The Barhyte family has mustard in its DNA.
And like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a plant, the family business evolved from a deli into a multimillion-dollar company. Last month, the company’s “Saucy Mama” team made a splash at the World Food Championships.
Suzie Barhyte insists that the thriving Pendleton company — Barhyte Specialty Foods — started accidentally in the 1970s when she and husband Jan operated the Swift & Martin Station Deli. After they couldn’t find a good source of European-style mustard, they made their own. When customers started requesting mustard to take home, the couple bottled it for sale. Mustard, they discovered, was more profitable than deli sandwiches.
“We closed our restaurant and went into the mustard business,” Suzie said.
Mustard making came naturally. Back on Jan’s family tree, Jacobus Barhyte, who fought in the Revolutionary War, served mustard from a family recipe in his tavern in Saratoga, New York. In addition, Suzie mastered a tasty jalapeño mustard recipe invented by her father.
In those early days, the couple made mustard in a five-gallon mixer, then bottled it by hand with the help of sons Chris, Mike and Jeff. Suzie and Jan wore all the hats — sales, production, delivery and product development, the latter during which “we would taste and talk.” They tried to project the persona of a much larger company.
“When someone phoned, I’d say, ‘Sure, I’ll get that department for you,’ and hand the phone to Jan,” Suzie said.
Jan remembers answering an important call from the East Coast early one morning while they were still in bed. He pretended to be in the office answering his secretary’s phone.
The couple moved to the Oregon coast in 1984 and opened a factory. To sell mustard, they drove their 1975 GMC pickup from shop to shop.
“We went out on the road with our mustard,” Jan said. “We stopped at specialty shops around Oregon. On one trip we had 3,000 pounds. I pumped the shocks up.”
He said the truck went through three transmissions.
In 1994, the couple moved into a 10,000-square-foot facility on Airport Road in Pendleton. In 1999, the company inked a deal with mega-grocery chain Kroger to produce upscale sauces and salad dressings under a private label. Barhyte’s own label includes mustards, salad dressings, marinades, organic ketchup, hot wing sauce and the successful Saucy Mama line of sauces.
Suzie follows culinary trends as she formulates her products. Simplicity is always at the forefront.
“The important thing to me is making things home cooks can use for a lot of flavor, but not use a huge amount of time,” she said. “Putting that meal on the table is a really important thing for a family.”
In November, six competitive chefs on the Saucy Mama competitive cooking team took the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama, by storm. Akin to Valvoline sponsoring NASCAR drivers, Suzie sponsors talented chefs to compete in the world competition. To qualify, each had to win the annual Barhyte cooking competition for food bloggers. Suzie and other judges make each of the recipes submitted by applicants and score them for taste, texture, appearance and other criteria.
The Saucy Mama team grows by one chef each year as it accumulates winners. Each enters a different category in the world competition and Suzie goes along as cheerleader. At this year’s competition, she anxiously watched from the sidelines as her cooks competed in temporary kitchens scattered around a vast outdoor space. Each chef wore a Saucy Mama apron and incorporated Saucy Mama products into her recipes.
After five days of intense cooking at the worlds, team member Rebecka Evans, of Houston, Texas, clinched the bacon division with her Dutch Crunch Baby Pancakes. Kim Banick, of Salem, won the seafood title with her Alabama crawfish Thai bowl with coconut gulf shrimp.
“It’s exciting, very tense,” Suzie said. “Your heart is pounding, but you just have to stand there and watch.”
What ratcheted up her pulse the most was the high drama in the kitchen of Saucy Mama team member Lisa Keys, a former winner of an episode of Food Network’s “Chopped.” The Pennsylvania cook found herself suddenly fighting the clock.
As she put the finishing touches on an Asian-inspired fried chicken sandwich with spicy ginger slaw, Keys realized with horror that she and her sous chef had assembled too few judges’ tasting plates. She had only a minute left to fix one more and rush the tray to the judges’ table. Keys, generally a calm cook, was rattled, but she found another gear.
“I went full-throttle,” Keys said. “The sandwich had a lot of components.”
She assembled the sandwich, skewered it with a ribbon of sweet potato and cilantro and set off at a dead run.
“I got there at the last second,” Keys said. “Suzie had to turn her back — she was so nervous.”
Keys made it into the next round with a score of 98.6 out of 100 points. She ultimately finished second in her division, short of victory by a mere 1.2 points.
Keys praised Suzie as someone more than a financial benefactor.
“She is the most kind and generous and supportive person,” Keys said. “She embraces all of us on the team. She supports us financially, but also emotionally. She has become a real part of my family.”
Suzie, pumped up with pride at her team’s performance, is now back to her routine. She spends time in her test kitchen trying new sauce recipes. Jan retired five years ago, but Suzie said she is still having too much fun to stop. Two of the Barhytes’ sons help run the business. Chris takes care of marketing from his office in Portland. Mike oversees production.
On a recent day, seven of Barhyte’s 48 employees bottled a batch of cocktail sauce in the company’s sprawling production area. One man blended horseradish with the other ingredients, then set the production line in motion. Another placed bottles on a revolving platform that fed them onto a conveyor belt. Sauce traveled through a main tube originating at the mixing vat, before branching into eight smaller tubes that filled eight 10-ounce bottles at a time. Other employees monitored the bottles as they were labeled and date stamped and checked them for irregularities. The process would continue for around 10 hours, producing about 20,000 bottles of cocktail sauce. On another day, the crew might bottle anything from mustard to salad dressing.
The company is no longer the mustard seed it was back in the day. Deliveries of oil and vinegar come by tanker load. Soy sauce arrives in huge drums.
Jan gives the credit to his wife for company’s success.
“Suzie develops all the products,” he said. “She’s the most important thing in the business. Without her talent, we couldn’t do what we do.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 941-966-0810.