Tasty and thriving

Blossom Valley Foods President Bob Wagner helps Luis Lopez box

Blossom Valley Foods president Bob Wagner recalls driving
through Gilroy to Hollister in the 1980s, looking for a place to
expand his business, when he noticed a 26,000-square-foot
industrial building from Monterey Street.
Blossom Valley Foods president Bob Wagner recalls driving through Gilroy to Hollister in the 1980s, looking for a place to expand his business, when he noticed a 26,000-square-foot industrial building from Monterey Street.

“It was just really a fluke driving by,” he said. “I drove by, and I said, ‘God, this is perfect.'”

The company has embraced the community since that providential moment in the 1980s, providing some of its products to local charities. Now, the community has returned the favor, as the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce named it Small Business of the Year.

“Blossom Valley Foods has been a success story in Gilroy,” said Susan Valenta, president and chief executive officer of the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce. “They have developed a unique business, fit a market niche and have taken the time and energy to help others.”

The company, best-known for its Pepper Plant hot sauce as well as its vinegars and cocktail mixes, rakes in about $6 million per year in sales and employs 22 full-time workers. The company moved to Gilroy from a 3,000-square-foot facility in San Jose in 1987. Wagner’s wife, Lee Wagner, is retired but remains a co-owner.

Although Wagner has been involved with Blossom Valley Foods since 1963, the company’s roots actually go back to Chicago and a man named Frank Cascio in 1933.

Cascio sold fresh lemons and limes to bars in the Windy City. His brother told him to come out west to California, and Cascio started making imitation lemon juice in his basement in San Jose. Gradually, the business grew to include making non-alcoholic cocktail mixes and punch-like wine. Cascio named the company Citrus Fruit Sales, a moniker that stuck even after Wagner bought the business in 1974.

Wagner eventually changed the name to Blossom Valley Foods to reflect the change in the nature of the business. He noted with a smile that before the name change, people would call up his business and call for advice about how to prune fruit trees.

“We just got to the point where the name didn’t fit anymore,” he said.

These days, many people know the company for its famed Pepper Plant sauce, which Wagner describes as more of a condiment than a hot sauce.

Bob Roush, an Atascadero man who created the sauce, used Blossom Valley Foods to bottle and package his product. However, Roush wanted to get out of the business and asked Wagner if he wanted to buy rights to the product in the mid-’90s. Today, the sauce is Blossom Valley Foods’ hottest product. It can be found in some Safeway stores – Wagner notes that Safeway approached him about the product – as well as Nob Hill Foods and Whole Foods stores in California.

Blossom Valley Foods also does packaging and manufacturing for several companies, including Trader Joe’s.

Over the years, Blossom Valley Foods has made generous contributions to local organizations, including St. Joseph’s Family Center, Gilroy Rotary Club, Gilroy Exchange Club and Hope Rehabilitation.

Wagner often donates bottles of items to St. Joseph’s that are fresh and still tasty, but may not be exactly what the company’s clients want, he said. Wagner, a local Rotarian, also has donated his products as prizes for Rotary fundraisers.

Valenta said the Wagner family has continued to impress her over the years.

“They are a true team and have shared in continuing the Blossom Valley Foods growth,” Valenta said.

Bob Wagner’s fellow Rotary Club members echoed similar sentiments.

“He is a wonderful person to work with,” said Deanna Franklin, vice president of Gilroy Rotary.

Franklin said Wagner, a past president of Rotary, still dedicates a significant amount of time to the club, “which speaks tenfold about Bob and what he contributes to this community.”

Wagner noted that he was taken aback by the chamber honor, saying that it was nice to be recognized by the community. He noted that it came completely out of the blue.

“I was very surprised,” Wagner said. “I wasn’t sure what I did to deserve that. It’s an honor.”

Reporter Sara Suddes contributed to this article.

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