A Family of Taste Martin Gillet is an old company with plenty of new ideas for making its presence known in the food industry.

June 03, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,SUN STAFF

It's 8 a.m. Do you know where your taste buds are?

If you're one of those dozen or so people at Martin Gillet & Co. Inc., in Highlandtown, whose tasting skills are on record as acute, you'd better have them in the lab, ready to sample a sesame-ginger salad dressing, or a mayonnaise sauce that's deeply redolent of horseradish.

And if everything comes together, you just might find a product that will take off into the stratosphere, as the company's Parmesan Pepper salad dressing did in 1985.

Josie Cooper, vice president, research and development, remembers that day: "I was working on two products for two different people, and I thought, these would taste good together."

The rest, as they say, was condiment history. Today, virtually every major producer of salad dressing makes a Parmesan pepper variation. That's life at the 187-year-old Baltimore firm of Martin Gillet, which entered the commercial fray just a few decades after the American Revolution, importing tea from the Far East and packaging it for sale in the new United States. By mid-century the company was also producing mayonnaise, and by 1960, the tea business was dropped in favor of the condiment business.

Since then, Martin Gillet has concentrated on condiments, preparing its own (including Bright Day, its original cholesterol-free mayo, launched in 1975 and still bearing its flower-power label), and packing products for the food-service industry and for other companies.

These days, however, the rising star at Martin Gillet is Our Family Recipe, a line of a trendy products that are designed to function as "home meal solutions" -- that is, products that are more than single-purpose flavorings, that can be used to flavor all sorts of foods in all sorts of preparations.

This spring, for the first time ever, the company had a booth at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. The show, sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, based in New York, is widely recognized as the place where new food stars go to be born. The development of Our Family Recipe is a good illustration of how an old-line manufacturer has kept itself up-to-date by divining taste trends and putting them to work.

Baltimore grocery executive Nancy Cohen, chief executive officer of Eddie's of Roland Park, called Martin Gillet "a well-known, solid, respectable company" that's paying attention to the latest trends in food to keep the company growing.

Attending the Fancy Food Show, "where people believe they're going to see hot new items" is "wonderful marketing," said Cohen, whose two stores on Roland Avenue and North Charles Street stock some of the Our Family Recipe products. (As do Graul's, Giant, Safeway, Mars, Gourmet Again, Klein's and Weis stores, and multiple other stores and chains nationwide.)

Staying current

Rebecca Katz, Martin Gillet's director of marketing, attributed the company's modern outlook to her father, Joseph J. Katz, 72, who bought the company in the mid-'50s.

"My father, the quintessential entrepreneur, is constantly reinventing Martin Gillet" to keep it current, said Katz, 36. "He's always been ahead of his time." (He was considering bottled tea products in the late '50s.)

Rebecca Katz, who spend 15 years in various public-relations positions, joined Martin Gillet just two years ago. Friends, she said, warned her against going into "the family business," but, she said, her father "is the best boss ever."

Katz said her father likes to run "a flat company" -- meaning there aren't people at the top giving orders and people at the bottom taking them. Both people and ideas are allowed to emerge from the ranks, so employees like Josie Cooper, the research and development VP who's been with the firm for 23 years, and like Grover Alexander, vice president of quality assurance, a 40-year veteran who oversees the company's pristine production facilities, have day-to-day input.

And people like Rebecca Katz can develop new products, run marketing programs and be on the factory floor in a moment if a problem requires attention.

"What's allowed things to evolve with Our Family Recipe is my father's commitment to 'thinking out of the box' and to never giving up," Katz said. "And to the way we work: My father says, 'If you listen, you'll get the answers to the quiz.' "

The quiz, in the case of Our Family Recipe, was finding out what tastes today's increasingly sophisticated consumers were craving.

"The [American] palate has really changed," in the past eight to 10 years, Katz said. People are more accepting of new flavors, and more interested in exotic flavors; Mediterranean, Oriental, Pacific Rim -- these are all tastes that have become popular just in the past decade.

"People want robust flavors -- things that tickle their palate," said Clayton Shelhoss, a vice president who deals with sales of the company's branded products. "They want a certain uniqueness of flavor."

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