You might say that Sol Tulkoff owes his success to his roots.
Tulkoff's Horseradish Products Co. Inc., which began 60 years ago as a fruit and vegetable store run by Tulkoff's father and mother, is now a multimillion-dollar food-processing plant, grating 20 to 40 tons of horseradish roots a day and churning out thousands of cases of sauces and processed herbs daily at its 21-acre site here.
"It may be horseradish to you, but it's my bread and butter," said the relentlessly promotional, 60-year-old Tulkoff, who sports a tiger-skin blazer and matching tie when he touts his product at trade shows, factory tours and in interviews.
The tiger has been the company's official mascot since Tulkoff returned home after World War II, during which he fought in Europe in the 802nd Tank Battalion. Its symbolic mascot was a tiger crushing a German tank. "When I returned, I said we have to put tiger into the product line." So Tulkoff's created Tiger Sauce, a horseradish-mayonnaise sauce, which has become the company's second-biggest seller, after its traditional horseradish blend.
This week is the biggest time of the year for the horseradish industry, said Joe Dogan, general sales manager of Thor-Shackel Horseradish, a Chicago-based processor. "Just about anybody who ever uses horseradish will be buying it. You have to eat it with smoked ham or smoked sausage on Easter and with gefilte fish for Passover. It's a tradition."
But Tulkoff's, like other processors, is trying to make horseradish a year-round big business.
Tulkoff's processes truckloads full of horseradish roots a day to make plain horseradish, red horseradish (with beet juice), tiger sauce, horseradish mustard and cocktail sauce -- with horseradish, of course. Two years ago, Tulkoff's began processing a new product: garlic that it chops and bottles, uncooked, to be used interchangeably with fresh garlic.
The pungent aroma of horseradish constantly fills the air of the processing plant. But, Tulkoff noted, the garlic smell is even stronger. "We process it only one day a week because it smells up the whole works," he said.
Tulkoff will not say just how much money the privately held company takes in or earns each year, but he claims that the company's sales "double every three to four to five years.
"Our sales are way over $2 million a year," he said about a number cited in a newspaper article six years ago.
The business has come a long way from its beginnings, when Harry and Lena Tulkoff ran a fruit and vegetable stand on Lombard Street. Their specialty was supplying the biggest caterers in the area. "I remember, as a kid, delivering fruits and vegetables at 5 a.m. Sunday morning to local banquet halls," Tulkoff recalled. "I used to carry cartons of fresh pineapple into a shop. And along with that would always be a gallon of freshly grated horseradish to go with the function."
Eventually, Tulkoff noted, the demand for the store's freshly grated horseradish -- mixed with beet juice and pure vinegar -- outstripped demand for fresh produce. "There was a tremendous demand for our product; we couldn't do our other business. . . . It was like the tail wagging the tiger," he said.
Tulkoff's father made sure demand increased. A persistent salesman, he pushed his product on individual consumers and wholesalers. When consumers objected to the bottled-packed horseradish over the freshly grated mix, the elder Tulkoff gave the bottles to the consumers for free to prove the bottled mix was just as good, if not better. To get wholesalers to buy his product, he eagerly demonstrated it at food conventions, urging passersby to taste his wares.
The elder Tulkoff, 85, still checks in on the business, visiting the plant about once a week. But for the most part, the business is now conducted by his children, Sol, the president; Martin, the vice president, and Bernice Kishter, who works on the company's promotional mailings.
Bernice's husband Dan also works at the company, overseeing its printing and advertising operations and relations with its growers. Sol's two children and Bernice's daughter also work at the firm.
The pride in the family-owned firm is evident in the company's offices and processing plant, where pictures and slogans -- and even 2-foot-high figurines -- of tigers predominate.
"This is an ego trip for me," said Tulkoff, who has attended more than 5,000 trade shows over the past 38 years -- all in his infamous tiger suit. He has six to make sure he always has a clean one.
Tours of the plant are carefully orchestrated -- from a personalized welcome sign on the door to the table full of freshly made food designed to show off the many uses of horseradish.
"Here, have a Bloody Mary," he said to visitors on a recent tour. "Taste it without horseradish; and now with it. . . . Our tangy coleslaw never runs. . . . Have you tried the blue cheese dip? Here's a cracker. . . . That fish prepared with 1 tablespoon of his horseradish mustard and 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise sends you to the moon. . . . "
The food was prepared that morning by his niece. Tulkoff also handed out recipes concocted by the "Institute of Horseradish" -- which has the same address as the company.
Tulkoff is a hustler -- and proud of it.
"He is one of the more flamboyant characters of the industry," noted John McLaren, who served as executive secretary of the now-defunct National Association of Horseradish Packers. "He goes to more food shows with that terrible sportscoat . . . ," he added.
"That terrible sportscoat" is an important marketing tool, according to Tulkoff. It got him on the David Letterman show and gets him the attention he seeks at the 30 food shows he attends annually.
"If you've got something to sell and you don't tell anybody about it -- if you don't break your neck to do anything about it -- who's going to know about it?" he said. "He who has a thing to sell and goes and whispers in a well is not as apt to get the dollars as he who climbs a tree and hollers."
Despite his eagerness to promote his company, Tulkoff is secretive about financial figures. For instance, when asked how many employes Tulkoff's has, he said, "Enough to get by." How much does he pay for horseradish roots? "Cash." Who are his competitors? "We don't discuss it."
When pressed further, Tulkoff turns aside, turns to another subject or makes a quick phone call.
The figures he does give out are strongly challenged by his competitors. "We have about 80 percent of the market," Tulkoff said. Yet Morris Gold of Gold Horseradish Co. in Brooklyn questioned that figure. "No way . . . that's impossible. . . . "
Still, noted McLaren, Tulkoff "is one of the major packers in the industry -- one of the few with coast-to-coast, Canada to Mexico distribution. He is unquestionably one of the top three or four. If he wants to call himself number one, I couldn't dispute it -- but I have some doubts."
Tulkoff says he has had about a dozen offers from other companies to buy the firm but has turned them down. "We enjoy what we're doing, and we haven't even scratched the surface. We want to do more of what we're doing -- and better."
Although the market for horseradish and its various sauces is somewhat limited, Tulkoff doesn't want to diversify into sharply different food lines. "I'd rather stick to what I know best rather than being an opportunist. Our opportunity is to improve what we're doing," he said.
And there is plenty of room to grow, Tulkoff said. Not only are there new areas where he can sell his products but, he said, there are more and more people turning to horseradish. "The market for horseradish is constantly growing, especially as adult tastes are for more spiced foods and condiments."
Tulkoff, with his tiger suit, recipes and other promotional tools, will continue to hustle to make sure the market grows, he said, pointing to a poster he has nailed to his office wall: "Hustle is getting prospects to say 'yes' after they've said 'no' 20 times."