Don't let name fool you, Beaverton Foods is all Hillsboro
When Rose Biggi began bottling horseradish in her Beaverton farmhouse in 1929, she never set out to create a company that would span four generations. She was just trying to find a way to help her family survive the Great Depression.
Since those early days when Rose traded her bottled product for flour and other necessities to feed her husband and children, Beaverton Foods has grown into a company with products on shelves of stores around the world and a reputation as a leader in the specialty condiments market.
Even as it has become a global success, the family-led company, which moved its headquarters to Hillsboro in 2001, has managed to stay true to its roots. In addition to remaining committed to being a small-batch manufacturer, which calls for emphasizing quality over quantity, Beaverton Foods operates with a basic small-town business philosophy established by its founder.
"Grandma was always huge into respect," said Rose's grandson, Domonic Biggi, who now serves as Beaverton Food's chief executive officer. "If you make a mistake, call somebody up and offer a solution. Don't try to hide. It was always about quality and reputation and treating people well."
Rose Merlo was 14 when she immigrated from Italy to Beaverton, where she met fellow Italian teenager, Louis Biggi. The couple married and began farming on a plot of land in Beaverton.
Rose began selling grated horseradish — which she harvested from her garden and prepared using a small cheese grater — to help her family survive during the Depression.
She continued to bottle horseradish after the economy turned around, and her business grew to the point that she took on an assistant, a German woman named Esther who babysat the Biggi children. Esther would go on to work in the Biggi family's business for more than 60 years before retiring, started a trend of employee longevity that Beaverton Foods enjoys with its staff even today.
Although Rose was running a growing business, her hands were tied as an entrepreneur. At the time, women were limited in their rights. Although they were allowed to vote, they were forbidden by law from owning land. If a woman wanted to get a bank loan for her business, she needed to have a male family member sign for it.
That didn't stop Rose and the other women running those early incarnations of home-based businesses, according to Domonic Biggi.
"The women banded together to help each other — it was almost an underground network," he said. "That's just the way it was, you learned to work around it and that's what (Rose) did."
It was that unspoken bond and support among women that led to the first store placement for Rose's horseradish. She met and became friends with Eve Grubmeyer, who talked her husband, Fred, into carrying Rose's bottled horseradish in the Fred Meyer stories he had founded. The product soon became a favorite of a new group of consumers, a fanbase that would help spur Beaverton Foods forward.
While Eve Grubmeyer helped the Portland area fall in love with Rose's grated horseradish, fans of Beaverton Foods' specialty items such as creamy horseradish sauce and honey mustard have Rose's son, Gene, to thank. Now the chairman of the board of Beaverton Foods, Gene was an infant when Rose first started selling bottled horseradish. By the time he was in high school, her business had grown to the point that Rose enlisted a teenaged Gene to make local deliveries on his bicycle.
Gene noticed that the bottled horseradish didn't keep well for long periods. He suggested to his mother that they refine the recipe to keep the bottled contents fresher longer. Rose already had her hands full, so she suggested her son spend some time in the chemistry lab testing his ideas.
Gene did as his mother directed. He mixed and stirred and eventually came up with a recipe that still stands to this day. He also discovered a passion — and a talent — for turning ideas into tasty recipes. Combined with his natural knack for business, he and his mother soon became an unstoppable team.
"I call (my father) the Maestro of Mustard," Domonic Biggi said. "I like to say he (is) a really good capitalist with an excellent palate."
A favorite Biggi family story relates how Gene turned a Chinese take-out dinner with a girlfriend into an opportunity to make a recipe to recreate the hot mustard the couple received with their order. Beaverton Foods soon became the first company in the country to produce a domestic Chinese hot mustard that caught the attention of Chinese restaurants and distributors in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Under Gene's leadership, Beaverton Foods continued to build a reputation as a company willing to break new ground in the world of specialty condiments. The company went far beyond just tapping innovative ingredients such as cranberries, sriracha and jalapenos.
While major mustard companies like French's stubbornly clung to using glass jars, for example, Gene listened to customers asking for lighter-weight containers that were easier to use. As a result, Beaverton Foods became the first company to package specialty mustards in squeeze bottles on store shelves.
"The big companies took 10 years to pick up on that," Gene said. "They let me have about a 10-year's head start."
Even though Gene has passed management of Beaverton Foods' daily operations to his son, he continues to serve as the guy in charge of giving new products the stamp of approval. The company continues to rack up culinary awards. Gene, meanwhile, earned a spot in the Specialty Food Association's 2016 Hall of Fame.
The next generation
These days, Beaverton Foods continues to expand its private label specialty condiments. The company also has a thriving division that co-packs for other companies.
The Biggi presence in the company also has expanded. Jeff Biggi, Domonic's nephew and Gene's grandson, has joined the company as a fourth generation. While Jeff fills the role of food service sales manager, he's also busy learning the finer points of what it takes to keep the company running from his uncle.
Beaverton Foods also has taken steps to expand its global presence. In 2016, the company entered a distribution agreement with Dot Foods Inc., the largest food distributor in the country. Ownership of the company, however, is something that the Biggis say is off the table. Both Gene and Domonic have received offers from big-name companies interested in buying out Beaverton Foods, but they both say they never had interest in selling.
"Beaverton Foods is part of the Biggi family," Gene said. "Domonic is going to carry it to the next level. I told Dom, 'When I die, you'll end up with Beaverton Foods. Promise me one thing, you won't sell it.'
"(The business) has been good to our family. It's provided a good life for our family and I want that to keep going."
Although Beaverton Foods moved its manufacturing operations to Hillsboro in 2001, its connection to Beaverton continues. The company contributes to local organizations, including the Beaverton Police Activities League and the Beaverton Art Foundation.
The company also gave Beaverton one of its newest culinary experiences. In 2018, Domonic and two of his siblings opened the Beaverton Food Cartel. The venture, which features more than 30 food carts and a bar and event hall, sits on the site of the old horseradish patch that gave rise to the family business back when Rose was a young mother struggling to care for her family.
Domonic finds it fitting that the many of the food cart owners are immigrants fulfilling their dreams to own and run their own businesses.
"Instead of growing horseradish, we're growing businesses." he said. "I think Grandma would have liked that."
By Stephanie Basalyga
Visit Hillsboro Tribune on Facebook and Twitter
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox
Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)