It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Sting
Harry and Lena Tulkoff brought their grated horseradish business with them from Russia in the late 1920s. Sometime in the 1930s (the family is uncertain of the exact date) their small grocery store in New York City became a food manufacturing business when they began making and selling borscht in a bottle, pickled relish sauce and packaging garlic bulbs in plastic and calling it “No-Dri.” The couple eventually moved to Baltimore and opened Tulkoff’s on east Lombard Street.
Now in its third generation, Tulkoff Food Products includes an East Coast and West Coast facility and is far from what Harry and Lena started. They produce cocktail sauce, barbecue sauce, ginger puree, chipotle aioli, several types of horseradish sauces and a host of products for other companies. But its base is still rooted in the spicy concoction, and in family.
Phil, Michael and Alec Tulkoff, three brothers who run the business, learned a lot of the finesse and philosophy from their father, Marty, and uncles, Sol and Danny. But the brothers all bring their experience from outside of food manufacturing to the company as well.
“I worked 11 years in aerospace engineering and 11 years in computer consulting, so my three meals a day was my food experience up until here,” joked the oldest brother, Phil, who serves as president of Tulkoff Food Products.
Phil joined the company nine years ago, and his influence has touched everything from what is produced to how they produce it. He helped computerize some of the processes and communications in the facility and helped drive the co-packaging business from zero percent four years ago to 29 percent today. Co-packaging or co-manufacturing is the ability to make somebody else’s product, including packaging and labeling. Typically, a consumer will read “packaged for” or “distributed by” on the label.
A big chain grocery store doesn’t have factories that make all the products that bear their name, Phil explained, so a manufacturing company makes it for them. Then there are other instances in which a familiar brand name with no brick-and-mortar factories has its product co-manufactured, and often these brands are even well known throughout the country.
“We do sauces, dressings and condiments,” said Phil. “All of those things are ground or mixed or pureed; they’re flow-able products.”
Tulkoff does not produce products with any meat or fish protein because it is not a USDA facility, and all but five of their products are kosher.
“We turn away nine out of 10 [inquiries for production], and most of the time it’s because of volume,” said Phil.
He explained that to use the industrial-sized equipment, the product must run all day long to be cost effective. They cannot produce only 50 or 100 cases. Use of the plant requires about 1,500 cases in a day. He added that if he had a nickel for every time he has heard, “I have the greatest hot sauce in the world, or all my neighbors love my barbecue sauce,” he would be a rich man.
“The example I give them is this: Can you make me one martini and mix it in your bathtub? The answer is no, and I have the same problem,” he explained. “We have kettles that are 400 gallons and I can’t do 50 gallons for you. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t even come up to the level where the mixer is.”
Phil also had a hand in the enormous custom-designed horseradish root washer that can clean literally tons of roots at a time and is based on his father’s design from many years ago.
“Our father was a creative mind and tinkerer; he was inventive,” said Michael, the middle Tulkoff brother and director of specialty sales. “You can’t just go out and buy a machine that deals with horseradish; it’s a strange root and has to be dealt with appropriately.”
He added their father Marty was always running the company from within, finding ways to become more efficient.
Michael came to the business almost four years ago after working in medical supplies, investment, insurance and educational entertainment. He lives in Israel with his wife and six children, conducting most of his business remotely and coming to Baltimore about twice a year.
Michael remembers the brothers’ involvement as kids during summers and school breaks.
“I remember sweeping floors, heaving boxes and pallets and the small hook-shaped knife that we’d use to open the 100 pound burlap bag of horseradish root,” he recalled. “And I remember the soreness of my palm from putting the one gallon metal jar lids onto the product we’d fill for restaurant usage.”
Michael described arriving in the Tulkoff plant parking lot with his father in the early 1980s when he worked for a short time with the company.
“He said, ‘Hey, look around Mike, there are 50 cars here, but it’s not just 50 cars, it’s 50 [employees’] families we’re trying to support,” he recalled.
Alec, the youngest of the three brothers, is the vice president of operations in Tulkoff’s Pittsburg, Calif., facility and travels to Baltimore for work a few times a year. The West Coast facility is about a quarter the size of the East Coast plant in workforce and production. But it allows faster access to serve clients out West and also provides redundancy should anything happen to production on the East Coast.
Before joining the company about eight years ago, Alec worked in digital music management and also at the Shoah Foundation, where he viewed Holocaust survivor testimonies in order to catalog details about particular concentration camps or ghettoes. He is a historian and has written two military history books as well.
Growing up in a sauce-centric family business, Alec admitted, laughing, “I was the one who would order a hamburger at [a fast food restaurant] and we’d have to wait because I ordered it plain. I never was a sauce person.” But he still understands and appreciates the importance of the horseradish root to his family legacy.
Horseradish root is thought to be native to southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, according to the International Herb Association, and is a very labor-intensive crop to grow. There are no seeds, so a piece of the root —about the size of a pencil and twice the thickness — must be cut off and planted to continue the yield. It is too unwieldy and high maintenance for mechanized production, and once you successfully grow horseradish, “the hardy perennial lasts forever.” The roots form an extensive system, and older plants can have roots up to 15 feet deep. Commercial cultivation began in the 1850s in the U.S., with Collinsville, Ill., east of St. Louis, being the largest production area for horseradish root in the country.
“We grind about half-a-million pounds of fresh root per month,” said Phil. The storage coolers hold about two million pounds per aisle, and the product is constantly replaced since washing and grinding happens daily. Tulkoff must estimate, purchase and reserve enough roots to last through their production because harvest of horseradish is only possible November through May.
Truth is, now Tulkoff produces more product with garlic than with horseradish but it runs a close second. Garlic spans multiple ethnic foods, so the demand is higher. Retail sales are only about two percent of the business. The majority is still food service production and the rest is the growing co-packaging business.
“People have to realize that family businesses are fewer and fewer in America and getting to a third generation is a blessing and a very rare distinction today and that doesn’t come easily,” said Michael. “For members to interact there can be challenges, but I think if people realize you have to have that greater good, like my father’s philosophy, instead of the me, me, me attitude, I think that is what will contribute to longevity and a healthier atmosphere, not just for the family but for the employees.”
According to Alec, the brothers get along well, each in charge of their specific domain and they respect one another’s strengths and weaknesses. None of the spouses are directly involved in the business. The children are not involved either but perhaps, just as horseradish agriculture requires planting a piece of the original root and needs considerable time to cultivate, so might the next generation of Tulkoffs.