Making mayo and more for 132 years
When you stroll by the C.F. Sauer plant at 2000 West Broad Street — or even wait at the stoplight with the car windows down — your nose tingles. A pungent whiff of pepper or sweet scent of vanilla might waft by.
“The aroma emanating from the building varies depending on what is being produced that day,” said C.F. Sauer’s marketing director, Erin Hatcher.
Since 1887, the C.F. Sauer Company has been a presence in Richmond. Today it makes condiments, spices, herbs, extracts and rubs in several plants around the country. The West Broad Street plant bottles vanilla and makes spices and herbs; hence, the olfactory tease.
The fourth generation of the Sauer family helms the privately-held company. “Our family is honored to be part of Richmond’s rich history and cityscape for the past 130 plus years,” said Conrad F. Sauer, IV, president and chief executive officer, in an email. “We are proud of the outstanding products and beloved brands that we manufacture.”
It is truly a family business, with Brad Sauer, executive vice president of real estate; Mark Sauer, executive vice president, retail, and Tyler Sauer, assistant to the executive vice president.
The company’s signature product, the one with a longstanding, devoted, verging-on-cult following, is Duke’s mayonnaise. It’s been a staple in many kitchens, especially Southern ones, for years.
Duke’s differs from other brands because it contains only egg yolks, not the whole egg, and no sugar. As its label touts, it’s a “Family Recipe since 1917. Real Mayonnaise, Smooth & Creamy.”
The secret recipe, which Hatcher calls “the Coca-Cola of mayonnaise,” hasn’t been altered for decades. “We take no shortcuts. We don’t cut corners. The ratios have not changed. You can’t beat the real stuff.”
Sauer’s is third in market share for branded mayonnaises, excluding Miracle Whip — which is not really mayonnaise, Hatcher contends. (Miracle Whip was developed by Kraft as a less expensive alternative to mayonnaise in the 1930s.)
Walter Bundy, Shagbark Restaurant’s chef, swears by Duke’s for his made-from-scratch pimento cheese, crab cakes and deviled eggs.
Duke’s, he said, is “simply the best, the gold standard of mayonnaise. It has the perfect balance for what mayonnaise should taste like, just plain old delicious.”
In 1917, Eugenia Thomas Duke, a Georgia native, moved to Greenville, South Carolina. When the United States joined World War I and troops started training at nearby Camp Sevier, she started a business selling sandwiches to hungry soldiers at 10 cents each, slathered in a mayonnaise she had created in her kitchen.
After the war, she expanded her products and markets. Her top salesman in 1923 convinced her that her mayonnaise was truly distinctive, so she started selling it as a separate product.
In 1929, C.F. Sauer bought Duke’s Products and Duke’s mayonnaise became Sauer’s flagship product.
The company has responded to the times over the years, moving from glass to plastic jars, for instance. But Eugenia Duke’s recipe remains unchanged. (In 2012, however, they introduced a light mayonnaise with half the fat and calories of regular mayonnaise: Duke’s Light with olive oil.)
In 1884, Conrad Frederick Sauer, age 17, started working in a Richmond pharmaceutical business helping customers who brought in their own bottles for refills of drugstore products.
After observing that flavoring extracts were a big part of the business, in 1887 he started a company, the first in the country, according to Sauer officials, to sell pure flavoring extracts in 5- and 10-gram bottles, boxed.
By 1911, Sauer’s factory had 250 workers and moved to its current location on West Broad Street. Over the years, the C.F. Sauer company acquired other companies, including Duke’s in 1929, and expanded their markets, including exports.
In 1999, for instance, the Sauer Company bought The Spice Hunter (spicehunter.com) in San Luis Obispo, California, a firm that makes exotic spices, spice blends, herbs, rubs, organic dip mixes, sauces and turkey brines.
Hundreds of products
Today C.F. Sauer’s has more than 300 products, sold under various brand names, including mustard, barbecue sauce, spices, herbs, mixes (for gravies, chili and meat loaf, for example), meat tenderizers, extracts, flavorings, food colorings, baking bags and egg dye kits.
The company has plants in Richmond, South Carolina, Kansas and California. Richmond groceries that sell Sauer’s products include Kroger, Publix, Food Lion and Fresh Market.
Like Duke’s mayonnaise, Sauer’s vanilla extracts, made from vanilla beans imported from Madagascar, are unique, Hatcher said, because Sauer’s is one of only a few companies that uses a cold distillation process. They don’t apply heat to speed up the process.
“We are not in a rush,” Hatch explained. “The taste of Sauer’s is outstanding, pure, aromatic and intense.” She recommends testing the vanilla in a cup of milk. “There’s nothing like it.”
Sauer’s sells its products in large quantities to food service establishments like restaurants, as well as grocery stores, Amazon and Walmart.com. According to the company’s website, cfsauer.com, most products have been certified kosher by the Orthodox Union. Sauer’s even exports a different mayonnaise to Africa under the BAMA brand.
Duke’s mayonnaise is sold in 43 states, with its core market in the southeastern United States. In Charlotte, N.C., 51 percent of mayonnaise sales are Duke’s.
Debbie Robertson says she is a lifelong lover of Duke’s. While growing up, Robertson was unaware that other brands existed. When she visited her brother in Germany last year, he insisted that she bring him two jars.
Donna Wermuth, a retired Charlotte teacher, said, “I cannot think of a time or a dish in which it was bad. It’s a staple in my pantry.”
South Carolina is also a stronghold market: 40 percent of all mayonnaise bought in the Palmetto State is Sauer’s.
John Clark of Columbia, S.C., calls Duke’s mayonnaise “a religion in South Carolina,” disparaging the “ill informed” who have not yet discovered it.
When living New York, his wife “was apoplectic when she realized that grocery stores there did not carry Duke’s. For three years, she brought back a large supply of Duke’s whenever she returned from visiting family in South Carolina,” he said.
“I always buy Duke’s. For some deep-seated reason, I am afraid to do otherwise. It would be heretical to the religion in which I was raised,” Clark said.
As Chef Bundy puts it, “Eugenia Duke was onto something.” Her mayonnaise devotees no doubt agree.