As the world’s largest grower and producer of horseradish, specialty mustards and related high-end sauces, Silver Spring Foods Inc., already takes the preeminent spot in a niche market. Others might produce more horseradish than the Eau Claire, Wis., company, but they source the item elsewhere. Silver Spring Food produces horseradish from its own 9,000 acres of farmland in Wisconsin and Minnesota, which enables it to maintain flavor and quality, President Mike Walsh says.
The company grows horseradish in Wisconsin on a seven- to nine-year crop rotation with corn, soybeans, snap beans and other forage crops. In Minnesota, it floods its horseradish crops to create wild rice ponds. Growing rice after horseradish is an old farmer’s trick because it cleans up the soil and won’t blacken the horseradish roots in the next crop cycle. “We’ve tried horseradish from other growers, but we feel the horseradish we grow ourselves is a very high quality and what we call a sweeter product with an excellent flavor,” Walsh says.
Silver Spring Foods is a subsidiary of Huntsinger Cos., a family owned business that was established as Huntsinger Farms by Ellis Huntsinger in 1929. Huntsinger grew horseradish and other crops on a few acres of land near a freshwater spring south of Eau Claire. He prepared and bottled horseradish by hand and sold it locally to augment his income during Wisconsin’s cold winter months.
As the company grew, it acquired more brands to expand its product portfolio, and now oversees Huntsinger Farms, Silver Spring Foods, Kelchner’s Horseradish Products, Bookbinder’s Food Products and Thor-Shackel.
Huntsinger Cos. is now owned by Huntsinger’s granddaughter, Nancy Bartusch, and her two sons. Her son, Eric Rigg, is completing his MBA and will eventually become president of the company. In the meantime, Walsh, a family friend, serves as caretaker while Huntsinger transitions into its fourth generation of family leadership. Walsh has held executive positions with IBM, Visa and Navtech North America.
Quality Comes First
Under Walsh’s guidance, Silver Spring Foods recently worked to improve quality through its state-of-the-art processing plant. “We can’t compete with the high-volume production line you would see for yellow mustard, but for specialty mustard, I don’t think there is a production facility in the country that can compete with us on a quality and efficiency basis,” he attests. “We’ve made major strides as far as quality goes.”
A quality manager trained in microbiology leads Silver Spring Foods’ quality staff. “It’s a big investment one has to make and most importantly, it’s an investment you want all of your employees to make,” Walsh says. The company also relies on its relationships with vendors and suppliers, such as Liquid Process Equipment, which provides positive displacement product pumps as well as engineering, selection and implementation solutions for all of Silver Spring Foods’s process equipment needs.
“I also think our processing methods from a quality perspective differentiate us from our competitors,” he says. “We use a very quick transition period from washing and scrubbing the horseradish to grinding and putting it in the final product – this is all done on the same day. Horseradish is a root crop, so like a carrot, when you peel the exterior coat off, it will start to lose its heat and flavor very rapidly.”
Silver Spring Foods’ quality initiative has paid off. “We received outstanding quality awards from a number of highly regarded auditors, something that can be very difficult to achieve when you are talking about food processing,” Walsh says. “We have audits that are done by independent third parties as well as audits from major customers, and we always pass those with flying colors. Quality is extremely important because you don’t want to stand the risk of having any issues that might affect consumers. This is important not only to us, but to many of our customers for whom we do co-production or private labeling.”
Unique Flavor Applications
Silver Spring Foods intends to continue expanding by increasing its co-production and private-labeling business. “We see very good growth in that area in the years ahead because of the efficiencies and quality of our plant,” Walsh says. “The horseradish and specialty mustard market has been growing relatively slowly, but we see an opportunity to educate consumers on how to use our horseradish products and some of our specialty mustard products in unique recipes. Cooking with horseradish is almost like cooking with truffle oil – it gives food an earthy, woodsy flavor.”
Traditional horseradish is ground and mixed with vinegar as a natural preservative. Silver Spring Foods adds fresh, sweet dairy cream to help further enhance the flavor, heat and longevity of prepared horseradish. Regardless of how horseradish is prepared, it must be refrigerated, Walsh notes. Otherwise, its characteristic white color will turn brown, and that means the horseradish has lost its unique flavoring.
Silver Spring Foods is unabashed when it comes to launching bold, flavorful products. Cranberry, beet and pineapple apricot are among the unique horseradish flavors it offers. Specialty items include tartar, cocktail and wasabi sauces, which range in flavor from cranberry to pineapple to mango. It also offers all-natural and organic items. “Oftentimes, you won’t see all of our products in supermarkets, but you can get those on our website,” Walsh notes. “We try to make our product as available as we can.”