Sauer's packaging of yesteryear, shown in a booklet celebrating 70 years of the C.F. Sauer Co. in 1957 (Image courtesy C.F. Sauer Co.)
Depending on the sensitivity of your nose and palate, you can smell and nearly taste the C.F. Sauer Co. long before you reach the door of its red brick headquarters at 2000 W. Broad St.
Smell and taste are, after all, what’s kept Sauer’s — one of the nation’s larger producers of spices, herbs, flavorings and other foods — in the minds of consumers, and on their grocery lists, for 129 years.
For those far from the state capital, it's been a spicy love affair best left to cooks and food lovers to explain and savor.
Mark Sauer, one of the fourth generation of the Sauer family to work in the business, plunges a long pole into one of many bags of raw spices awaiting inspection on a loading dock.
“We want to know what’s in there, from the bottom of the bag to the top,” he says.
His pole device captures samples from throughout the bag, which will then be analyzed in an in-house testing laboratory for bacteria count and other characteristics.
Sauer, the company’s executive vice president for sales, explains that before any product enters the Richmond processing plant it has to have authorization from the laboratory.
“Our spices come from all over the world, from backyards to corporate farms,” he says.
Oregano and marjoram come from the Mediterranean; vanilla beans from Madagascar; cinnamon from Indonesia; black pepper from Vietnam, India and Indonesia.
For the benefit of those who are not committed foodies, herbs come from the leafy, green part of plants, and spices come from the root, stem, bulb, fruit, bark or seeds.
Altogether, Sauer’s offers more than 70 spice choices for consumers, food service companies and others, along with about 15 extracts and flavorings such as Sauer’s signature vanilla extract, celebrated in the 20-by-60-foot sign on Broad Street that proclaims “Sauer’s Vanilla” in illuminated script.
Mark Sauer (right) at the bottling machine inside of Sauer's (Photo by Ash Daniel)
“When we buy spices, we know the source, the field, the people, everybody who dealt with it, all the way up to when we get it and all the way through the system. You have to know everything there is to know about your product from cradle to grave,” Sauer says.
Once the spices are harvested, they are packed in everything from 110-pound jute bags to 50-pound paper bags with vapor barrier liners to 1,500-pound super sacks. They arrive in Richmond by truck from various parts of the United States, or by container ships that have docked at the Port of Virginia in Hampton Roads or elsewhere.
Every load of raw spice is tested on receipt and then stored in Sauer’s warehouses in and around its headquarters. The packaging of processed spices is accomplished in the former Sears building on Broad Street.
“Twenty-five percent of the spice business [by tonnage] is pepper,” Sauer says. And how can a consumer tell good pepper from a lesser product? “If you sneeze, it means it’s good pepper,” he says, indicating that the essential oils are still present and haven’t evaporated.
Sauer began working in the family spice business when he was just 13, and other family members have joined the company over the years.
On the second floor of a processing plant, Sauer points to the screens, magnets and other detection devices that are used to filter out extraneous material sometimes found in bags of raw spices before processing.
Sauer’s has a kitchen on site with a staff to test and develop recipes. All of the C.F. Sauer-branded spices and herbs are processed locally, from extraction to grinding to blending. All packaging and bottling also occurs in Richmond.
In addition, Sauer’s has a luxury spice company, The Spice Hunter, based in California, that carries upscale categories of spices, herbs and rubs.
The use of spices has grown in popularity in recent years.For example, The Nielsen Co., a consumer research firm, reported in June that sales of spices and herbs have grown more than $223 million over the past four years in the United States. From June 1, 2015, to May 31, 2016, Americans spent $927 million on spices and $299 million on herbs.
"You have to know everything there is to know about your product from cradle to grave." —Mark Sauer, C.F. Sauer Co executive vice president of sales
Erin Hatcher, brand manager for Sauer’s, says that changes in demographics and other factors have spurred renewed interest in spices. “The rise of dual-income households, a widening of the American palate and a receptivity to spicier foods all have played a part,” she says.
With rising immigrant populations, trend watchers are seeing Syrian, Lebanese and other Middle Eastern foods increase in popularity, as well as Asian, Brazilian and Hispanic foods. “You’re seeing a lot of fusion of foods, blending flavors of South American with Asian, blending savory things with sweet things, hot and sweet. All these things are great for the spice industry, which is why we’re growing,” Hatcher says.
Decades ago, Sauer’s moved beyond vanilla extract, which was the impetus for the founding of the company in 1887, when Conrad Frederick Sauer, a former drugstore clerk, was struck with an inspiration to sell prepackaged extracts.
Still, vanilla extract is dear to the hearts of the Sauer family and the many consumers who seek out their products.
Mark Sauer points out that, by law, vanilla extract has to be 35 percent alcohol, and inspections by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) keep company officials mindful of where the supply is at all times. “If we have a thousand gallons, we have to know where 999 of [them are],” he says.
As for the distinctive aromas that waft from Sauer’s — to the delight of some passersby and the chagrin of others — company officials say they’re most likely garlic, cinnamon or vanilla.