Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Dear god--those teeth! Jagged, menacing, arrayed in gaping leathery jaws, they seem poised to chomp down on the fingers of curious tourists. And, oh, how the tourists love it.
According to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, alligators contribute more than $50 million a year to the state economy if you factor in the hides, the meat, the swamp tours, and other products and attractions. "Going back to the early history of New Orleans, alligators have universal appeal," says Robert McDade, CEO of Natural Selections, perhaps the nation's leading source of preserved alligator heads. (Numbers for this niche are elusive.)
"Alligators have been mythologized, anthropomorphized, and exaggerated," says McDade. "People are fascinated by how they imagine their fierceness, longevity, and size." And thanks to this entrepreneur's willingness to do some seriously unpleasant work, tourists can bring a relic of his beloved city home with them.
McDade, a retired petrochemical engineer, saw his first alligator head in the late 1980s, while peddling fossils and minerals from a table in the famed French Quarter flea market. Right across the aisle, doing brisk trade in the diminutive grotesqueries, was a gentleman with the nom de business Wally Gator. "The heads were a new consumer item at the time," says McDade. "Someone had figured out how to process them so you could take them home, put them on your bookshelf, and they wouldn't smell or rot or attract flies.
McDade and his wife, Liz, a geologist, started buying heads from Gator and selling them at the Southern Fossil and Minerals Exchange, their store on Magazine Street. At Gator's plant, McDade learned head-processing techniques. The formaldehyde soak. The eyes replaced with marbles. A coat of polyurethane for that moist, fresh-from-the-swamp look. "It's a very long process to turn them from a wet, slimy harvested head to the final product, which is made to last and shows off the teeth," says McDade. "It's all about the teeth.
When Gator retired to Colorado, McDade bought his account list and switched from retail to wholesale. Within a few years, the heads--from Natural Selections and a handful of competitors--sat grinning on the shelves of New Orleans's ubiquitous gift shops, between the voodoo dolls and Mardi Gras beads. Roughly half the company's heads are sold through local merchants. McDade ships the rest as far afield as California, Alaska, and New York.
Natural Selections' products are steady sellers at Oak Alley Plantation, a historic mansion and restaurant in Vacherie, Louisiana. Angela Delatte, who runs the gift shop there, started buying from McDade 15 years ago: She counts on him to personally bring her more heads when she runs out unexpectedly. "We had customers asking for the product: men, kids, and mothers," says Delatte. TV shows like Swamp Men and Gator Boys have heightened demand, she says.
"The heads give tourists a souvenir that is truly representative of the state and the city and is not more plastic beads being made in China," says Keith Twitchell, president of the nonprofit Committee for a Better New Orleans. "So much of the tourism economy here is low-paying jobs with profits that go out of town. Natural Selections is a local company distributing local products. And the profits stay here."
Rotting heads and a classy museum.
Natural Selections can boast an environmental impact as well as economic and marketing ones. Every gator starts life as an egg in a swamp. On alligator farms--of which Louisiana is the nation's capital--they are raised to different sizes depending largely on who's buying the hides. (Watchband makers, for example, want small hides for a tight pattern. Couch-cover makers need much bigger animals.) Demand for meat has grown with America's culinary sophistication and has become a lucrative product for farmers. Natural Selections sells its own line of meat sticks and jerky, which are manufactured elsewhere.
Alligator heads, by contrast, fall under the category of spare parts. "An alligator head fresh off the carcass is a biological waste," says McDade. "You can't just send it to the dump. We are taking something that was garbage and turning it into a highly desirable souvenir. We are making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Natural Selections' headquarters, comprising sales, customer service, and floor-to-ceiling inventory, is located in an oil-company-dominated industrial park inside New Orleans city limits. The plant is farther out, in the country. The 10-employee company also sells trinkets fashioned from feet and teeth, which make eye-catching jewelry and key chains. To retrieve the teeth, "we take thousands of alligator heads and leave them there, undisturbed for half a year while they rot," says McDade. "Then you go out and pick the teeth out of the skulls. There is no way to get those teeth until the head has completely rotted.
"It's a nasty, nasty business dealing with raw animal products," says McDade. "It's not something you could do in the city."
But Natural Selections may soon have a more elegant beachhead in New Orleans proper: The Great American Alligator Museum. In the early 2000s, McDade acquired a building on Magazine Street in a National Historic District and stocked it with upwards of 5,000 alligator artifacts, ranging from a 50-million-year-old fossil discovered in Wyoming to movie posters, video games, and salt and pepper shakers. Then Hurricane Katrina forced him to divert money intended for the museum to rebuilding Natural Selections' business.
"After Katrina, we had to rearrange our priorities," says McDade. He estimates that 10 percent of the work is left to do, such as creating signage, developing more products for the gift shop, and hiring and training staff. McDade expects the museum will open this fall. "Right now we are losing less money by not opening," he says.
Twitchell expects the new attraction will draw tourists to parts of New Orleans outside of Bourbon Street. "It's good for tourism's benefits to be spread as widely as possible throughout the city," he says. "I hope the locals will come too."