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Made in Buffalo Niagara: How Weber's makes its mustard

Open any refrigerator in Western New York and, there on the door, you'll see a red-topped jar of Weber's Horseradish Mustard.

Weber's has had a loyal following since 1922, when Joseph Weber and John Heintz founded Heintz & Weber Co.

The company got its start at a stand in the Broadway Market and thrived until the 1970s and 1980s, when it hit a rough patch that by all family accounts should've put the company out of business.

Joseph Weber left the company to his granddaughters, Suzanne and Laura, after his death in 1988 when Suzanne was 19 years old.

With no one to run the company, it ran itself.

A team of devoted employees kept the machines running for 20 years without management, until Suzanne and her husband, Steven Desmond, took over. Suzanne and Steven, who later bought Laura's share of the company, cleaned up the factory, gave the employees raises and began automating the line, little by little.

They started with two product lines and $492,000 in sales, and now have 17 lines and $850,000 in sales.

The company's staff of just six people – including executive vice president Suzanne, who still works the line – turns out 40,000 cases of Weber's products a year.

"People think we're such a large company, but we're really a small, hometown operation," said Steven Desmond, who is now CEO.

Julian Pearson removes Greek golden pepperoncini from a barrel and lays them on a table where they will be prepared to become Weber's Francisco Style Garlic & Herb Pepperoncini at the Heintz & Weber Co. production facility in South Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The magic of Weber's Horseradish Mustard begins at a 100-gallon mixer, where ingredients including the signature horseradish are mixed into a base of Weber's mild mustard. It's enough to make 74 cases of what Desmond calls the company's "baby product." In the old days, Joe Weber came in early to mix the mustard himself in order to safeguard the recipe. (He also forbade anyone to pass the front door and painted all the windows opaque so no one could see in.)

Once the mustard is blended, a forklift drives the shiny metal vat to the front of the bottling line and lifts it into the air with a power ramp. Gravity pulls the mustard through a stainless-steel tube into a hopper, where it's fed into spigots that fill four jars with mustard at a time.

The person working the filling station sets the pace for the entire line, up to 48 jars per minute. It's equipped with an emergency stop button, and a knob to increase and decrease speed so the Weber's factory doesn't turn into an episode of "I Love Lucy."

(This virtual reality tour of Weber's is best viewed using Google Cardboard, but you can also view it on your mobile device (move phone to change view) or desktop computer (click and drag to change view).

The jars of mustard travel down the line to the capper, which is the factory's noisiest machine. Inside, 150 cases worth of red caps jump like popcorn, and a system of magnets and vibration feeds them toward a puff of air that rights any caps that might have toppled upside down. The machine twists the caps onto the jars one by one, and another worker checks each cap to make sure it's snug.

The jars glide down to a station with what look like packing tape guns loaded with rolls of stickers. There, each jar receives a label on its front and back before moving between two rollers that smooth them into place. It then moves through an induction sealer that affixes the safety seal inside the cap to the lip of the jar. After every 50 or 60 jars, a worker will remove the cap to make sure the seal is intact.

Finished jars fill a round, stainless steel receiving table, where Suzanne Desmond often works.

"If you're not paying attention, a problem can pile up really fast," she said.

She folds a box, flips it over, fills it with 12 jars, then folds the top closed before sending it through a machine that tapes the bottom and top shut. The machine sends the box down a rolling conveyor belt where it's loaded onto a pallet, wrapped in plastic, and hauled away.

On a good day, the plant puts out 640 cases of mustard, totaling 8,000 jars. They're shipped to smaller stores, such as Johnny's Meats, big chains such as Tops Markets, and around the world, including to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This company never would've made it if it wasn't for the loyalty of Western New Yorkers," Steven Desmond said. "We are so proud of that."

Bottle caps with preloaded seals are dumped into a hopper where they spiral up onto the bottling line at the Heintz & Weber Co. in South Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

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