Mark Sauer follows the sweet smell of vanilla beans down a winding passageway to the basement of the C.F. Sauer Co. in Richmond, Va., where thousands of pounds of the flavor-filled seedpods await the process that turns the beans into pure vanilla extract.
“The aroma is familiar and comforting and literally intoxicating,” says Sauer, 60, who began working for his family’s company at age 13. “It brings back powerful memories of my first job when I shoveled pounds and pounds of saturated vanilla beans out of the vat.”
Now executive vice president of the company started by his great-grandfather, Sauer relishes that the family business has helped cooks add flavor and zest to their food for more than 125 years. The company’s inventory now includes spices, seasonings, marinades, mayonnaise and other condiments, though vanilla extract remains its signature product.
“So much of what you see on the market is imitation vanilla—a bunch of chemicals put together—because it’s so much cheaper [to make],” says Conrad Sauer IV, 63, Mark’s brother who serves as company president and CEO.
Not so with Sauer’s, which uses only high-quality Bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar that inspire members of the Sauer family to invite comparisons with any other extracts on the market.
“Take some milk, put a teaspoon of vanilla in it and taste it, or put our vanilla on your wrist and smell it. You can tell the difference,” Mark says. “We use the same formulation used in 1887.”
Founder C.F. Sauer was a 17-year-old pharmacy clerk in 1884 in Richmond when he noticed the popularity of the pharmacy’s bulk containers where housewives brought empty bottles to fill with flavoring extracts, considered pharmaceuticals at the time because of their alcohol content. Three years later, he started his own business—the first in America to provide pure flavoring extracts in small, packaged bottles, delivered to retailers by horse and buggy.
Today, the business he started is operated by his fourth- and fifth-generation descendants in a landmark Richmond building topped with a distinctive illuminated “Sauer’s Vanilla” sign, identifying where the pleasant scent of vanilla has wafted outside since 1911.
At any given time, Sauer’s stores between 5,000 and 20,000 pounds of vanilla beans in cardboard cartons in the company’s basement vault. During the extraction process, the beans are chopped into smaller pieces, placed in baskets and showered with pure grain alcohol inside of giant stainless steel vats. After several days, the liquid is drawn off and mixed with sugar and water to reduce the alcohol content of the final product.
While the company purchases 130 different spices from around the world, its operational, processing and manufacturing hub for vanilla and spices is Richmond. “We even make our own bottles here,” says Mark, adding that vanilla remains the company’s top-selling extract and black pepper its most popular spice.
Though the price of vanilla beans fluctuates due to factors such as tropical typhoons and governmental policies in Madagascar, C.F. Sauer remains committed to the formula that has worked since the company’s founding—using vanilla beans instead of vanilla blends, sugar instead of corn syrup, and a cold-press extraction process instead of the more common heat extraction method that produces a “burned” taste and cloudy appearance, according to Mark.
“When you do something for 125 years, you do have a leg up,” he says. “The key is to make quality products that are easy to use to make a healthy, wholesome dinner for your family.”