By Ben Wiese | Nov 29, 2021
Jellies, jams, preserves, sauces, and co-packing
In the early 1960s, Estella Wieser routinely made jams and jellies for her family to eat. Naturally, her son, Mark Wieser, created a business out of it.
In 1969, he opened Das Peach Haus -- a log cabin fruit stand just off the highway in Fredericksburg, Texas. Quickly, it was recognized as the premiere fruit spot in town.
After a decade of successful business, employee Case Fischer, then just 15, took note of the elation customers expressed upon experiencing tasty jams and jellies. Seven years and a college degree later, he rejoined the company as co-owner, and it officially rebranded as Fischer & Wieser Specialty Foods.
For more than 50 years, Fischer & Wieser has produced beloved jams, fruit preserves, and jellies that are distributed throughout North America. The consistency is remarkable: the recipes have remained the same; the business remains in the family; Fredericksburg remains home.
The big difference today is found in how Fischer & Wieser manufactures more than 40,000 pounds of product on an efficient fall day. The catalog now spans several brands -- including the Fischer & Wieser label (the Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce is a flagship offering) alongside Mom's Pasta Sauces and the Thai-inspired Dr. Foo's Kitchen Sauces -- and more than 150 products in all.
Early on, manufacturing was a painstakingly manual process: by hand, from scratch, and out of Estella's kitchen. "In the early early days, we probably manufactured just exactly like you would have done in your home kitchen," says Fischer. "Quite honestly, even before I came onto the scene in 1979, that was where it was being done. The first kitchen for Fischer & Wieser was Estella Wieser's kitchen, where she made jams and jellies for the family."
When Fischer joined, Wieser had transitioned to producing from Das Peach Haus. But room for future growth remained. "The commercial home kitchen in the log cabin had a few more stoves in it, but we still manufactured just like you would from your own home; [the difference] was the increase in volume."
By 1988, it was time to think much bigger. "In '88, Mark and I bought a 40-gallon steam-jacketed kettle," says Fischer. "We actually owned it for one or two years before we plugged it in because we were afraid of it; we thought, 'what if we don't make this right and we have to throw away 40 gallons of product?'
"One day, orders were coming in, and we decided we had to do more volume. So, we started to use the kettle. By '89 to '90, we were comfortable with this larger format and we bought a 60-gallon kettle, then another 60, then another 40."
The Fischer & Wieser expansion still wasn't finished. In 1998, Fischer secured a deal with a wholesale business called Costco, which catapulted the company into a new stratosphere of manufacturing volume.
"In 1998, some very good fortune and good salesmanship on the part of Case's got us some business in Costco," says COO Jenny Wieser, Mark's niece and Estella's granddaughter. "It enabled us to manufacture truck-fuls of products rather than kettlefuls of product."
Fischer & Wieser moved into its current 70,000-square-foot downtown Fredericksburg facility and office space the same year. The company looked to co-packing and private labeling to leverage additional capacity.
"Our business is really broken up into several categories," says Fischer. "We sell into groceries, we sell through distributors into grocery stores throughout North America, we sell into food service, which goes into restaurant menu items. We do contract work, which would be custom food manufacturing for different retailers and grocery stores throughout the country. We really consider ourselves a premier boutique specialty food manufacturer in the U.S."
The move also marked a pivot to automated manufacturing. "We have an auto-filler, auto-cappers, and then the jars travel down a conveyor to get flipped over by an inverter, so that the hot product in the jar can sterilize the lid," says Wieser. "It's a critical detail when making jellies."
But perhaps the biggest streamlining within the manufacturing process is what happens after the jars have been filled. "Instead of putting the product off to the side to cool off and eventually have a label put on, we run it through our cooling tunnel, which is essentially a big water bath," says Wieser.
She adds, "Even though we started to automate in 1998, we did it very much with the same mindset of how you would produce in your home kitchen; this is how we are able to maintain the same flavor that my grandmother had when she was cooking on her stovetop in the thousands of gallons we make each day today."
Challenges: Fischer & Wieser took a significant hit during the early days of the pandemic -- not unexpected, in retrospect. "It's all the same things you hear from everyone else: supply chains, labor, increase in cost," says Wieser. "We have had to be very inventive to keep supplying all the things we need to do.
"Whereas we normally might buy 20,000 jars this week and then another a month from now, we're now buying two to three containers' worth to make sure we have the jars needed to produce when we need to produce. That has put a strain on inventory and space."
There's a hard ceiling to what a specialty foods company can charge before alienating its customer base, and Fischer & Wieser is highly cognizant of it. "We have a premium product that demands a premium price, but there comes a point when you can't get too much more premium," says Wieser. "It's not a challenge to make a great product, it's not a challenge to develop it -- that's what we like to do. But how it's done [with current worldwide industry constraints] can be a bit challenging."
Opportunities: Much like the company's history would suggest, Fischer & Wieser has remained consistent in its product -- and the results are paying off. "We continue to see growth in our marketplace," says Fischer. "We see a lot of opportunity with each and every one of our current customers."
Needs: Stabilization in the broader economy, says Fischer. The primary segments of business -- grocery stores, restaurants, and custom food manufacturing -- have steadied, and the business is beginning to thrive once again. "I think as far as our forward-looking [forecast], it's very positive. We continue to march forward."