20110831-ABIZexecspotlight-0101A federal public defender who has just stepped down from that role, Michelle Vallot believes the sky is the limit for her nutritious — and delicious — snack bars.
By Leslie Turk

Michelle Vallot has gone back to her roots and the entrepreneurial skills she honed while doing sales for her dad’s oilfield service company. Vallot grew up in rural Abbeville, the second oldest in a family of seven children all close in age. “Our home was situated on several acres of family property and sugar cane fields farmed by my paternal grandfather and his sons,” Vallot says. “To me these sugar cane fields were beautiful with the tall, giant green canopies of shade they created from the inside of the cane rows looking up that practically reached to the sky. I had grown to love those sugar cane fields even at harvest time, after the cane had been cut down with all of the flags burned off smoldering atop the rows.” Vallot never forgot the sweet sugar smell in the cool autumn fields against the backdrop of an orange setting sun. But it was the manufacturing process — her memory of the smell of sugar cane juice cooking into syrup, a drift she says came from the mill nearby — that would inspire her creativity in the kitchen and one day give rise to her Zydeco Bar company, which she is now working full-time to expand.

First, however, there was a legal matter to deal with: law school, which she entered in 1989. 

What initially attracted you to the field of law?
I believe that I can attribute my entrepreneurial spirit to my late father, who was in the oil service industry, food service industry and travel agency business. I was attracted to the field of law to pursue whatever I endeavored to do in my future.
 
What was the most difficult aspect of working as criminal defense attorney?
Having worked for 15 plus years as a federal defender [for the U.S. Western District], it is still difficult to accept the high levels of incarceration we witness imposed on non-violent felons, all funded with tax dollars for severe prison sentences with little or no rehabilitation. 

And the most rewarding?
As a criminal defense attorney, a win is always rewarding, but it has made my heart smile when a defendant has satisfied their term of incarceration and is back in society working successfully, and it is always a pleasure to receive a Christmas card or a thank you from a client.
 
How does a criminal defense lawyer become an entrepreneur?
It can probably be attributable to my busy personality that my vocation as a cookie-maker surfaced. Plus, I have always been interested in nutrition, prevention and using all natural foods to support good health. I can never forget working late nights on weekends with my dear friend Fannie, and talking about life while baking trays and trays of all natural and delicious Italian fig cookies. It would be the success of the fig cookie that compelled me to continue baking, always endeavoring to create all natural, delicious and nutritious snacks.

Tell me what went into choosing the sweet potato as your key ingredient?
The sweet potato has been a sleeper in a sense, not for us here in Louisiana and states like the Carolinas that grow the spur, but from a nutritional viewpoint. Now, with so much focus on what we eat and the high percentage of obesity we face not only as a state, but as a nation, great-tasting and nutritious snack alternatives are on the rise. As a vegetable source the sweet potato is rich not only in taste, but is a complex carbohydrate, contains dietary fiber, vitamin A and vitamin C. My research and development to create a great-tasting nutrition bar was taken to a new level with the addition of the sweet potato. 

I really like the bars, in part because I feel like they aren’t real sugary. Tell me I’m right — and why I should keep eating them.
For those keen on eating nutritious and great tasting, on-the-run snacks, the Zydeco Bar calls to you. Sweetened with brown rice syrup (which contains soluble complex carbohydrates), this sweetener is considered to be a time-released energy source that is metabolized slowly in the body. Zydeco Bars are satisfying and filling without being heavy before a workout at the gym. They’re preservative free with an easy-to-read label and are also a great breakfast and after-school snack, important for sustaining energy in growing children. This bar is moist, full of roasted pecans, raisins and oats, and leaves a great after taste. 

What’s your current distribution and what’s in the bar’s future?
Zydeco Bars [the first bar was packaged in early 2010] are in both national and regional distribution channels at this time, so our bar can be purchased in any number of states outside of Louisiana. Our track record for repeat sales is very good, especially since the focus has shifted to health and quality-of-life considerations. 

Back to the more personal side. Tell me about this great passion you have for art — and for a certain local sculptor.
Passion for art, food and life are all related in my opinion. I have always had a great appreciation for art, often just seeing it, but certainly by allowing myself to be surrounded by beautiful art. It has been delightful living in a world with the skillful and sensitive work of sculptor Russell Whiting. It is wonderful to see how art impacts human beings and what pleasure they gain from the experience of knowing art. If I had to say what it was that brought Russell and me together, it would have to be our collective spirit to create something unique for the world, each in our own way. 
 

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