What do you see when you imagine Oregon-made products at the grocery store?
For most people, maybe even especially for those in agriculture, we see the fresh fruits and vegetables grown all around the state. Maybe you picture a favorite cheese or ice cream or local beef that comes from our dairy and ranching industry.
When Oregon Aglink teaches students or consumers about agriculture, we always emphasize the depth and complexity of the food web extending across our state and into our grocery stores. Many of the essential businesses that process, package, and distribute food are a storied part of Oregon’s food web.
Barhyte Specialty Foods, the parent company of Suzie’s Organics and purveyor of all manner of mustards and other specialty sauces, has been a delicious part of Oregon agriculture since the 1980s and an Oregon Aglink member since 1995. Based out of Pendleton but shipping to all 50 states and beyond, the family-owned brand is a master class in agility and ambition that never loses sight of the people at its core.
It Starts with Family
The Barhyte family story traces back to an eighteenth century German immigrant named Jacobus Barhyte making his Sweet ‘n Sour Mustard sauce recipe that later traveled across the country on the Oregon Trail. Almost two hundred years after Jacobus, Suzie and Jan Barhyte rounded out the 1970s in Pendleton, serving the same mustard recipe at their Swift & Martin Station Deli.
Customers started asking for extra containers of mustard so often, the family pivoted from the deli to a certified home kitchen where they mixed and bottled mustard.
“Back then it was really amazing,” says Chris Barhyte, CEO of the company since 1995. “Specialty food hadn’t gone mainstream at all, so your outlets were gift shops and specialty kitchen shops.” The mustard did appear on shelves at groceries like Zupan’s and Lambs, but you were out of luck if you wanted to find one at a larger retailer at the time.
“If you went to a mainstream grocery store, they didn’t have the specialty foods section they have now,” Barhyte says, “but if you went into a produce stand, they’d have a really big specialty food section.”
Once the mustard took center stage and the business started looking at larger-scale production and distribution, the Barhyte family left Pendleton for about a decade to try out some other Oregon towns. Pinning down exact dates is a little tough. If you ask Suzie Barhyte, mother of Barhyte CEO Chris and plant manager Mike, the mental math involves remembering how old her sons were when they made the moves. Chris was sixteen when they moved to Lincoln City where they owned some land to expand their production. Later, Chris was in college and Mike was eighteen when they moved to Salem with a need for more production space and the advantage of better trucking routes.
With ever-increasing demand, the move back to Pendleton in 1994 made good business sense. There was plenty of land at lower costs for expanding their production facilities to ten and then fifty-thousand square feet, which happened when they started bottling private label for some larger grocery chains. Located along I-84 and with other routes north and south, Pendleton has ideal highway access for trucking crates of mustard and marinades back to the midwest.
The move had other benefits, too.
“We missed Pendleton,” says Suzie. “We loved that town.” Even with the company maintaining a satellite office for sales and administration in Tualatin, between Salem and Portland, the heart of the company sits right in Pendleton with the test kitchen, the family, and their sixty-plus employees.
What’s in a Name?
The branding journey of the Barhyte Family and their wide-ranging line of mustards, marinades, sauces, salad dressings, stuffed olives, and now seltzers is another way to mark their progress and the last few decades of gourmet food production in Oregon.
The mustard that came from a certified home kitchen and sold out of local specialty food stores and farm stands in Oregon and Washington only needed “Old Fashioned Foods” to carve out its space on the local market. In 1986, the appeal of imported specialty foods to some consumers led marketing consultants to suggest Haus Barhyte, a nod to their German heritage but one that caused some confusion. According to Chris, “people kept calling on the phone asking for ‘Hoss.’” They needed to rebalance between trends and consumer recognition.
Haus Barhyte evolved into Barhyte Specialty Foods. While that change came with its own hiccups, since some stores assumed they were only a distribution company and not the creator of their products, the name Barhyte Specialty Foods has stuck as the umbrella under which several other lines have been developed.
During their time in Salem, the Barhytes developed Willamette Valley Mustard, which began selling well with farmer’s markets up and down the I-5 corridor. In 2009, they introduced the Saucy Mama line, which includes wing sauces, stuffed olives, mustards, marinades, and salad dressings like Apple Honey Vinaigrette, Four Leaf Balsamic, and Poblano Ranch. Suzie’s Organics started appearing in 2015 after they received their USDA Certified Organic seal.
“The concept of Suzie’s was to be a pantry brand,” says Chris. “Instead of a gourmet line or specialty, we wanted something that was things you have in your cupboard no matter what. Essential pantry items.”
You can still peruse all of the specialty items still available on their website, where you’ll also see the dozen varieties that have won over eighty awards, but the pantry staples of Suzie’s Organics have been another big hit for the company.
Many businesses during the pandemic saw difficulties with decreased restaurant sales. The Barhytes took a hit with supply chain and distribution troubles just like most other companies in the last few years. The way through those challenges has been the continued focus on essential and delicious items for the home kitchen. An influx of people working from home and eating out less were new home cooks who could discover the Barhyte brands, whether they wanted comforting familiarity or something with a kick.
New Projects, Same Goals
There will always be new recipes to explore at Barhyte Specialty Foods. The latest endeavor is their entry into the hard seltzer market with Suzie’s Organic Hard Seltzer, available in fourteen varieties including the six of the “Loaded Series” with 9% abv. You can find it in several grocery stores in Oregon, but the best bet is the “Finder” tool on the website that can help you pinpoint the location of that Mountain Pack or Beach Pack you want to enjoy on your next camping trip.
Excited as they are to break new ground, the Barhytes still seem proud to have kept their roots as an Oregon business known for making good food even more delicious.
Yes, product development is important, Suzie agrees, but the mission of Barhyte Specialty Foods sounds a lot like it must have when they first started bottling their mustard for deli customers. What matters to her? “Making meals more flavorful, and for the home cook, making it easier.”
By Allison Cloo