December 25, 2012

Wichita spice company finding the right blend

Mike Casamento comes home from work every night bearing a strong, but indefinable peppery smell.

Mike Casamento comes home from work every night bearing a strong, but indefinable peppery smell.

It’s an occupational drawback for the owner of BlendTech, a maker of custom spice blends largely for the food processing industry.

He and his workers create the magic that is the modern processed food palate in all its smoky-chipotle-balsamic-raspberry-ranch-flavored variety.

The plant,1819 S. Meridian, is a small player in the world of food, with 25 workers mixing, packaging and shipping flavorings around the word. It specializes in quick turnaround for its customers.

The business is mostly science, with precise formulas, reverse engineering and strict federal oversight for food safety. Still, there is plenty of art, with experimentation in creating complex combinations of flavorings to please, or fool, the tongue.

Here, a bag of salt-and pepper-flavored sunflower seeds isn’t just salt and pepper flavored. The taste is too sharp and thin. It needs something strong but rich to complement the pepper, so garlic and onion are added.

BlendTech makes plenty of tried and true recipes for their customers. One of its best known is the flavoring injected into whole Jennie-O turkeys.

The company also takes popular products sold by its customers’ competitors and figures out how to mimic the taste.

More importantly, BlendTech staff work with their customers to come up with new flavors.

Chefs and food companies are always pushing to find something to break into the public’s consciousness, Casamento said. Flavors get spicier, borrow from a less common cuisine, or incorporate odd combinations of existing flavors.

One of the hot trends now, Casamento said, is fruit flavorings in sausages, such as the apple smoke.

Yet, nine out of 10 flavors created for new food products never make it because the food industry is so incredibly competitive.

Casamento more or less grew up in the business. His father had his own spice-mixing company, Food Flavors, in Wichita. Casamento worked 10 years for his father and then, after the firm was sold, for Danish food flavorings giant Chr. Hansen.

He started BlendTech in 1999 and the company has been growing ever since. It’s been up about 30 percent since the recession, he said.

“Our business is not really affected by recession,” he said. “We sell to the companies that sell to grocery stores. When times get tough, people will switch from restaurants to grocery stores.”

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