Posted December 28, 2004 by Nick Lindauer in Hot Sauce News

Variety the spice of life for Crystal Hot Sauce maker

By GREG THOMAS/The Times-Picayune
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — When little-noticed Baumer Foods Inc. bought a Texas condiment company in October, adding a meat flavoring called Hickory Liquid Smoke to its portfolio of hot sauces and other concoctions, the acquisition marked the end of a realignment of the New Orleans company’s products.

Baumer had long been locked in government contracts, providing jams and jellies for World War II combat rations early on and supplying Veterans hospitals in later years.

But in a gutsy move, the family owned company said goodbye to the stable but strangling federal contracts in 1994 and hello to a niche market it would grow to dominate: bottling private-label condiments.

Baumer’s bottles 24 products under its Crystal label, including the table mainstay Crystal Hot Sauce. It also bottles condiments for others, a business that propelled the 81-year-old firm to $54 million in revenue last year.

Besides its hot sauce, Baumer is perhaps best known to locals for its iconic, 60-year-old art-deco billboard that rises from the roof of the New Orleans plant, high enough to be seen by autos screaming by on the elevated Interstate 10.

The aluminum sign has spotlights on a smiling ”jam cooker” stirring a pot of strawberry jam, while neon lights spell out simply, ”Crystal Preserves.”

Baumer, which employs 205 people, is the only remaining large-scale condiment producer in the city since Wm. B. Reily & Co. Inc. moved production of Blue Plate mayonnaise out of state in 2000.

Best known now for its sauces, Baumer’s past included a large vegetable canning operation that employed 100 seasonal workers until about 20 years ago.

But it was jams and jellies packed into half-inch tall, olive-drab green cans included in each box of World War II combat rations that opened up a national market for the small company.

To this day, out-of-state World War II veterans who spy the I-10 sign while passing through often detour to the plant.

The self-invited visitors always tell Baumer employees that Crystal strawberry preserves and other flavors were the only good thing they remember about old-style C-rations, and they wanted to see where they were made.

”We give them some jam,” said Alvin Baumer Jr., president and chief executive. Jams are still part of the company’s product line. The jam comes in squeeze-plastic bottles today, but originally came in 2 1/2-pound wooden jars.

Military contracts for jams and jellies during the war propelled the company from local to national food processor and manufacturer, but those same federal contracts often hamstrung the firm.

”We always had to give them (the federal government) a price for the year” for a specific commodity, ”but they wouldn’t commit to an amount. We didn’t know if it would be 10,000 or 100,000 cases,” Baumer said.

Baumer Foods’ canning operation included shrimp, okra, red and white beans and sweet potatoes, but after Alvin Baumer Jr. became top executive in 1980, canning and military contracts went out the door.

”I just didn’t see any future in it,” Baumer said. Baumer Foods still bottles whole small peppers under the Crystal brand, however.

In 1998, former food broker Terry Hanes came to Baumer Foods as senior vice president and chief operations officer. Baumer credits Hanes for seeing and jumping on the private label market.

Private labels now account for 46 percent of Baumer’s business, Hanes said, or about $24.8 million of the company’s 2003 revenue.

Private label production allowed Baumer to distribute more of its product to the public while avoiding the costly slotting fees retailers charge producers to put products on their shelves. The company that brands and distributes the private-label product pays the slotting fees, Baumer said.

Baumer Foods’ products may be known for their fiery tang, but its genesis in 1923 was the chill of sugary snowballs.

Alvin A. Baumer Sr. wanted to marry Mildred Wirth, but didn’t have a job. So he decided to create one. He borrowed money from his future father-in-law, Charles Wirth, a German immigrant who created a real estate company and brewery. The Wirth building at 1441 Canal St. bears his name.

Baumer bought Miss Fruit Products, a bottler of syrups for snowballs, and peddled the syrups to snowball vendors.

But among the syrup recipes that came with Miss Fruit was one for a hot sauce using the relatively mild but flavorful cayenne pepper.

The sauce was originally named Crystal Louisiana Pure Hot Sauce, which Baumer first hand-ground, aged and bottled in a small industrial building on Tchoupitoulas Street, adding salt and vinegar to produce the table mainstay. The formula was modified by the family a few times over the early years to create its present flavor.

Baumer dropped sugary syrups and moved to its Tulane Avenue location just before World War II. Both Alvin and Mildred Baumer ran the plant, with Alvin focusing on operations and Mildred dealing with hundreds of food brokers across the nation.

In 1952, Alvin Baumer Jr. was adopted at birth by Mildred and Alvin when they were nearly 50. Baumer practically grew up in the plant, and was unofficially working there as early as 12.

”He was working the old-style switchboard, the kind with the plugs, and the government came in and cited Baumer Senior for employing an underage worker,” Hanes said.

At 16, the younger Baumer legitimately began working in the family business, driving a Volkswagen Beetle with no air conditioning to stock area grocery stores with Crystal Hot Sauce.

He finished college and in 1980 became president of the company. His parents, however, continued to work at the plant. The elder Baumer kept that routine until two weeks before he died in 1991 at the age of 88. His wife died at age 85 in 1988. ”She was here just two or three days before she died,” her son said.

Doug Wakefield, Baumer vice president of operations, recently watched as noisy conveyor lines whirled by, bottles being filled with hot sauce and labeled.

He shouted above the clamor that the line runs three shifts a day. It takes about one hour to clear and clean the bottling lines for a different product, such as switching from steak to soy sauce or mustard to barbecue sauce.

Baumer said that the October acquisition of The Figaro Co. of Mesquite, Texas, was a chance to get market presence in the Southwest, where the company’s flavoring products are most popular.

Figaro’s condiments are now being made at the Tulane Avenue plant and will retain their original labels. Along with Figaro came several condiments, the most well-known being Hickory Liquid Smoke.

The Figaro products are being produced without additional employees. Only one Figaro employee, a national sales executive, was retained in the purchase.

Baumer and Hanes said they watch for potential acquisitions, but have none in their sights presently.

Through the years, it’s the cayenne pepper that has been the one constant.

Every August, Baumer treks to northern Mexico to inspect pepper fields. The peppers are trucked to New Mexico where a processor grinds the peppers to mash.

The mash, aged for 60 days, is trucked from New Mexico to New Orleans.

Outdoor tanks hold the mash until it’s time to blend with salt and vinegar and head to bottling lines.

Crystal Hot Sauce is a hit internationally, with Saudi Arabia being the largest single importing country, Baumer said, complete with Arabic labels.

Not only is the company’s past based on pepper, its future will be based on pepper — in more ways than one.

Alvin ”Pepper” Baumer III, 16, is completing boarding school, eyeing college, and determined to one day head the family business, his father said. And he doesn’t mind the nickname.

”The only child will take over the family business from an only child,” Baumer said. ”He’s anxious to finish school and start working here.”

Nick Lindauer

The Original Hot Sauce Blog