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Sweet & Sauer for Generations

It’s early to be thinking about Thanksgiving and Christmas, but one Richmond company is in full holiday mode.  

On a quiet afternoon, Mark Sauer sits in the large executive office of a company founded by his great, great grandfather.  There’s an old  photo of his uncle delivering products from a donkey cart, and color portraits that underscore the history of the firm.

“This is CF Sauer.  This is CF Sauer, Junior.  That’s my father, CF Sauer, the third, and this is my brother, CF Sauer, the fourth.”

Over the years, each has overseen the manufacture of pure vanilla.

“There’s a federal standard of identity that you have to adhere to if you’re going to call it ‘pure’  vanilla extract, and it’s 13.5 pounds of vanilla beans to make one gallon of double strength vanilla.  But then it needs to have at least 35% alcohol.”

The process is relatively simple.  Vanilla beans purchased from Madagascar are chipped and soaked in water for 2-4 weeks.   When the liquid achieves the right percentage of alcohol, sugar is added, and bottling begins, but getting the raw materials can be a challenge.  It takes six months to cure the beans, and over that time, storms or disease can destroy or damage the crop.  Sauer V.P. Anna Reager still recalls the year  prices doubled after a typhoon.

“So you were talking about a product that went from  $10-20 a pound to over $225 a pound, and at that point people started making imitation vanilla.”

And as she oversees purchase of the raw materials for vanilla and cinnamon, pepper and cocoa, Reager says politics can also play havoc with the markets.

“Many of the spices come from countries where they are continually embroiled in insurrections, revolutions. There’s always something interesting going on.”

And there’s one other problem.  Mark Sauer says demand isn’t what it used to be.

“When was the last time you made a cake from scratch?”

So, over the years, the company has added to its product line – buying a mayonnaise recipe from Mrs. Duke herself.  As a result, nearly a third of the mayo sold in America is made by the Richmond-based company.  Duke’s is so popular in the South that at least six people have written to the company requesting large jars.  Mark Sauer says their dying wish is to be cremated – their remains sealed in a jar bearing the Duke’s label.

“I don’t think there’s another brand in the US that can say people want to spend eternity in your container,” Sauer says with a smile.

The company’s 750 employees also make barbeque sauce, mustard and other condiments, and Sauers does a huge business in Mexico overseas.

“We ship thousands of containers of mayonnaise to Africa.  We’ll do three million cases of export this year with them.”

But at this time of year, it’s the holiday baking ingredients that take center stage.  Every 60 seconds, Sauer can turn out 150 extract bottles, and 250 jars of spices.  Fifty percent of the company’s sales to supermarkets and food manufacturers will take place in September and October, creating occasional traffic jams on the factory floor.

And while Sauer’s employees work overtime, there’s no need to decorate for the holidays.  The West Broad Street factory  sports a piece of Americana year round --  a chubby little chef 20-feet high, surrounded by 1,200 lights. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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