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2022-04-02 08:33:44 By : Ms. Cherie Huang

BERLIN - Wisconsin Spice Inc. President Allen Sass never liked ketchup, but he always had a taste for mustard.

A framed Oshkosh Northwestern article from 1986 that hangs in the company's headquarters backs up his claim. It includes a photo of a then 4-year-old Allen enjoying a pretzel rod dipped in mustard.

Mustard has been the Sass family business since 1973 when Allen's father, Phil, and a business partner started Wisconsin Spice. You might recognize the company from Uncle Phil's, the grocery-store brand that carries Phil Sass' name. But that's only a small sliver of Wisconsin Spice's business.

The company grew from a small operation in a converted feed mill in downtown Berlin to a sprawling production facility in the city's industrial park.

A steady stream of semitrucks roll into the Wisconsin Spice facility daily. Some trucks deliver 52,000 pounds of mustard seed to be vacuumed into the processing plant. Other trucks get packed full of 125-pound barrels of mustard bran destined for food manufacturers as far away as Australia.

Each year, Wisconsin Spice processes as much as 40 million pounds of mustard seed into 75 million pounds of wet and dry mustard products. Allen said he knows of only one other mustard processor in America that processes both wet and dry products.

Wisconsin Spice fills packages of all sizes. Industrial-sized bags of mustard flour as an ingredient for food manufacturers. Gallon tubs of mustard for food service companies. Single-serve mustard packets for national chain restaurants.

Products leaving the Berlin factory get delivered to six of the seven continents around the world. Though if an Antarctica food service company needs mustard, it’s a good bet Wisconsin Spice Inc. would find a way to make that happen.

Saying yes when others say no. That's a big part of Wisconsin Spice's success, Allen said. It's also a reminder not to get complacent.

“The biggest fear that I have is that another Wisconsin Spice is going to come around," Allen said. "It’s not like my dad started the mustard industry. It’s not like he started doing something unique. It started with doing things other people didn’t want to do. Or other people couldn’t do. It’s almost a cautionary tale and something that keeps us not only hungry but keeps us focused on not making textbook business decisions.”  

There's been nothing textbook about Wisconsin Spice from the start, which began during a mustard seed shortage.

Phil Sass grew up in Milwaukee, graduated from UW-Madison with a food science degree then moved to Rochester, N.Y., to work for the R.T. French Company. Yes, as in French's Mustard.

A job at Ripon Pickle brought Phil back to his home state. Then, a job at Bond Pickle in Green Bay brought an end to his bachelor days. That's when he met Beth Beachkofski, a Menasha native, and the two were soon married. About the same time Don Poole, a businessman in Berlin, and Phil opened Wisconsin Spice to make mustard for luncheon meats.

Beth and Phil honeymooned in Minnesota, where he bought a used mustard mill. (It's now on display in the lobby.) After bringing the mill to Berlin, the newlyweds' married life became a long-distance affair for the first couple of years. Beth went back to college in Eau Claire to earn her teaching degree. Phil transformed a 19th century feed mill into a mustard processing plant and planted the seeds for Wisconsin Spice's success.  

They saw each other on weekends when Phil went to Eau Claire for visits. 

Phil was unable to be interviewed for this story due to Alzheimer’s disease, but Beth remembers those early years.

"I didn’t come to Berlin a whole lot," she said. "When I did he was cleaning something out or putting something together."

Or unloading delivery trucks filled with 50-pound sacks of mustard seed. Or whatever else needed doing.

Beth's parents were concerned. Both about her finding a teaching job in Berlin and whether Phil's mustard business would succeed. They wanted to know how that was going to go.

Beth could only respond with, "I don’t know, you just hope it does.” 

Just a couple of years after Beth landed a teaching job at a Catholic school (with an annual salary of $5,000) the Sasses welcomed their first child, Christine, into the world. Carrie and Allen soon followed.

Meanwhile, the business was transitioning, expanding into processing mustard for use in dressings and sauces. Beth said many of their big clients came from Phil attending an Association for Dressings and Sauces convention.

The Sasses took sole ownership after buying out Poole in 1981.

Four years later, Wisconsin Spice opened a 6,000-square-foot plant on a 2-acre lot in the Berlin Industrial Park. Three years after that, Wisconsin Spice broke ground on a 6,000-square-foot expansion. It was the first of many expansions that grew the facility to 130,000 square feet.

Allen said they are now in the midst of moving some warehousing operations to a building across the street. That building, dedicated as the Phillip J. Sass Technical Center, was renovated in 2018 for corporate offices, training, and technical work, including a pilot plant and food safety labs. Adding warehouse space to the technical center will enable an expansion of contract packaging of mustard products for customers who sell or use under their own names.

If that seems like an awful lot of demand for a condiment for sandwiches, hot dogs and bratwurst, you're missing the bigger mustard picture.

Mustard’s utility goes far beyond the yellow bottle. Beyond Dijon. Beyond the spice aisle. 

For starters, mustard spices up darn near every barbecue sauce. Sandwich spreads like Miracle Whip, baked beans and even Wisconsin’s all-purpose condiment — ranch dressing — aren’t strangers to the charms of mustard. If not listed individually on a label, Allen said, mustard may often be lumped into the generic “spices” term. 

Wisconsin Spice processes the three most widely used seeds: Oriental (which produces the most heat), yellow (the least spicy) and brown (somewhere between the other two on the heat scale).  

Regardless of the seeds used, wet mustard would be white without the addition of turmeric, said Tim Gross, Wisconsin Spice human resources supervisor and safety coordinator.

All of the mustard is stone ground as part of the process. Gross said that when he came to Wisconsin Spice in 2000 they made 25 variations of wet mustard to meet customer needs. Now they process over 100 formulations.

Tanks the size of fermenters at a good-sized brewery hold prepared mustard until it's needed. Wisconsin Spice is adept at filling everything from a quarter-ounce packet to a 5,500-gallon tanker truck with mustard.

Dry milling in a neighboring section of the plant spans three stories.

Wisconsin Spice is capable of processing up to 80,000 pounds of dry mustard products a day, Gross said. While they can blend mustard seeds to meet customer needs for flavor and heat, mustard is also used as a natural thickening or binding agent in sauces. 

That trifecta of potential uses (flavor, heat and binder) makes mustard the second most used spice worldwide. Only pepper is more popular.

Despite its utility, mustard is a commodity crop with fluctuating prices paid to farmers. When prices get too low, farmers plant a more profitable crops. Low supply and high demand can lead to worldwide shortages from time to time.

Allen said Wisconsin Spice not only opened during a shortage, but it also has seen some of its biggest growth during similar downturns.

Allen's dad was one who would do things that didn’t make a lot of financial sense at the moment, Allen said.

He honored contract prices to customers even when mustard seed prices unexpectedly rose and ate up the profit. He never shorted or dropped small customers in favor bigger clients.

Carrie Sass-Blustin, Phil and Beth's daughter, who is now Wisconsin Spice vice president, saw the financial ramifications during a couple of those years.

"There were years there was no seed, and he was paying double and still honoring his contracts," Carrie said. 

Her first job at Wisconsin Spice was the same as her siblings — mowing lawn. It was all field where the expansions are now, she said, so it took four hours. Eventually Carrie worked her way into bookkeeping. After years of office experience and earning a food science with business option degree from UW-Madison she was all set to follow the Phil plan — get a job anywhere but Wisconsin Spice. 

Phil felt working for another company would provide valuable experiences. Much like what he learned working for R.T. French.

It was 2001, and Carrie had an offer in California but was told she would need to work three jobs to make ends meet. She turned down that offer.

“I didn’t go to college to work three jobs,” she said. 

Putting the outside job search on hold until after the uncertainty of 9/11 settled, Carrie was hired at Wisconsin Spice for a special project: to install a computer system for bookkeeping because everything was still done on paper.  

She kept working in the family business while earning an MBA from UW-Oshkosh and hasn't looked back. Carrie maintained an electronic ledger and a paper version for Phil until his retirement in 2015.

Meanwhile, Allen worked his way up from mowing lawn to milling mustard until landing college summer internships. He graduated from UW-Madison with a food science degree in 2005 and an MBA in 2010 and worked for three years at Kraft Foods before returning to the family business.

Allen and Carrie took on leadership roles at Wisconsin Spice in 2016.

It was about this time that Wisconsin Spice got a big contract packaging opportunity. Until then they were almost exclusively producing mustard for industrial uses.

Granted it was a global market; Wisconsin Spice had gone international in the late 1990s while partnering with a United Kingdom distributor.

That opened the door to global markets, Allen said. International sales  in more than 30 countries now account for about 30% of the business. That's about 18 million pounds of Berlin-made mustard leaving the United States each year. 

In 2008, they got their first exposure in supplying food service companies through a major restaurant chain that was having problems with its supplier, Allen said. There was a mustard seed shortage that year. That customer helped them expand their retail presence in 2013.

Wisconsin Spice has been dabbling with selling its mustard, Uncle Phil's, in stores since the early 1980s. But since 2013, Wisconsin Spice has grown contract packing, retail and food service opportunities to about 25% of the business. It's a piece of the food industry they intend to keep growing.

In early 2020, Wisconsin Spice made a down payment on equipment to process individual mustard packets. Allen said they had spent a few years wrestling with the risk-reward balance of adding the complexity and technology of a new operation to the business. A month after committing, COVID-19 hit. Demand for those packets skyrocketed as Americans shifted eating habits to more drive-thru and takeout meals.

"We couldn’t launch fast enough," Allen said.

The packet machinery was installed and staff were trained in time to get the line running in December. 

"We are already at capacity and looking to open more space to expand that line," Allen said. "Our staff has done phenomenal with that machine."

"I think my dad did a lot of unconventional things and they paid off," Allen said, "the challenge is to avoid the more textbook thinking moving forward."

When a company gets to the size of Wisconsin Spice with in its industry, the temptation is to shed less profitable customers, increase minimum order sizes, focus on the products with the largest profit margin and similar moves. 

Passing on business opportunities to maximize efficiency now could lead to more competition later, Allen said.

"It leaves the door open for somebody to build up steam and don’t be surprised if 10 to 20 years from now you say, 'Where did that competitor come from?' You gave them a foundation to build their business."

Wisconsin Spice still builds momentum that way.

"We get calls from customers who were sent to us by a manufacturer who won’t take their business because maybe it impacts their efficiencies or are too small," Allen said. "That’s the strangest thing to me."

For nearly 50 years Wisconsin Spice grew by doing small volumes, small runs, very specific things that others didn’t want to do, Allen said. That led to a couple of big wins followed by continuing investment in the company that's led to continued growth.

"We’re not doing anything that’s patented or anybody else can’t do," he said. "But we expand in new ways and still have a comfort level tackling complex tasks." 

It takes people with a certain mindset to make that work.

"When you manage a complex business ... you need a lot of people who care and care about the other person on the other side of the business."

It's a mindset that Allen sees as part of Wisconsin's culture.

“The mentality and mindset of not wanting to disappoint somebody, that mentality is really what I would say is the best aspect to have in a Wisconsin-based company.”