- Addie Broyles American-Statesman Staff
John A. Adams might not recognize much about the Adams Extract Company today.
First off, it’s in Gonzales, 60 miles south of Austin, which is where he left it when he died in 1938.
Second, the Adams Best vanilla that launched a 125-year-old company is just one of the more than 300 products that bears his name.
Third, no one with the last name Adams runs it.
But one whiff of that sweet earthy vanilla and a look at the thick pharmaceutical bottle sealed with that little red cap and he’d know: Even though the founding family sold the company 10 years ago and the new owners moved it from the city it called home for more than 80 years, Adams Extract is still very much alive and well.
Let’s start this story back in Michigan circa 1888, where Adams, a pharmacist, developed a vanilla extract for his wife, who didn’t like that the unfortified vanilla that was available “baked out” of cakes and cookies.
He added chicory and some 30 other ingredients to come up with a formula that he called Adams Best. Over the next 30 years, he built up the business, first in Michigan and then in Texas after the family moved to Beeville in 1905.
By 1917, Adams’ sons Fred and Don were preparing to take over the business, and in 1922, the second generation decided to move it to Austin, where Fred Adams had been among the first graduates of the University of Texas’ business school.
The Austin facility remained at the corner of 22nd and San Gabriel streets until 1955, when Fred Adams and his son, John G. Adams, World War II veteran, UT chemistry graduate and inventor of the company’s four-pack of food coloring, moved the company once again, this time to a striking mid-century modern building south of Austin near Onion Creek and the town of Manchaca.
That futuristic art deco structure and bright red-and-blue neon sign were hard to miss. The building sat on a hill just west of the highway that would soon become Interstate 35, and it wasn’t just the Adams factory; it was one of the most famous buildings designed by Austin architect Leonard Lundgren, who also designed the round Holiday Inn on Lady Bird Lake.
Over the next 50 years, John G. Adams ran the quickly growing company out of that Lundgren building, adding spices and seasonings to the product line in 1960 and laying the groundwork for what would become a national brand.
But by 2002, John G. Adams was nearing 80 years old and in worsening health. They’d reached capacity at that facility, and the Adams heirs decided to sell the company to a trio of businessmen who wanted to bring the brand into the 21st century while maintaining the integrity that comes when a business survives three generations of family ownership.
The company got a new name — Adams Extract & Spice LLC — and moved into a 90,000-square-foot facility in an industrial part of Gonzales, the small town an hour east of San Antonio that sits on the modern spice trail of Interstate 10.
The new generation
The new warehouse isn’t fancy on the inside or out — they did keep the sign, which is displayed prominently outside — but what is remarkable is the smell, a hunger-inducing mishmash of familiar scents. The spices and extracts are packaged in different areas of the plant, and going from room to room smells like walking through dinner to get to dessert.
“We are descendants of Christopher Columbus,” says managing partner Sterling Crim during a walk-through of the packaging plant earlier this month. “This is the same business that he was in.”
Crim is a San Antonio native who had climbed his way up the corporate ladder at H-E-B before buying Adams in 2002 with Dan Shannon, another veteran of the specialty food world, and Clay Ruple, an oilman who was ready to get out of the oil fields and into the spice trade.
Only a handful of spices and aromatics are from U.S. farms — chiles from New Mexico, North California garlic, mustard seeds from the Dakotas — so the majority of the ingredients come from overseas.
“Everything that happens in the world, we feel it. Tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, you name it,” says Ruple, who confesses that the oil industry didn’t teach him as much as he thought it would about working in the spice trade.
The spices are usually dried in their country of origin to cut down on the cost of shipping the raw (and water-heavy) ingredients to each individual spice company. Spices and extracts from Europe and Africa often come through the Port of Houston, with Asian ingredients arriving via train and truck from the West Coast.
The Adams family went door-to-door to build the business in an era when most consumers shopped at mom-and-pop stores, but Crim says that now that 10 retailers control 80 percent of grocery sales, Adams has had to evolve to compete on a bigger scale.
About half of the 30 employees from the plant near Onion Creek made the move to Gonzales to continue working at the company — one of them, Loretta Maciel, started out on the line and now oversees all production — but in the decade since the move, the company has doubled the number of employees at the warehouse and on sales teams out in the field.
Though 70 percent of sales are from products sold under the Adams label, the company packages spices and extracts for a number of large grocers’ private-label products, as well as specialty rubs and spice mixes from companies whose names you’d recognize but whose identities this reporter promised to keep secret.
Even though plenty of restaurants and prepared food companies use Adams products, Crim says they are also in the business of promoting home cooking.
Annie Ortega, the company’s communications and social media manager who shares hundreds of recipes a year through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest pages, is the face of the brand in its many cooking videos on YouTube, but Crim says getting customers excited about cooking is as much to promote healthy lifestyles as increasing the bottom line.
If the foods you prepare at home are bland and boring, you’re more likely to get discouraged and opt for the fast food option, but even though many of us might have a heavy hand with the butter and salt shaker, fresh, flavor-packed spices are an easy way to make healthy (and potentially boring) foods like chicken, fish or even vegetables more interesting, Crim says.
New customers, new products
“The way we eat is constantly changing,” Crim says, and nearly every item in the product line has been tweaked to fit changing taste preferences and nutritional expectations.
Consider sodium. “The old industry was based on salt,” Crim says. Seasoned salt, garlic salt, celery salt and even your everyday rubs and blends were what consumers expected, but now that Americans have spent decades weaning ourselves off salt, the spice industry can no longer rely on salt-based blends.
In the company’s on-site test kitchen, where dozens of plastic spice containers scribbled with Sharpie shorthand line the shelves, Crim holds up two steak rubs: the reddish traditional blend that John G. Adams would have been able to identify without a label and one of the company’s new steak rubs, a peppery mixture with remarkably fewer granules of salt.
Holding a literal representation of the past and the future in his hands, Crim admits that it’s a challenge to maintain the nostalgic connection to what we grew up with and the inevitable need to evolve.
“Not many brands are 125 years old,” Crim says. “Even Oldsmobile couldn’t stride the fence between relevancy and legacy.”
They’ve taken MSG out of just about everything, reduced or eliminated salt in the spice blends and added entirely new products, such as seasoned panko breadcrumbs and Culinary Tonight, combinations of pre-measured spices, seasonings and liquids to help cooks prepare an entire meal, such as Sweet and Smoky Salmon or Tuscan Chicken.
Food scientists test the products using equipment that both home and professional cooks use, and the process of turning an idea into a product ready for grocery store shelves takes at least a year.
“I don’t think that Mr. Adams would have ever dreamed that we would be selling herbs de Provence with lavender, and he would be shocked that red port reduction is one of our biggest sellers,” Crim says.
The new owners have helped the company stay relevant in an increasingly “foodie” culture where customers can taste the difference between curry powder and garam masala, but they’ve also been wise not to change the most important parts.
The vanilla is still sold in a glass pharmaceutical bottle tucked inside a box whose fonts and design haven’t changed since the 1950s. “We don’t know how we could change or improve that. It survives the generations,” Crim says. Even the machine that builds and closes the boxes dates back to the 1950s. “We’re scared to change it.”
Carrying on the Adams legacy is something that Crim and his fellow managing partners do not take lightly.
You won’t hear them refer to anyone in the Adams family without a “Mr.” and “Mrs.” first, and you can feel the reverence in their voices when they retell stories that customers have told them about their grandmothers and mothers preparing birthday cakes and wedding cakes and chocolate chip cookies with Adams products.
“No connection is so strong and real,” he says of the brand loyalty that comes from the indelible imprint of sensory memory.
Two years ago, the company opened its DICE facility right across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio, where marketing and sales teams are based and where they display and collect memorabilia from the company’s history. (Ortega is collecting stories, photos, recipe cards and memorabilia for the company’s 125th birthday celebrations. If you have any to share, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Crim keeps in mind a lesson he learned from H-E-B CEO Charles Butt, who also runs a company that started more than 100 years ago: “Mr. Butt always says that you should let history be your guide post, not your hitching post.”