Martin J. Tulkoff

[ Age 73 ] Closely tied to Corned Beef Row, he helped run a family business making Tulkoff's "Flaming Hot" horseradish.

March 14, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Martin J. Tulkoff, chairman of the board of Tulkoff Food Products Inc., whose "Flaming Hot" horseradish has been raising the heat on sandwiches and clearing the sinuses of Baltimoreans for three decades, died of lung cancer Saturday at his Pikesville home. He was 73.

Mr. Tulkoff was born in Baltimore to Harry and Lena Tulkoff, Russian immigrants who settled in the city in the early 1920s. He spent his early years above his parents' produce business - the New York Fruit Co. - in a building at 1018 E. Lombard St., in the city's Corned Beef Row neighborhood.

In an article in The Jewish Times two years ago, Mr. Tulkoff explained how his parents broke into the horseradish business.

After a customer came in and picked oranges from the bottom of a three-foot-high pyramid - which sent the fruit rolling in every direction across the floor - the elder Mr. Tulkoff bellowed in frustration, "That's it. I'm getting out of this crazy business."

"So my mother asked him, `Well, now what will we do?' My father answered, `You know, we've been selling a lot of horseradish in the store, and you see how many people asked for it to be ground? Let's put ground horseradish in bottles, label it and sell it as Tulkoff's hot horseradish.'

"My mother, the story goes, looks at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses and replies, `You'll go broke,'" Mr. Tulkoff said in the interview.

Mr. Tulkoff said his parents ground the horseradish root by hand, then his mother loaded it a teaspoon at a time into jars and licked the labels that went on them.

By the late 1930s, as the business prospered and its name was changed to Tulkoff Horseradish Products, the family moved to a home on Cottage Avenue.

After graduating from Forest Park High School in 1954, Mr. Tulkoff joined his brother Sol, who was 14 years older, and his parents in the business, still on East Lombard Street.

"He was the inside man and operations manager. He adapted machinery and oversaw production. He loved mechanical things," said a son, Philip J. Tulkoff, president and chief executive officer of Tulkoff Food Products Inc. "His late brother Sol was the outside man who was in charge of sales and marketing."

The business expanded into adjacent Lombard Street buildings, then moved in 1978 to the F.&M. Schaefer Brewing Co. site at Conkling and O'Donnell streets in Canton.

"My father pushed for expansion, and the company recently broke ground at the Holabird Industrial Park," the son said. "We make horseradish every single day, five days a week."

The company, which claims an estimated 80 percent of the nation's $150 million horseradish market, has 100 employees and operates a second plant in Pittsburgh, Calif. In addition to its label, Tulkoff makes products for 100 companies' private labels and sells its products abroad.

Its other food products include Tiger Sauce, a fiery blend of horseradish, mayonnaise and spices that was invented by Sol Tulkoff and named for the Tiger Division, the tank corps he served in during World War II.

In a 1981 interview in The Sun, Martin Tulkoff described his company's signature product as "Jewish Dristan. Nothing like it for the sinuses."

"We're right across the street from where it used to be made. It's always fresh and a great product," said Earl G. Oppel, director of operations for Attman's deli on Corned Beef Row, which he said goes through at least 500 pounds of Tulkoff's horseradish a year.

"Marty was a big customer, and he loved coming in here and getting a roast beef sandwich, with Tulkoff's, of course, and talking business. He was a very likable and quiet guy," Mr. Oppel said.

"Tulkoff's goes well with corned beef and makes a great cocktail sauce. If you have sinus problems, all you have to do is smell it and it'll clear your sinuses," he said.

Mr. Tulkoff retired from the company in 1990 but remained its board chairman. He enjoyed "tinkering, fixing things, and collecting odds and ends of things," his son said. "He liked making things with his hands."

Mr. Tulkoff was awarded a patent in 2002 for a pizza box that holds two pies. He had patents from the 1970s for a piece of equipment that shrink-wrapped palletized boxes.

He also collected old bottles and vintage scales, and in the den of his home he had an operating vintage yellow, red and green neon sign advertising "Tulkoff's `Hot' Horseradish," which he liked to show visitors.

"He had a great sense of humor. He loved kidding with his friends and family, and enjoyed playing jokes on them," his son said. "When asked how business was going, he would always respond, `It's a grind.' That's a little horseradish humor."

Mr. Tulkoff's philanthropic interests included Jews for Judaism and Hackerman House at Sinai Hospital.

"He was a quiet philanthropist and didn't want any plaques or his name listed," his son said.

Services were Sunday.

Also surviving are his wife of 48 years, the former Sylvia Grossman; two other sons, Michael S. Tulkoff of Israel and Alec S. Tulkoff of Antioch, Calif., who heads the company's West Coast operations; and eight grandchildren.

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