For the first time in 46 years, a descendant of founder Ellis Huntsinger is again leading Eau Claire-based condiment company Silver Spring Foods and the world’s largest horseradish grower, Huntsinger Farms.
Eric Rygg, great grandson of Huntsinger, took the reins of the family businesses earlier this month after working his way up in the company.
Rising from his most recent post as vice president of sales and marketing, Rygg has goals to grow the company by expanding its audience and tapping into culinary trends that are as hot as horseradish.
When the company turns 90 next year, Rygg expects to set another milestone — producing 100 million pounds of finished products (not including the weight of bottles), up from its recently set yearly record of 95 million pounds.
If you’ve eaten horseradish anywhere in the U.S., it’s likely it was grown in Eau Claire, and condiments produced here are sold throughout the nation.
“In some shape or form, we’re in every supermarket in the country,” Rygg said.
The bottle doesn’t always say Silver Spring Foods — the company also owns and produces products for the Bookbinder’s and Kelchner labels that have roots in the East Coast. Other condiment companies and supermarket brands also get their products bottled or made at Silver Spring Foods’ plant on Eau Claire’s north side.
Even with the ubiquity of the company’s products, Rygg is still pushing to reach more people, especially when it comes to the root vegetable he’s known his entire life.
Smoke and heat
A decade ago the company did a study to learn about its customers and found horseradish devotees were in the 55 and older age group. It recently did the same study and found their biggest fans were now the 65 and older group.
“It’s the same group 10 years later,” Rygg said.
To expand their audience, especially in the millennial demographic, the company is looking for the kinds of flavors that are growing popular among foodies. Lately that’s been smoke and heat.
This year the company rolled out a brand new sauce — Applewood Smoke Flavored Horseradish — and tweaked its chipotle ranch and sriracha sauce.
Launching a totally new product takes about six months to a year, starting with market research into food trends, creating and refining the recipe, designing labels and packaging, putting them into production and getting onto shelves.
For example, the new horseradish sauce tried multiple smoke flavors including mesquite and hickory before deciding on applewood, which has grown in popularity from its ties to bacon. And instead of regular vinegar, Silver Spring used champagne vinegar in that product to get the right flavor.
Riding the smoky flavor trend is a good decision, Chippewa Valley Technical College chef instructor Jonathan Fike said, because its been popular thanks in large part to bacon and other smoked meats.
“I think that’s here to stay,” said Fike, who’s part of the college’s new culinary program.
He’s got his own bottle of the new Silver Spring sauce, which he uses with a French dip sandwich with caramelized onions and brie cheese.
Rygg also believes Silver Springs’ horseradish can be aided by a hot sauce craze that began several years ago, which has branched out and given new popularity to sriracha and Thai chili condiments.
Fike concurred that interest in fiery flavors is persistent, attributing it to TV travel and cooking shows featuring hot dishes and Americans expanding their palates with more ethnic flair.
“I don’t think it’s going away too soon,” said Fike, who has experience cooking at private clubs, large restaurants and institutions.
When asked if the recent popularity of sriracha and Thai chili could aid horseradish products, Fike said it could because the root vegetable already is found in many Asian condiments. In fact, almost all the wasabi made in the U.S. gets its heat from horseradish instead of the much more extensive wasabi root, Fike said.
Silver Spring has its own wasabi sauce, a stout bottle with the bright green color of the spicy condiment most often associated with sushi and other Asian cuisine.
It now stands alone in Silver Spring’s line, but there used to be wasabi siblings with mango or other flavors incorporated into them. The absence of those variations shows how if some products don’t meet goals, Silver Spring may tweak them for another shot or drop them entirely.
A recent example of that was the company’s peppadew mustard — made from South African pepper that’s both hot and sweet — which was reintroduced as picante pepper mustard, but ultimately went away.
But when the company has what it feels is a sure-fire hit — as was the case with chipotle mustard a few years ago — it skips an initial regional roll-out and goes right to nationwide distribution.
Silver Spring’s roots are in two products — regular horseradish and creamed horseradish.
But now the company has about 100 different items across different brands and varying sizes of bottles.
Silver Spring considers itself a condiment company with the mission of making food taste better. Through its Kelchner brand of products, it is branching out in an additional direction intended to go well with seafood.
“This is a whole new category we’ve never been in before, the marinade,” Rygg said as he shook up a bottle.
The company launched the line this year with horseradish remoulade, pineapple teriyaki, lemon dill, honey ginger and shrimp scampi sauce. Based on strong sales on the East Coast, Silver Spring is spreading the Kelchner marinades westward. It’s already in 14 states, including supermarkets in Chicago, and will go farther.
“Our intention is to bring this across the country,” Rygg said.
Getting out there
The company is upping its marketing — offering recipes, suggesting multiple uses and occasions for consuming horseradish. In addition to aiding sales, this also encourages customers to use the product quickly as refrigerated horseradish has a five-month shelf life and the natural heat of the product fades after that.
Jeni Path, marketing supervisor, lights up when you ask her about “the horseradish challenge.”
It’s pretty simple — just try out a dollop of prepared horseradish on top of a cracker or even out of a shot glass with a friend to experience the natural heat that comes and goes in that bite. She’s encouraging taverns to offer it to patrons, which should make them thirsty for a drink or to try the condiment on their food.
A big partnership for the company this year is with Lambeau Field, which now has Silver Spring horseradish in all the bloody marys served in the Green Bay Packers’ historic stadium. This revived a relationship with Lambeau Field the company had a decade ago for its mustard, which catapulted its somewhat spicy Beer & Brat variety to Silver Springs’ top-selling mustard.
The company is doing more to put its products in front of people from local events like sponsoring Food Truck Fridays this summer in downtown Eau Claire to sampling at various grocery stores.
Among Rygg’s pursuits is adding a scientific side to testing the hotness of a batch of horseradish, which had long been only done through taste-testing.
“We really want to understand horseradish chemistry,” Rygg said.
The company bought specialty equipment and hired a researcher a couple years ago to work on a heat index for horseradish that’s similar to the scoville used to measure the heat of a pepper.
As horseradish can have a range of flavors and heat levels, the goal is to make the most consistent product on the market, Rygg said.
Twice-monthly taste tests done by a select group of two dozen employees are still part of that.
Kessia Neuberg, Silver Spring’s marketing, communications and events coordinator, is among those who were bestowed with a company T-shirt with “Zingmaster!” on the back. Before becoming part of the company’s quality control taste testers — judging the taste, texture, color, heat and aftertaste of horseradish — she and others had to pass a test of their palates to show they can accurately detect the entire range of flavors.
Minding their roots
Silver Spring also is embracing other food trends, such as cutting out artificial ingredients and emphasizing a farm-to-table product. The company cut out artificial preservatives in the last three years. And some labels have seen the addition of an illustration of Ellis Huntsinger in a field, showing the company both grows and processes its own horseradish.
Those crops are split between 7,000 acres on Wisconsin — including the old family farm on Highway 37 south of Eau Claire —and 2,000 acres in Minnesota.
Silver Spring has 300 employees, most in Eau Claire, but also some in Pennsylvania at its distribution center for Kelchner and a service it owns that delivers seafood and its condiments.
Rygg owns the company along with his brother Ryan, who is a physics professor in New York, and their mother, Nancy Bartusch.
Bartusch inherited the company when she was only 22 and studying business at Stanford when a plane crash claimed the lives of other family members in 1972. While the company continued to be family-owned, Bartusch hired former Kraft executive Bill Nelson Sr. to run Silver Spring, followed by his son, Bill Nelson Jr.
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