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A condiment with a dash of heat

How do you build a thriving business on a crop that consumers use a spoonful at a time?

Just because the horseradish market is small doesn’t mean it’s volatile, says Mark Vandenbosch. In fact, going artisanal is an advantage. They can be price makers, not takers.

In Ontario’s Norfolk County, horseradish is a lot like that gawky kid everyone knew in high school who came back from summer vacation one year suddenly transformed with muscles and a cool new look. Where did that come from? Overnight, he’d become a deal.

Horseradish has been around forever too, although it’s been nearly 20 years since it has been cropped in this area along the north shore of Lake Erie. The agronomics haven’t changed, though. Horseradish loves the sandy soil and warm summers of Norfolk, which make for perfect growing conditions to yield the long thin roots that give the condiment its legendary heat.

What has changed, though, is the market.

Maybe you think of horseradish as something your grandma put on the roast beef. But now, it’s being used on burgers, in potato salads and so much more.

And another big thing has changed too. That’s the business strategy back on the farm.

Horseradish is a niche crop. A quick trip to your local grocery store will likely find one jar or another — probably a store brand product from industrial-type horseradish manufacturers. Although horseradish is associated with a number of global cuisines, you’ll find nothing too artisanal, nothing too fun.

Hmmm ... that sounds like opportunity knocking.

Dennis’ Horseradish has been around since 1960 when Dennis Gyorffy founded the company. With wonderful initial success, he was able to get jars selling across Ontario from Windsor up to Ottawa before selling the business 20 years later to the Hantz family, who really honed and polished the recipe.

In fact, through subsequent transitions in 2008 and then again in 2020 to the current owners, Rick Hantz has stayed on, still acting as the all important recipe keeper. 

In 2020, three Marks — Healy, Whitmore and Vandenbosch — arrived on the scene, acquiring Dennis’ Horseradish and aiming to put the heat back in its business plan.

As co-owners of the new Dennis’, the three Marks have honed a management structure that works for the crop and for the business too. Mark Healey (left), heads up sales and marketing, Mark Whitmore (centre) is operations lead and Mark Vandenbosch (right) is CFO and chief compliance officer. On staff, Rydge Rivard is general manager and keeps the process humming. photo: Supplied

Coming in with a strategic, brand-based focus, the three Marks acquired a firm grasp on the marketplace and developed some clear objectives. So while their’s may be a story of producing and selling horseradish, the learnings can apply to any off-the-wall idea or food product coming to market.

#goaldigging

For the three Marks, it’s full steam ahead. They’ve got new growing partners, diversified grain farmers Lindsay Menich and Drew Patterson, to bring production and the end product as close to one another as possible.

The farm is located right in Norfolk, which is important not only to ensure the horseradish is as fresh as possible when it hits the processing plant, but also to strengthen the brand. The crop needs roots. The company does too.

“That makes a huge difference,” says Mark Vandenbosch (CCO, CFO and co-owner). “If you don’t have a good product, it (your marketing) is not going to matter.”

For Vandenbosch, who has farming roots but has spent much of his life in the business world (including as a marketing professor and acting dean of the IVEY Business School at Western University), bringing an off-the-wall artisanal product like this to market is about planning, and it’s about making sure there’s an appetite for it.

He emphasizes that agriculture is a big-volume industry, meaning that you’d better make sure there’s a market for your idea and test out whether there’s a market for it prior to diving in and growing a bunch of product.

For the three Marks, Norfolk’s unique growing conditions, an increased interest in artisanal condiments and a lack of artisanal horseradish in the marketplace presented a potential opportunity. 

So it’s time to talk about goal-setting. One goal, as you’ve read, is production-oriented. It’s to bring the product closer to its roots. But on top of that, Dennis’s also has one very lofty goal: get into every major grocery store chain in Canada, plus a growing list of foodie shops.

“Horseradish,” says Lindsay Menich, here with husband Drew Patterson “seems to live through anything.” photo: Supplied

At this point, the company is well on their way. Their horseradish is in 44 Sobeys locations and 42 Foodlands as well as several other single locations of major chains and many other artisan markets.

Hot pressure and hot horseradish

You know what they say: If you can’t take the heat, get out of the horseradish jar (or something like that). Like any niche crop, farming horseradish has its challenges. First, you have to stress the root to get the spicy heat (the hotter the better), but you have to know exactly how far you can go. To state the obvious, stressing it too much and killing the plan is hardly helpful.

Luckily, Menich says, the resiliency of horseradish is one of the best things about it.

They know tobacco and ginseng too, so they know the feeling of farming with risk. Says Lindsay Menich: “With the stress of losing ginseng to frost in the spring and tobacco to frost in the fall, or losing either to disease... it’s nice to grow something that seems to live through anything.” 

What about specialty equipment and treatments, though? “John Deere isn’t going to make any horseradish equipment,” says Vandenbosch, laughing. “But a potato harvester? With a few tweaks, that will work.”

Luckily, as Menich points out, Norfolk County is full of farmers who specialize in niche crops and because of that, they know how to do innovation. Leaning into the community has been a big help. 

Horseradish crop quality improves with stress — if it’s the right amount. photo: Supplied

“We are very lucky to live and farm in Norfolk County,” Menich says. “There are a lot of innovative, specialized equipment vendors we have been working with to improve existing equipment … The knowledge base of our agronomists is spectacular and we have a strong relationship with all of our input providers.”

Of course, working with one grower comes with plenty of advantages (such as more control over the end product and creating a great relationship) but it does involve some risk management. Luckily, Dennis’ does have relationships with other growers (as do Menich and Patterson, who regularly network with them for advice) as a contingency plan. 

While all is well and good now, it begs the question: What if the market becomes flooded? Vandenbosch seems unfazed. His business savvy is evident. Pointing out that almost all the other horseradish growers in Canada are in southwestern Ontario because of the sandy soil, he says new entrants are likely to be partners, not competitors. After all, it would be risky business to start up another horseradish brand so close by.

Now we market

So you have a great product, you’ve assembled an awesome team (that’s key) and now it’s time to get this thing out there. For Dennis’s that has started with a great website. They’ve taken the time to write up the farm’s history and tell the story, add recipes and a slick point of sale that allows people to purchase product online. According to Vandenbosch, most of their sales come through the inbound message box on their website. Its success is impressive. They’ve had inquiries not just from Canadian companies but Mexican, Thai and Korean ones as well. 

From there, Dennis’s has pushed out their product on social media as well as through traditional media. A quick Instagram search finds videos of one of the other Marks (i.e. Healy) doing recipe challenges and having fun with the product. They’ve appealed to the foodie crowd with clear imagery of tasty burgers topped with horseradish and other artisanal condiments they’ve expanded into, like their signature horseradish seafood sauce and mustard. 

“We’re lucky to live and farm in Norfolk,” says Menich. “There are lots of innovative, specialized equipment vendors.” photo: Supplied

Most recently, they’ve added a FeastON certification to their list of accolades through the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance — a program that tracks one’s use of local ingredients and authenticates that you aren’t just “local washing” your marketing. It’s also a great way to be seen by highly engaged foodies on social media to boot.

All is fair in love and horseradish

So it seems, Dennis’ Horseradish is well on its way to being the next hot thing in artisanal condiments. According to Vandenbosch, farmers are often price takers, meaning they take commodity price for what they’re growing. The nice thing about getting into artisanal products however, he notes, is that it gives the team the opportunity to flip that model on its head.

It may be a lot more work on the marketing and product development end of things but there’s no real market there yet, meaning price point is a little more flexible. All you need is a great product and a great story to go along with it. Dennis’s, Vandenbosch says, will build on both.

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