By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – Half a block south of the Bell County Courthouse on East Street is a 7,000-square-foot building that once belonged to a cooperative cotton gin. You have to be looking for it to see it, but on the front door is a small sign advertising Pepper Creek Farm Inc. and Pepper Creek Realtors.
Farms are real estate, but that relationship is not what the sign is about. Both companies are headed by Carolyn Bigham. Pepper Creek Farm is headquartered in the building to produce a wide variety of sweet and hot condiments whose market has expanded to wide sections of the state in seven years of business. Products have gained acclaim as far away as Australia.
"I've always made sauces and relishes to give as Christmas presents, and I started getting the idea they were really worth something when people started coming back and asking for refills in the middle of the year," Bigham said. "So I started making larger amounts to sell at fairs. That got to be a little tiresome, though, because we were busy three or four weekends a month.
"We still do some of those, but we sell mostly now over the Internet and through stores – small mom-and-pop operations as well as supermarkets." These include IGA Foodliner on Rancier Avenue and Cosper's Country Meat Market on Elms Road in Killeen.
Before diving full tilt into retail, though, she had to make sure rules and regulations were satisfied. These include a listing of ingredients on the labels and assignment of expiration dates.
The ingredients are analyzed by an Arlington company. Dr. Al Wagner of Texas A&M University at College Station takes two samples of each product to assign an expiration date.
"We're fortunate to have Dr. Wagner," she said. "He knows everything about food merchandising. He's been a great help in many ways."
Her son, Steve Bigham, is the principal agent in finding new markets. Last week, he was in Houston to meet with managers of Kroger supermarkets, which are already carrying Pepper Creek merchandise in Bryan and College Station.
"We had a booth at a festival that turned out to be kind of a wash for us," Carolyn said, "and the Kroger circuit manager for Bryan-College Station came up and gave us his card. We followed up and got that market."
That was the start of Pepper Creek's breakthrough into the big time. Now, the Bighams have their eyes on Dallas and Fort Worth.
The company is a member of the Texas Department of Agriculture's Go Texan program.
This week, mother and son will be in west Central Texas giving demonstrations in Super S food stores, a company with 93 small supermarkets in county-seat size towns, in anticipation of deer hunting season. Some of the relishes doubtless go well with venison, but out-of-town hunters visit local stores for all sorts of supplies.
"We give two demonstrations a day in different towns, and some of that land is beautiful," Carolyn said. "We'll pass each other on the road and say, 'I bet I got a better commute than you do.'"
The sauces, relishes and mixes are all Texana, with ingredients such as habanero peppers and guava cactus. Most of the ingredients come from area companies. The farthest supplier is Chipotle Texas in Hancock in far West Texas.
Others include Texas Spice in Cedar Park, Walker's Honey in Rogers and Interstate Produce in Temple.
The building in Belton is mainly an administrative center for both the real estate company and the food distributor. The Bighams rent facilities at World Art Foods in Temple to do their cooking, and they do all the stirring by hand to avoid breaking the peppers up.
They have about four people to help with the cooking and another three to help with demonstrations in Houston. Otherwise, they're the whole show.
Internet orders are shipped in boxes shaped like jalapeno peppers, the outline of Texas and cowboy boots. A manufacturer sells large quantities of the boxes to a wholesaler who sells smaller orders to end users, and the Bighams decorate them.
They have a box full of prizes they've received in competitions as far away as Australia. The spices won two second-place prizes in an Austin Chronicle contest. A raspberry chipotle sauce seems to be a special favorite.
Bigham pulls out a variety of ribbons and trophies and says, "One day, I'm going to have to sort these out and get them displayed."
Contact Don Bolding at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7557.