,” Georgia says. James echoes her sentiments. “Our boys are very hard workers, and we are proud of all our children.” Currently, the Bernards employ about 48 people in Mansura and Cottonport. He also has retail sales in New Orleans and owns Crawfish Port in Alexandria.
When the couple is not working, they like to entertain their four grandchildren or get together with friends and family to cook meals together. “I like to cook, but James is a better cook than me,” Georgia says, adding that the family also likes to go to Disney World together. They also believe in giving back to the community. The Bernards attend St. Mary’s Catholic Church and are involved in several activities there. They also loan out their refrigeration trucks for fundraisers and community events. “I didn’t go to college. I learned on the job with my hands. We like to give back to the community any way we can. We have had our business in Cottonport for 34 years, and I realize a lot of people have helped me and supported me. If something happens to a family in our community, I want to help them. Everyone should give back,” James notes.
To succeed in business, James adds, “It takes a strong work ethic. I like to get up in the morning and go to work. I usually start work about 7:30am and never know when I am going home. Usually I am home by 7:00pm. But if it wasn’t for my two boys, it would probably be more like midnight.” James and Georgia say they may have missed out on a lot of things in working so hard to build up their business, but in the long run, they say it has all been worth it as they are creating a legacy for their children and grandchildren.