Over the years, Milwaukee has been called the brewing capital of the world, the toolbox of the world and most recently, the freshwater capital of the world.
But it can also add another moniker to its mantel. It is the spice capital of the world. Flying under the radar is a robust spice, seasonings and flavor manufacturing industry in Milwaukee.
From local staples such as Foran Spice Company and Penzeys Spices to global powerhouses such as Campbell Soup Company and Sensient Technologies Corp., Milwaukee has a flavorful history.
It all started with the rise of Milwaukee’s meat and sausage manufacturing industry. The surrounding farmland and the German heritage of its residents made beef and pork packing one of the city’s main economic engines from the beginning.
As sausage-oriented companies such as Fred Usinger Inc., Klement’s Sausage Company Inc., Johnsonville Sausage and Patrick Cudahy LLC grew, they needed an increasing supply of spices to make their wieners and wursts flavorful.
Local spice companies could supply those ingredients.
Milwaukee Spice Mills
Several of Milwaukee’s spice manufacturing companies originated from a company called Milwaukee Spice Mills, which is now Wixon Inc.
The company was founded in 1948 by Jim Foran and two partners. Foran eventually split off to form Foran Spice Company in Oak Creek.
Another Milwaukee Spice Mills offshoot, Milwaukee Seasoning Laboratories Inc., opened in 1959. Spice Mills sued Milwaukee Seasoning’s owners in 1962 for allegedly taking trade secrets and formulas from them. Milwaukee Seasoning is now part of Utah-based JMH International LLC.
Wixon Spice Company was founded in 1907 in Chicago. It acquired Milwaukee Spice Mills in 1968 and became Milwaukee Spice Corp.
Fontarome Chemical Inc. in St. Francis was once a subsidiary of Wixon, but is now an independent entity.
Today, the name is Wixon Inc. The company makes 25 new flavor profiles each month to add to its seasoning and flavor library of more than 7,000 formulas.
Wixon extracts the essence of a flavor and then sells it to food manufacturers to enhance the natural flavors of a product. For example, Wixon could create a unique flavor like cran-blueberry for a client like Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.
Wixon’s flavors are created both naturally, using plants and roots, and artificially, using chemicals. The methodology is based on customer needs, said president A. Peter Gottsacker.
Artificial compounds tend to be more shelf-stable and consistent, since they don’t rely on the quality and taste of an agricultural product, he said. About 75 percent of the products the company makes are artificial.
The company works with most of the top 50 food manufacturing firms in the country.
“We’re always B2B, but mainly for the blending and flavors, we’re selling to other processors, who incorporate our products,” Gottsacker said.
Wixon has annual revenue of more than $100 million and compound annual growth of about 15 percent. That growth is driven by the company’s on-trend technologies and the nimble capabilities of a medium-sized company in the flavor industry, Gottsacker said.
“We like to think we run between the giants’ legs,” he said. “To compete for customers at the highest level…they represent very stiff competition. And yet I also compete at the local level.”
Some of Wixon’s products are packaged and labeled for consumers, and branders such as Penzeys market them to the final customer.
New flavors are created based on customer demand and trends in the food industry. For example, the acai berry has become popular lately because food experts have called it a “superfood.”
Many consumers are also going gluten free by avoiding wheat products, Gottsacker said. As a result, Wixon has experimented with taking gluten out of products and replacing it with corn or other options.
The company is also developing low salt and artificially sweetened products for health conscious consumers.
“It’s up to us to help identify these trends and create food solutions for them – both in flavors and ingredients,” he said.
Wixon’s operations are spread among four buildings – three on a campus in St. Francis and one in Milwaukee – totaling 400,000 square feet. It has about 235 employees, the vast majority of which are in the Milwaukee area. It also has a national sales force.
The demographics of the United States have contributed to growth for Wixon, Gottsacker said. Younger generations have traveled more and are interested in a larger variety of spices.
“(And) as you get older, you lose your ability to taste, so therefore you salt more, you flavor more,” he said.
The company has flavorists with chemical backgrounds and advanced palettes who can distinguish small nuances in flavor. Wixon must also complete preference tests to determine how the general public will perceive a flavor or seasoning.
Three years ago, Wixon added a culinary center, complete with a demonstration kitchen and meat pilot plant, which allows the company to demonstrate its seasonings in customers’ products.
Milwaukee has a greater concentration of food manufacturers, particularly in the meat industry, which has given rise to a thriving spice and flavor industry, Gottsacker said. There are about 250 food manufacturers in the area.
It can get competitive, but it’s a cooperative industry. Flavor patents are unusual, because they are complex molecules with proprietary formulas, Gottsacker said.
“We think our flavor systems are unique to us and we separate ourselves through technology,” he said. “Many times, my competitors are actually customers of mine and vice versa.”
Foran forges a path
Foran Spice Company was founded in 1953 on First Street in Milwaukee. Its aim was to serve the local meat and sausage industry.
Foran was one of several spinoffs from Milwaukee Spice Mills, said companypresident Patty Goto. Milwaukee Spice Mills is now Wixon.
“That was why, in that timeframe, we ended up with several spice companies in this area,” she said.
In 1970, Foran moved its operations to Oak Creek to make room for growth. It has grown to a 140,000-square-foot facility today. The company also has a 65,000-square-foot warehouse on the East Coast for storage.
The Milwaukee-area location is beneficial for Foran, since it ships throughout North America, she said.
“Being in the Midwest is good because you’re at the midpoint to ship anywhere,” Goto said.
Goto became president in 1997, taking over from her father, Ralph Hauser.
In the 1990s, Foran expanded from manufacturing only meat seasonings to serving the snack, food service, ethnic, poultry, bakery and tortillas and frozen foods markets. About 40 percent of its business is now in those areas.
“We’re very diversified into different areas of our business,” Goto said. “We started getting more focused in growing the business. And in growing the business, you had to expand into other avenues.”
Foran, which has about 150 employees, specializes in custom spice blends. It does not have a brand name or retail presence, but rather works directly with food manufacturers.
Foran works with customers to develop flavor profiles for their products and tap into trends in food flavors, Goto said. She estimated the company makes about 6,000 different blends.
Sometimes new blends will be customer driven, and sometimes they come from Foran’s research and development team.
Lately, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors have been in high demand. Healthy options like low salt also are popular, she said.
“It never ends, but that’s part of the fun of it,” Goto said. “The consumer is a lot more aware of labeling and ingredients within products, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Making a new blend begins with the R&D department creating prototype samples that the customer then changes or approves. Foran orders its spices from all over the world.
Foran does all its spice grinding in-house, which differentiates it from many spice houses that have their spices ground overseas. It can be a little more expensive than having it ground elsewhere, and it’s also a loud and dusty process.
But Goto has put in place a sophisticated dust control system. She also prefers getting the product in its original form to assure it doesn’t contain any fillers or additives.
“It’s easier to put adulterance in something that’s ground than a whole product,” she said. “We will use sterilization facilities either in New York or Chicago, depending. That way when it gets to our door, it’s been treated, it’s in its whole original form and we have that control.”
The raw materials go into the weighing department, where the ingredients for a blend are measured out and then blended. Throughout the process, the product is checked for quality, visual and flavor.
If there are certain characteristics of a blend, like a parsley flake a customer wants to see in a sausage, Foran uses a folding blender to gently incorporate the flakes, Goto said.
Meat manufacturers usually put between five and seven percent seasoning in their products. Foran makes large 50-pound bags of seasoning for use in large batches of meat.
While some spice companies in the area go after consumers or Internet sales, Foran focuses on its business-to-business niche.
“We compete with people on a national level,” Goto said. “There’s some that we compete with directly, there’s some that we don’t. We have local competitors that we do compete with but we also compete with people on the coasts.”
Foran has been proactive in its food safety programs, which has helped put them ahead of a huge increase in regulations over the last four to five years, Goto said.
The company added a new 5,000- square-foot research and technology center about five years ago. It has a demonstration kitchen to show customers how spice blends will taste in their products and a state-of-the-art testing area.
Goto plans to continue investing in quality control and research, while keeping the company sustainable by mentoring her children as they come into the family business, she said.
She is also investigating potential acquisitions and hiring employees as the company grows.
“It would be something that would make sense to our industry,” Goto said. “I can’t say that it would be directly spices or something else that would give us more depth.”
Campbell Soup Company recently closed its South Plainfield, N.J., spice plant and consolidated all of its flavor manufacturing in its Milwaukee spice plant.
The facility, located at 500 W. Edgerton Ave., has been in operation since 1966. It is now the major global food company’s only supplier for all of its U.S. thermal plants.
The production is being phased in this month. The Milwaukee facility produces yeast extracts, flavors and flavor premixes used in Campbell’s soups, broths and beverages, according to Arianna Stefanoni, senior communications specialist.
About 50 employees work at the Milwaukee site. Campbell has added 10 employees there as a result of the production shift.
“We chose the location because historically, the upper Midwest of the U.S. was a supply hub for many food ingredients and manufacturers, and it offers proximity to distribution hubs as well,” Stefanoni said. “We source raw materials locally, whenever possible, and partially attribute the continued success to our long-standing relationships with local material and ingredient suppliers.”
Sourcing the ingredients
Companies such as Wixon get their raw materials from ingredient suppliers like Sensient Technologies Inc., a global color, flavor and fragrance powerhouse with its headquarters in Milwaukee.
Sensient brought in more than $1.4 billion in revenue in 2012. The company makes about 25,000 flavors and 3,000 colors.
Founded in 1882 in the Menomonee Valley as Meadow Springs Distilling Company, Sensient now has 4,000 employees at operations in more than 30 countries. The company has 75 employees in the Milwaukee area.
It was known for a time as Red Star Yeast and Products Company but later diversified and went public.
Sensient had manufacturing facilities in Milwaukee and the surrounding area for most of its existence, but sold the last of them in 2001 when it divested Red Star. It still has a flavor enhancer and extracts plant in Juneau, said Ellen Grinde, director of corporate communications.
Sensient uses advanced technology to develop dyes, pigments, flavors, dehydrated vegetables and bionutrients for the food and beverage industries. Its flavor and fragrance systems are found in thousands of consumer products, including non-food products.
Chairman and CEO Kenneth Manning has led the firm since 1996, focusing the company on flavors and colors and making 20 strategic acquisitions. The company changed its name from Universal Foods Corporation to Sensient Technologies Corp. in 2000 as a result of the changes.
Sensient announced earlier this year that it will be relocating its Flavors & Fragrances Group headquarters from Indianapolis to the Chicago area.
“We expect the Sensient global headquarters to remain in Milwaukee since we have a rich history here,” Grinde said. “With the relocation, we expect to gain from the region’s advantages with better access to customers and improved access to food and beverage industry talent.”
St. Francis-based Fontarome Chemical Inc. is also a chemical ingredient supplier, working with both the pharmaceutical and food industries.
Fontarome supplies chemicals used by flavor manufacturing companies like its old partner Wixon for creating flavor products, said CEO Carl Sheeley.
The company was founded in 1978 in Grasse, France, and established its U.S. operations in the early 1980s in St. Francis.
“I think they picked the location, Milwaukee and Wisconsin, really because of the manufacturing expertise that just was inherently there,” Sheeley said.
Fontarome’s parent company purchased Wixon and started Fontarome as a subsidiary of Wixon. The company was known as Wixon Fontarome in the U.S. until the early 1990s, when they became sister companies. Then the companies separated in 2004.
Today, Fontarome has 45 employees at its three-building, 40,000-square-foot facility. Its chemists study molecules in nature and find ways to imitate them more economically. The company makes more than 100 flavor ingredients.
“Essentially what we do is make nature identical flavor ingredients,” Sheeley said.
Consumers are likely to eat products daily that have at least a small portion of Fontarome’s compounds in them, he said. The company’s flavors are sold to distributors that supply to major food manufacturers, including General Mills and Kraft Foods.
The Midwest provides a safe manufacturing location to reassure Fontarome’s growing list of customers, Sheeley said.
“We don’t have flooding or earthquakes or hurricanes that are taking out businesses like the hurricane did on the East Coast,” he said. “When we talk to customers, I oftentimes tell them that you don’t have to worry about your supply chain being interrupted at Fontarome.”
The company’s growth has recently been driven by flavor manufacturers’ interest in buying western manufactured goods. Quality and logistics issues and rising costs from Asian suppliers have brought some new customers knocking.
Adding some spice
While the local meat industry has diminished a bit over time, Milwaukee’s spice manufacturers continue to work with large food manufacturers.
Frank Trummer has been in the spice industry since he became Foran’s first employee in 1956. He remembers a time when Milwaukee had upwards of 40 small-batch sausage makers that needed spices.
These days, the companies that need spices are much larger.
Trummer later worked for Milwaukee Seasoning and then branched off to start his own company, Mid-America Seasonings, in Grafton in 1980.
The company does custom blending and formulating using spices grown and processed overseas. It offers thousands of formulas to industrial food manufacturers.
Some of its products include sauce and dough mixes for popular frozen pizza brands and Italian sausage seasoning. Mid-America can make up to 4,500 pounds of seasoning in one blender at its 12,000-square-foot facility.
“We basically manufacture ingredients for the food industry,” he said. “We’ve manufactured in this plant everything from hot chocolate mixes up to pork sausage seasonings.”
One major food company that relies heavily on Milwaukee’s spice manufacturers is Sheboygan Falls-based Johnsonville Sausage.
The spice and seasoning blends are a huge component in the flavor of Johnsonville products, said Ken Ladwig, vice president.
“We use hundreds of spice blends,” he said. “We have many different products and forms and seasoning blends that we use.”