The secret sauce to Fischer & Wieser’s success? Family and new flavors

11:14 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 Austin360 Eats
These new sauces from Fischer & Wieser were inspired by flavors you might find at a food truck. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

No jam, jelly or savory sauce is too weird for Fischer & Wieser’s product development team to try out.

Weird is what won them the country’s biggest specialty food award in 1997. That’s the year the Fredericksburg-based food manufacturer became nationally known for its roasted raspberry chipotle sauce, a smoky-sweet sauce that became one of the signature flavors of the decade.

CEO Case Fischer can rattle off the names of the products from that era — mango ginger habanero sauce, sweet smoky mustard sauce — but he also can tell you about customers who were walking into Das Peach Haus, a roadside stand he started working at as a teen.

The story really starts with Mark Wieser, who was one of Fischer’s high school teachers. He grew up in a German family in the area hearing the story of his dad, an attorney at the time, attending a meeting in 1926 that would forever change the course of Gillespie County. Local banks insisted that the farmers come up with a way to pay back debts that were rapidly accruing as cotton prices fell.

As the story goes, Wieser’s dad suggested peaches. He and dozens of farmers planted peach and other fruit trees, creating an agritourism industry before such a word existed. In 1969, the younger Wieser opened that roadside fruit stand to sell peach preserves made from his dad’s orchard and his mother’s recipe. Ten years later, he hired one of his high school students who was looking for a summer job.

The chatty, creative Fischer worked every day by Wieser’s side, learning about everything from growing the peaches to keeping customers coming back each summer. In the 1980s, after graduating from Texas A&M, Fischer returned to Fredericksburg, became Wieser’s business partner and took the company to new heights.

Today, Case and his wife, Deanna, have built Fischer & Wieser into an internationally recognized food company operated out of an old lumber mill not far off Main Street in Fredericksburg.

The company employs about 70 people, including Jenny Wieser, Mark’s niece who has a doctorate in microbiology and is now the chief operating officer of the company, and 84-year-old Nora Fiedler, who works Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at Das Peach Haus, the company’s gourmet shop on the southern edge of Fredericksburg on U.S. 87. (They also have a gift shop location on Main Street.)

Mark Wieser is currently writing books on the history of Gillespie County, but he’s just as likely to be found chatting with customers at Das Peach Haus. Last year, they hired longtime food writer and author John DeMers to run cooking classes in a newly opened cooking school connected to the shop.

Hydubina Badillo has worked at Fischer & Wieser for 21 years. Her mother and six children also work there. “It’s an honor,” she says in Spanish as she makes sure bottles are sealed properly before going into a box. “It was my first job when I came here from Mexico, and I’ve been so happy and proud to work here.”

Together, this family-within-a-family makes about 150 products, many that sell under the Fischer & Wieser brand, though as the years have rolled on they’ve also partnered with established food companies, including Mom’s and Austin-based food entrepreneur Foo Swasdee, to launch new product lines. Last year, they launched a line of food-truck-inspired sauces developed with H-E-B.

The person in charge of many of these new products is Ashley Seelig, director of quality assurance and product development, who maintains a wall lined with hundreds of versions of new products they’ve been working on in the past six months.

She works with Emilia Lopez, who has been making products in the Fischer & Wieser test kitchen for close to 30 years, to prepare about 15 batches of new jams, sauces, salsas and glazes every week. Each one goes on the wall, and the recipe notes go in her stash, a file cabinet nearly overflowing with details on the thousands of versions of products they’ve made over the years.

“When you talk to people, they don’t realize our flexibility,” Seelig says. “You don’t have to take this jalapeno marmalade we’re showing you. You can add different fruits or an Asian flair, whatever you are imagining.”

They bat around ideas at a weekly sales and marketing meeting, but they find the most inspiration when they travel to trade shows and business meetings all over the country.

With all the possible roads they could take next, including refrigerated products or high-pressure packaging, Fischer & Wieser continues to specialize in hot fill products, a specific kind of food production that involves hot liquids sealed into jars and bottles that are then shelf-stable.

The company remains small enough to stay nimble, which allows them to tweak flavors to a customers’ liking or make small batches, but they have grown enough to have a national distribution network and the capacity to fill larger orders. Thanks to a partnership with Costco, they are also sold in Mexico, where the roasted raspberry chipotle sauce is selling much faster than they anticipated.

Raspberry chardonnay salsa, one of hundreds of experimental flavors sitting on Seelig’s shelf, won’t have that kind of success, she’s sure. “That one’s been a challenge,” she says, shaking her head.

They bought the former lumber warehouse in the early 1990s, and though Case Fischer didn’t think he’d need all the buildings, by the end of the decade, they were all in use, thanks in no small part to that big food award.

“Right before that boom, we were producing for all the mom and pops, just like us,” he says. They started going to more retail shows and trade conferences, but specialty food was still all about gifts. That meant corporate sales were high, especially around the holidays, but big grocery stores and club stores, such as Costco, weren’t yet selling high-end sauces, chocolates, cheeses and other artisanal products.

Thanks to his regular interaction with customers at his own mom-and-pop shop, he found out how people were using the products, like turning an onion jelly into a glaze for meat. He then started selling a thinner version of the jelly as a glaze. “We saw that people wanted a sauce, so we took out the pectin and turned it into the sauce,” he says.

Starting in the early 2000s, larger grocery companies started waking up to customers’ willingness to pay $5, $6, $7 a bottle for something unique instead of 99 cents for a product they can buy anywhere, Case Fischer says. They also capitalized on the farm-to-table trend, which Fischer had been immersed in since his first day working the peach stand.

“I could see the farm-to-table (that we were doing from the beginning), but I didn’t really appreciate it that much because you had to pick the peaches and you had peach fuzz all over you and then you had to make it into a product. But I appreciate it now because it created a base of how to make product and how people perceive farm-to-table,” he says.

But what happens to those mom-and-pop stores when Walmart starts selling Sriracha honey and jalapeno blackberry jam made with “farm-fresh fruit”? Fischer & Wieser doubled down on their commitment to the smaller retailers by developing product lines that only they would carry, featuring even higher-quality ingredients and flavor profiles.

“It’s been a hard transition in some ways, and we had to make some hard decisions, but we always tried to have products that we could have exclusive to smaller independents,” he says.

When he was still a new partner with the company, Case Fischer was the eager twenty-something coming up with wild new products like beer jelly or bluebonnet jelly. “There was never a time that I can think of that (Mark) said, ‘No, we can’t do that,’” he says.

The driving force for all this creativity? Case Fischer’s unbridled love of new flavors started when he was just a kid. He remembers his family attending a dinner at a friend’s house for a visiting physician from Korea, and the meal was full of foods he’d never experienced before: seaweed, sushi, wasabi, soy and even gochujang, a chili paste that went on to be named a major food trend 40 years later.

Deanna Fischer, on the other hand, grew up eating peanut butter and Cheetos. “When I met him in college, he would eat anything,” she says. They started dating, and Case told her he wanted to make jelly for a living. She didn’t scoff, but she also didn’t think that all these years later, she’d be in the jelly business and be as passionate as him about it.

When Deanna Fischer moved to Fredericksburg after they married, she met Lopez, the test kitchen cook who was new to Fischer & Wieser, too. The two were the same age. Thanks to Deanna Fischer’s years of learning Spanish, they could get to know each other as young women in a new place.

Twenty-seven years later, their shared language and love of food have led to a connection that’s apparent today when they talk about the recipes they’ve developed or look at old company photos and recall details about what was going on in the business at that time.

A few weeks ago, Mark and Case got together to host a strawberry-jam-making competition in the culinary center. They were developing a preserves class and needed to test a few things. Emilia and Deanna were on a team, and Mark and Case were on a team. Jenny’s daughter and Deanna’s son were on another team.

“We were adding a little extra sugar here, some lemon juice there,” Case Fischer says. “We kinda went rogue.”

Deanna and Emilia won, a defeat three decades in the making.

Amaretto Peach Pecan Bread Pudding

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, room temperature

1 jar Fischer & Wieser Amaretto Peach Pecan Preserves

1 cup pecan pieces

6 loaves Mexican-style bolillo bread

6 eggs

2 cups heavy cream

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon salt

For the sauce:

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon water

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 10-inch-by-14-inch baking dish with vegetable spray. In a mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese with half the preserves and half of the pecan pieces.

Slice the bread across as though for sandwiches and spread the cream cheese mixture between the slices. Replace the lid on each loaf.

In a large bowl, combine the eggs, heavy cream, milk, brown sugar, vanilla extract, almond extract, cinnamon and salt. Tear the bolillo sandwiches into small chunks and set into the egg mixture. When all bread is in the bowl, press down to absorb all the liquid. Let sit for about 5 minutes, then transfer to the baking dish. Press down gently to cover and flatten the top. Bake in oven till set and golden brown, about 1 hour.

As baking time nears its end, prepare the sauce by combining the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Let the liquid bubble without stirring until it turns golden, 6 to 8 minutes. Don’t let it burn. Stir in the cream until the sauce is smooth, then add the remaining preserves. Turn off heat and let preserves liquefy into the sauce. Remove the bread pudding from the oven and let cool about 10 minutes. Spoon sauce over the top and sprinkle with the remaining pecan pieces. Serve warm in squares. Serves 10 to 12.

— From Fischer & Wieser, jelly.com

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