If Domonic Biggi has learned anything as the day-to-day overseer of a third-generation Oregon food business, it’s that the American palate is fickle.
That so-yesterday trend of infusing everything with chipotle? Over.
Honey and garlic on the other hand? Not going anywhere.
The jury is still out, meanwhile, on the current bacon boom.
“Our business is certainly faddish,” said Biggi, executive vice president of Beaverton Foods. “We’re always looking for that next hot flavor profile.”
Biggi (pronounced bee gee) thinks he’s now cornered the industry’s next big thing in wasabi, the sinus-snapping green paste most often associated with sushi.
In late December, the company purchased wasabi producer Pacific Farms, formerly based in Florence, for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition made Beaverton Foods the nation’s largest wasabi producer, according to the company.
In Biggi’s mind, the move was a natural for a business that for eight decades has thrived in the margins and niches of American tastes.
“Five years ago, there were no sushi houses at all in Beaverton,” Biggi said. “Now there are about 100.”
He acknowledged what he called “perhaps a slight exaggeration,” before adding, “Clearly, wasabi isn’t going away.”
The purchase won immediate applause from food-industry analysts.
“They’ve grown by adding logical things to their core products and making these new things equally as important,” said Jack Plunkett, CEO of Plunkett Research, a Houston-based market research firm. “Branching into wasabi strikes me as a very forward-thinking and logical thing to do.”
At the company’s 72,000-square-foot production headquarters in Hillsboro north of U.S. 26, the wasabi inventory purchased from Pacific Foods is cleaned and washed. The same type of machines used to process the company’s popular lines of horseradish then grind the wasabi into paste for distribution to restaurants, specialty food stores and hotels.
With inventories now beginning to dwindle, Biggi expects the first 40,000-pound container of fresh wasabi roots to arrive from China by late summer or early fall. He is in talks with a Canadian grower in hopes of finding a source closer to home.
Most consumers of the product, he said, are tasting real wasabi for the first time. Biggi estimated that well over 90 percent of all products now marketed as wasabi are actually horseradish powder mixed with oil and artificial color.
Not that there is anything wrong with horseradish, mind you. That’s the product, after all, that his grandmother, Rose Biggi, used to found Beaverton Foods in the cellar of her farmhouse in 1929.
She ground it at home, bottled it and took it into Portland to sell, Biggi said. One of her first customers was Eve Meyer, the wife and business partner of fledgling food magnate Fred Meyer.
Biggi paused, smiled and added, “Grandma always said Eve was the brains of that outfit.”
With Rose having laid the foundation for what is now the largest specialty condiment manufacturer in the United States, the company’s product line has continued to evolve and expand.
In the 1950s, for instance, Gene Biggi, Domonic’s father, saw the rising popularity of Chinese food in the United States. He responded by developing the first shelf-stable wet and extremely hot Chinese mustard.
Until that time, gourmet mustards came only from nations such as France, Germany, Poland, Canada and England. The words fine mustard and America never made it into the same sentence, much less the same sandwich.
The late James Beard heralded the arrival of not just U.S. mustards, but Beaverton Foods’ mustards in particular, with a 1975 article that shook the specialty food world.
“I came across three particularly good mustards (and some excellent horseradish) that came from Beaverton, Ore.,” he wrote. “They reminded me of the heartening success story that lies behind their production.”