Hard Work Cuts the Mustard
At Beaverton Foods, condiments have been the main course for almost 90 years
STORY BY ANGELA SANDERS
PHOTO COURTESY OF BEAVER FOODS
Last year, Beaverton Foods turned out nearly 30 million jars of horseradish and mustard, and the brand is carried in 98 percent of the nation’s grocery stores. You probably have a jar of Beaver Foods extra hot horseradish or stone ground mustard in your refrigerator. If Rose Biggi, who founded the company in her basement in 1929, were alive now, she’d pat her wallet and laugh.
Horseradish trumps the Great Depression
In 1910, Rose came with her family to Oregon from Genoa, Italy, at the invitation of her grandfather, then known as the Onion King of Washington County for his fields of cipolle. When she arrived, Rose was 14 years old and the eldest of seven sisters. She was a small woman — only 4 feet 11 inches tall and 100 pounds at her peak, augmented in later years with a white bouffant hairdo. But she had big ambitions.
Rose married a farmer and settled in Beaverton. While her husband was drinking red wine and smoking cheap cigars at the corner tavern, she dreamed up ways to make money to ease the Great Depression’s toll. At that time, Beaverton was a farm town surrounded by fields, and many of those fields were planted with horseradish, including a portion of Rose’s own garden. She decided to turn the roots into cash.
Every day, she rose at four in the morning for a cup of coffee, then washed the horseradish roots before taking up her tasks as the mother of three children. At night, she went down to the basement to grind horseradish in a machine powered by an old washing machine motor. Yes, her eyes watered, but her grandson, Domonic Biggi, now CEO of Beaverton Foods, says she called them “tears of joy” from the income the horseradish would bring.
Rose had two advantages. The first was her hard work ethic. Domonic lived with Rose throughout his teens. He says when he was at his grandmother’s, “there was always something to do and something to eat.” Her bywords, Domonic says, were “respect, work hard, be patient.” Rose didn’t believe in debt, welfare, or too much television, and she distrusted “slick guys.” Although she was never educated past eighth grade, she kept her own ledgers in meticulous pencil and was a savvy investor in farmland.
Domonic once asked his grandmother if she liked horseradish, and she shook her head no. “I like this about it, though,” she said and rubbed her thumb and fingers together as if caressing cash.
Rose’s second advantage was her friendship with Eva Meyer, Fred Meyer’s wife (known as Eve to her friends). Rose sold horseradish at Fred’s deli, and she and Eve struck up a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Eve made sure that as the deli evolved into Fred Meyer Stores Inc., Rose’s new company, Beaverton Foods, grew with it.
Rose’s first employee was a strapping 14-year-old German girl named Esther. Rose never learned to drive, so she and Esther would load up the truck, haul their bottled horseradish to the produce market in Portland, and deliver it to delis and groceries.
In the 1930s, Rose’s business earned the boost of a contract with Borden Dairy Co. to make horseradish for the Borden Foods Blue Bell brand. As the Great Depression receded and World War II fueled the economy, Beaverton Foods thrived. Rose bought up more land in Beaverton, along the creek where the horseradish and other produce would thrive. Eventually, she acquired 60 acres.
By 1942, Rose had saved up enough money to build a modest bungalow with a tiny porch where she liked to sit in the evening and survey her kingdom. What set this house apart was the manufacturing plant built onto its side, giving the house the appearance of the head of a boa constrictor that had swallowed a shoebox. As her business grew, the plant grew, too. They “must have put 17 extensions” on the plant, Domonic says, calling it the “Winchester Mansion” — a reference to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose — of food processing facilities.
Horseradish cuts the mustard
Then, Rose’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. In the late 1940s, Beaverton Foods lost the Borden contract. Rose’s youngest son — Domonic’s father, Gene Biggi — dropped out of the University of Portland to help keep the business afloat. Domonic describes his father as “creative and charming,” both qualities he’d apply to the company for the next 50 years.
Gene realized that European-style mustard didn’t have to be imported. It could be made using the company’s horseradish equipment. He spent a lot of time devising new mustard flavors in Rose’s kitchen, which also served as the company’s test kitchen. With Gene’s skill as a mustard-creator and salesman, Beaverton Foods picked up contracts with Swiss Colony and Hickory Farms, among others. In fact, in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Gene invented honey mustard to go with Hickory Farms’ summer sausage. “He tried sugar at first,” Domonic says, “but it was too grainy.”
Gene kept dreaming up flavors. “If it sold great, we ordered more labels,” Domonic says. “If not, we didn’t.” Flavors in the 1970s were the wildest, including Creole, jalapeno, and Hawaiian onion mustard. Beaverton Foods also bottled the U.S.’s first shelf-stable extra hot Chinese mustard, which James Beard praised in Esquire magazine in 1975.
Beaverton Foods Spreads it On
Today, Rose Biggi’s house and factory are long gone. Since 2001, Beaverton Foods has been housed, fittingly, in a mustard-colored modern facility in Hillsboro, right where the suburbs become pastures and old farm houses.
The family still owns Rose’s horseradish fields, but now they sprout strip malls and office buildings. Beaverton Foods buys its horseradish root from the Seus Family Farm, a certified organic farm in the Klamath Falls-Tulelake, California, area.
Despite the changes, Beaverton Foods continues to feel like a family business. Of its 72 employees, more than 30 have been with the company at least 15 years. Rose’s first employee, Esther, refused to retire, even when Gene offered her full salary to stay home. In all, she worked 63 years for the Biggi family.
Beaverton Foods is now home to four house brands — Beaver Brand, Inglehoffer, Napa Valley, and Pacific Farms — but nearly 30 percent of its production is for other companies’ brands. The equipment at Beaverton Foods runs from 6:30 in the morning until midnight — not quite Rose’s own hours, but close. At 89 years old, Gene Biggi spends his winters in Palm Desert, but in warmer months, he still comes into the plant a few hours a day.
For the past five years, Domonic has had the run of the sunny CEO’s office. To his right sits a Liberace-worthy walnut chair with a wide seat, carved roses, and rust-colored brocade upholstery. The chair used to belong to Rose. Domonic remembers his grandmother warming its seat through its eras of orange brocade, then pink satin upholstery, before he rescued it — broken legs and all — after her death. “I spent a stupid amount of money getting that chair redone,” he says. Now it sits in front of the window, right where Rosa would have wanted it.
Angela Sanders writes about food, people, and history from Portland, Oregon, and is also the author of mystery novels under her name and the pen name Clover Tate. angelasanders.com