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Expanded seasoning options with new PS Seasoning branding launched in the last year. Part of Corporate Executive Chef Krista Tillotson’s duties include testing seasonings like Desert Pepper Tequila Blend and The Notorious P.I.G. Rub in the company kitchen as part of the innovation process. (Photo: Doug Raflik, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
IRON RIDGE – A family-owned shop on Main Street in rural Wisconsin. A wall of spices. Customers with reusable jars to be filled. Plenty of chit-chat between owners and customers.
It’s not a fictional scene in a romanticized slice of small town Americana, it’s how PS Seasoning & Spices CEO Joe Hanni describes his favorite childhood memories of working in the family business.
After chatting with his mother and grandmother for 15 minutes, maybe longer, customers would purchase a few dollars worth of pepper or other spices.
“I remember growing up and that was fun,” said Joe. “Everyone was happy.”
Some four decades later everyone must still be happy. Unhappy customers wouldn’t demand 30 million units of products that PS Seasoning ships annually from Iron Ridge.
Many products are destined for America’s largest retailers. Nondisclosure agreements forbade naming names, but during a short facility tour led by Joe in August, packages stamped with nationally recognizable logos were being filled. If you buy store brand spices or sauces or dry soup mixes or even the occasional store-branded homemade jerky kit, there’s a good chance PS Seasoning employees had their hands in making it.
Hands in the figurative sense.
The first features Joe mentions are safety protocols — including X-ray, magnets, metal detection and other devices — that prevent anything except food stuff from entering packages.
Employees tend machines that sift seasonings, fill packages and send finished products down the line to be packed for shipping. The 10 mixers can produce 40,000 pounds of product per shift.
And it all started after Joe’s grandfather nearly burned down the family home.
It started with sausage making
Harold Hanni, founder of PS Seasoning & Spices and Pro Smoker ‘N Roaster, learned the craft of smoking sausage from his father Gottfried Hanni. However, it wasn’t until Harold returned from military service during the Korean War that he converted an old chest freezer into a smoker to make sausage at home.
The chest freezer turned smoker caught fire during the winter of 1976 and nearly destroyed the Hanni’s home. From the fire’s ashes rose the Model 100, a stainless steel smoker designed by Harold and built for serious home sausage makers, grocery store meat departments and small butcher shops. Thus, Pro Smoker ‘N Roaster formed in 1977.
Sausage isn’t made by smoke alone, so the Hannis also sold spices and seasonings to Pro Smoker customers. Seasoning sales expanded beyond sausage-making demand.
Growing sales of a wider diversity of seasonings led to Harold, his son Ken Hanni and Ken’s wife, Kate, spinning off PS Seasoning from Pro Smoker in 1984.
Establishing PS Seasoning also set the career path of Ken and Kate’s son Joe.
“I knew from a very young age this is what I wanted to do,” said Joe. “From very young on I worked in the business.”
He also had bigger dreams for the family business.
“I’m blessed to have parents who supported that goal.”
Providing one-stop shopping
A drive to PS Seasoning headquarters on two-lane highways cuts through Wisconsin’s farmlands only interrupted by small stands of hardwood trees, streams and brick building lined main drags of small towns. The location makes for a lovely Sunday drive but won’t attract the eye of major retailer executives during daily commutes.
What did catch the eye of large retailers is what Joe calls “one-stop shopping” for private label customers.
In the world of private label packaging there are many co-packers who blend and package products as directed but aren’t capable of recipe development. Shipping, storage and even package design often require a retailer to work with several companies just to provide its store-brand foods for customers.
At PS Seasoning, clients can provide their own recipe, pick from a library of over 3,000 blends or work with the onsite culinary team to develop custom dry mixes and sauces. Labeling, warehouse storage and shipping are also part of PS Seasoning’s capabilities.
“Companies would have to go to three to four vendors for something like this,” said Joe.
The approach is working.
“We’ve doubled our company every three years since 2006. We want to continue that trend.”
Upon moving to its Pleasant Street facility in 2013 — just around the corner from the Main Street shop — PS Seasoning added 40,000 square feet for production. Six months later they needed more space to meet demand. The company leased space across the street until they bought a nearby 70,000-square-foot warehouse and connected it to the main building via a tunnel.
In addition to the business office, production facility, warehouse and shipping center, the campus includes an employee on-site fitness center and an outdoor courtyard with grills, putting green and chipping pads.
“People are always shocked there is this type of facility in farming country,” said Joe.
An ever changing blend of scents greet olfactory senses as we tour the buildings.
Closed rooms for each production line prevents scent cross-contamination between products. Warehouse ingredients and products are stored in “savory and non-savory” sections.
Research and development labs are similarly separated by scent, thanks to a customer comment during a pancake mix presentation.
“They tasted the pancakes and it was great, but when they smelled the box they said it smelled like garlic. We didn’t have segregated labs at the time, so we realized we needed to have independent labs for savory and non-savory.”
Onsite kitchen/culinary staff/development
Before the pandemic, clients and guests trekked to Iron Ridge every week for a taste of what PS Seasoning had cooking in the development center’s kitchen. The lone exception during the summer was a small delegation from the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP).
The exception was made to receive AAMP’s 2020 F.W. Witt Supplier of the Year award. Chris Young, AAMP executive director said PS Seasoning and Pro Smoker earned the award for making significant contributions to the meat industry by consistently offering award-winning products and service.
During our visit, corporate executive chef Krista Tillotson was preparing grilled sea bass with a Cajun creole curry. Fully stocked with shiny pans, pots and accompanying utensils, the spacious kitchen was installed three years ago.
Dishes not destined for guests’ bellies are part of the innovation process, recipe development or being prepped for social media.
The innovation culinary team has grown since 2000 from a team of one to eight members who usher new product ideas through feasibility studies and taste testing before reaching Joe’s taste buds.
“They usually keep me in the dark until we get to that final tasting, which I actually enjoy.”
The final tasting includes the innovation team, Joe and the leadership team.
“Notorious P.I.G. is by far one of my favorite new products that we just launched.”
Focus on its own line of seasoning
The Notorious P.I.G. is a blend of four different peppers, brown sugar, salt, garlic and hickory smoke flavor labeled as a pulled pork seasoning. However, Notorious seasoned pork chops are among Joe’s three favorite dishes Tillotson has plated in the company test kitchen.
The rub is part of the recently revamped PS Seasoning branded products.
Products in the lineup include the company’s twist on the expected, like a steak seasoning named Chop Shop and an Italian blend named Good Fella. Both come with a built-in grinder that allows cooks to choose a fine or coarse grind.
And there are seasonings flavored with decidedly Wisconsin influences. The ingredient lists of a few blends include “natural flavor butter.” Wild Game Hunters Blend is covered in camo label. Grate State Cheesy Blend adds a taste of gouda.
A dozen sauces include barbecue, teriyaki and tangy mustard options.
PS Season recently released pizza kits, including a gluten-free option. Two of the company’s pancake mixes are also gluten-free. Dry soup chili mixes along with a bottled bloody mary mix round out the company’s range of offerings. For now.
After testing branded products on select Festival Foods shelves, PS Seasoning products will be available at more stores. Products can be ordered through the company’s website and shipped directly to homes.
Customers willing to make arrangements and the drive to Iron Ridge can pick up a jar or a bag of seasoning at company headquarters. Unfortunately, picking up an order is unlikely to come with a side of small town chit chat.
Still, providing orders of spices and seasonings for home cooks, mom-and-pop meat markets and other small retailers keeps the company grounded as it grows.
“When my grandfather and parents started the business it was important to them that from generation to generation that we never lost sight of where we started.”
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Contact Daniel Higgins [email protected] Follow @HigginsEats on Twitter and Instagram and like on Facebook.
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