Honoring a family legacy through hard work

Heath Leger - Crawfish Harvester, Chez Francois Seafood and Specialty Meats, Lafayette, Louisiana

Feature | 13 December 2021
Chez Francois Seafood and Specialty Meats was started by Heath Leger’s father. He and his brother Andre work in the family business and are honouring their father’s legacy alive by delivering quality products and keeping their customers happy. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“When I was a kid about 42 years ago, crawfish wasn’t really something that was a delicacy. It was pretty uncommon and only eaten by swamp people, but now it’s a multibillion dollar industry, and you can go to just about any country and eat it now” Heath Leger says about the industry his family has been dedicated to for several decades.

Heath’s father started the Chez Francois Seafood and Specialty Meats company in Lafayette, Louisiana, which has been serving up fresh local seafood and meat products for 45 years. Located about 35 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, some of the seafood they handle include shrimp, crab, oysters fresh from the water and crawfish from the local ponds and the Atchafalaya Basin.

“We’re about quality. My dad’s business has always been about quality not quantity,” says Heath Leger as he surveys the fresh catch of crustaceans that look like small lobsters, on board his crawfish boat. Both he and his brother Andre work in the family business, their dad started when Heath was just 12 years old.

As he leans over the side of the boat into the water putting out the baited traps around the perimeter of the pond, Heath explains that the crawfish also known as crayfish live in holes about two to three feet deep, that they dig in the ground below the water, and pile up a mound of mud on top.

“I guess that’s why they call them mud bugs,” he shrugs with a grin. “There’s a lot of different species of crawfish, but as far as I know there aren’t that many that are really edible.”

Crawfish which are also known as crayfish and mudbugs among other names are small crustaceans that look like little lobsters. The state of Louisiana is the leading crawfish producer in the US, producing about 90% of commercial crawfish and contributes significantly to the state’s economy. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Louisiana however leads the crawfish industry in the US, with over 1,200 farms over 120,00 acres producing about 90% of commercial crawfish. About 7,000 people are employed both directly and indirectly by the industry, which contributes about $300 million to the State’s yearly economy.

While crawfish farming has been a lifelong passion for Heath, he took some time out and worked in the oil industry, where he says he witnessed the impact technology had on that industry. “I worked in the oil field for 11 years,” he says. “And by the time I left they had unmanned production platforms which resulted in the loss of 70-80 jobs each.”

When asked if he sees technology and automation taking over the crawfish industry and people’s jobs, Heath responds, “I don’t think so. I’m not saying it’s impossible but there are too many things involved that need human attention, that I don’t think a robot could do. It would just be too hard and too expensive.”

In addition to farming crawfish on their 120-acre farm they also raise rice which is only for the crawfish to feed on. Keeping the land healthy and maintaining a sustainable enterprise is also a focus for the Leger brothers enterprise. “We don’t do it ourselves but there are companies that my brother hires to do whatever needs to be done to maintain the land and keep it healthy,” he says.

“I’ll tell you one thing, there ain’t nothing easy about this work!” he exclaims.

In discussing what makes the work he does so arduous, Heath says, “It’s non-stop. You are sitting in a boat driving it with your feet for hours, doing five things at a time. It’s hot and sweaty and there are mosquitoes and fish messing with you.” Despite how grueling the work can be, Heath points out that it is also very rewarding.

Heath describes crawfish farming as laborious work. Driving the boat for long hours through the wetlands, in the hot weather with mosquitoes leaves him feeling “dog dead tired” at the end of the day. But he is passionate about preserving his father’s legacy, delivering quality products, and keeping customers happy. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
“At the end of the day you’re dog-dead tired, but you got a boat full of crawfish, and that is very rewarding,” he says. “But I’ll tell you, if you don’t like getting dirty then this is not for you. I’ve seen myself up to my waist in mud quite a few times,” Heath shares with a laugh.

In talking about what work means to him, Leger quotes his grandfather saying, “when a man loves what he does, he doesn’t ever work a day in his life. I have a passion for it, my heart is in it.”

He also notes that teamwork is of utmost importance. “If there is one thing I’ve learned about this industry, it’s that you can’t do it by yourself,” he stresses. He believes that word of mouth has been integral to the business surviving throughout the years. “My dad never did radio, or television, or advertise in the newspaper. It was always word of mouth.”

“My dad’s dream before he left and went home was to leave a legacy behind that we carry on for generations.” Keeping their father’s legacy alive is a motivating factor that keeps both Heath and Andre working hard and ensuring that they deliver quality products, to keep their customers happy and satisfied. “Making someone smile,” Heath says, “is where the payoff is.”