How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick? We don’t know. But we do know the millions – billions, even – that people at G and G Peppers, of Gaston, Indiana, grow, pick, process and ship every year. And we know that they’re turning up in more and more of the tastiest brand name foods across the United States.
G and G Peppers LLC is a sophisticated pepper growing and processing operation covering 150 acres just outside the small town of Gaston, Indiana, supplying food manufacturers across the U.S. with a variety of custom-formulated peppers. As Gavin Williams, Facility Consultant and Marketing, who’s worked for the company since 2008 tells us, if you’ve eaten cream cheese with jalapeños, peppery potato chips, a spicy sausage or a red pepper jelly, there’s a good chance that the zing in the taste comes from G and G Peppers.
Founded in 1992, the company got its name from the first initials of the founders and owners, Gary Reichart and Greg Cox. Both Gary and Greg had previously forged successful careers as independent growers of tomatoes and peppers, dating from the mid-70s.
Reichart, a graduate of Purdue University with a Bachelor of Science in Food Business Management, formed G & E Farms of Madison County in 1975, which for a time was the largest tomato producer east of California and, through another company, Red Gold Agriculture Department, developed and maintained a tomato grower base for processing them. He also created GEM Seeds, a seed development and production company, which in the beginning specialized in tomato varieties, but now assists with the development of new habanero, jalapeño, and other pepper varieties.
Cox, meanwhile, a successful family farmer since 1975, became a greenhouse transplant producer in 1985, expanding his production capability in 1992 to include Mexico, Greece, Romania and Hungary as well as the newly formed G and G Peppers.
What goes into growing a pepper that food processors want to use? “There are quite a few aspects,” Gavin Williams says, “including the seed. Gary’s worked for years on cross-hybrid seeds, so he has developed a few of his own that allow us to produce a crisp, very high-quality jalapeño, for example.”
Picking the perfect pepper
The growing operation concentrates on four varieties, ranging from the hottest to the mildest. Habaneros, hot to extra hot, have a Scoville heat level of 3,000 to 35,000; cherry peppers, hot, have a heat level of 500 to 5,000; jalapeños are considered mild to hot, with a heat level of 0 to 6000, while the mildest, banana peppers, have heat level of 0 to 120.
The growing season starts in the greenhouse in late May or early June and the seedlings are then transplanted to the field in early July. The harvest starts in early August and, depending on the crop and weather, continues into the second or third week of November. “So, there are at least two picks. We get the ones that are ripened, but others need more time, so you let them mature for another two to three weeks and go back and get them, so it staggers the picking and processing.”
He goes on to say that G and G Peppers has an advantage in being relatively small as far as the pepper-growing business goes, “so we are able to control and manage every aspect from planting them in the greenhouse and taking them to the field, to making sure they get the proper amount of water through drip irrigation.
Peak of freshness
“When we pick the peppers, they come directly from the field to the processing line, so there is only a 45-minute delay from the field to the production line. They’re picked at the peak of freshness, so they don’t sit for very long and we’re able to offer manufacturers a really high quality, fresh product.”
The processing plant, managed by Michelle Reichart, who is married to Gary, has increased in size from its original 3,200 square feet to a 45,000 square foot footprint, allowing for sophisticated processing and packing equipment, all USDA approved.
“We have a full food safety team and yearly audits from numerous customer companies, and this is one thing we pride ourselves on,” Williams says. “We always do excellently well on audits and never once have we had an issue on anything. Everyone who comes to the plant is impressed with how clean, neat and organized everything is, and the auditors come back and say, ‘Wow! This is a nice establishment!’”
What customers want
After washing and de-stemming, the peppers are diced – as small as 1/8” up to 1/2” square – or puréed to the precise specifications of G and G’s customers, and then packed in brine to keep them fresh. Depending on the customer’s request, they can be packed with just one variety of pepper in the container, or they can be a blend. “We can provide custom mixes,” Williams says. “If they want this much of one pepper and a little less of another, or if they want different color ratios, or if they want a 50 percent blend of habanero and jalapeño, for their applications, we can do that for them.”
In addition, the batches are sent to an outside lab for Scoville testing, which determines the precise heat level of the product, so that the food-manufacturer client will know exactly how hot the product its receiving is, and so can determine how much to use.
After the peppers are shipped to food manufacturers, either in cardboard totes that hold up to 1700 pounds, or in 450-pound drums or five-gallon pails, they find their way into a variety of processed foods. Among them are processed tomatoes; spaghetti sauces and salsas; cream cheese spreads and dips; other cheese varieties such as goat cheese or Havarti; sausages and chips; and jams and jellies.
Although the company’s product is not sold for medicinal purposes, Williams does note recent research showing that peppers may actually be good for you in addition to tasting good. “They’ve been shown to release endorphins,” he says, “and are good for treating inflammation, because the capsaicin – the property that makes peppers hot – can alleviate inflammation and may reduce risk of heart attack.”
Relying on nature
Mother Nature can be a challenge, Williams admits, citing late-arriving springs and extreme fluctuations in temperature. When we spoke in late September, he mentioned that the previous day, the temperature had been in the high eighties, Fahrenheit range, but that morning he awoke to 56 degrees. “We have snow into March, but we can see temperatures as high as 110 degrees in mid-summer, which is usually sunny and dry. We see a little bit of everything.”
All the same, 2018 was a good season, “and so far, 2019 has been really good. We started processing in early August and we ran Monday to Saturday every week, so we are already putting quite a bit of poundage through the machines and we’ve filled a ton of orders. It’s been nice that we haven’t had to deal with rain, because we can control not having enough water through drip irrigation, but we can’t control when there is too much. This year has been going well and we’ve been told we are going to run two to three weeks later this year, so it sounds like a good crop,” Williams shares.
“We’re still a small company,” he says, “with 30 full-time employees – and additional part-time workers – but we’re a dedicated, family team.” And with that team in place, the future is as full of promise as a plump and fiery pepper.
“We’re out here in the middle of Indiana, and a lot of people don’t know about us, but we are getting our foot in the door of some larger food manufacturers. Quite a few, actually, because our product is that good, and we’re making sure we keep producing that same quality.”