Story by Devon MacKenzie
It was February of 2014 when Hee-Haw Horseradish founders Graham and Pam Bavington held a dinner party featuring the first incarnation of their crowd-pleasing condiment.
“I remember coming downstairs and Graham was in the kitchen, and he doesn’t really cook, so I said to him, ‘what are you doing?’” explains Pam, sitting on the sunny deck of their Oak Bay home. “He just looked at me and said he was making horseradish and I just walked away.”
That night, after encouragement from their friends over a round of prime rib and a few rounds of red wine, Graham was already thinking of ways to take his horseradish production to a commercial level.
“I thought he was nuts,” admits Pam, laughing. “But it was seriously good horseradish, and it was something we had never been able to find in a grocery store — that was our big motivator.”
After the couple experimented with a few batches and perfected the recipe, Graham took it Root Cellar and asked if they’d be interested in stocking the product.
“They said yes, and that was really the beginning of the whole adventure,” Graham says.
With Graham working as a real estate agent and Pam as a physiotherapist, there wasn’t much time to spare in their tight schedule, but they carved out one day a week to spend in a commercial kitchen in Keating to keep their production schedule on track.
“Horseradish is a brutal thing to work with,” explains Pam. “You have to wear gas masks, otherwise you spend the whole time crying. It always amazes me looking back on our days spent in the kitchen with the few hired staff we had to help prep — that was a ton of work but we always did it and we managed to keep our suppliers stocked,” she says, smiling.
Aside from getting themselves into Root Cellar, Thrifty Foods, Save-On-Foods and Whole Foods, they were also working hard on the local market circuit with help from their kids, 15-year-old Sarah and 11-year-old Matt.
“That’s probably one of our favourite ways to sell the product because you get direct feedback right then and there,” Pam says. “It’s incredibly satisfying to connect with our customers directly.”
Hee-Haw is made with fresh horseradish, which the couple imports from Illinois.
“The key to a good, hot horseradish is growing it somewhere that has a true freezing cycle,” Pam explains.
“The freezing cycle encourages the heat, and the horseradish should be in the ground for a good couple of years to be really hot.”
But what makes the product a game-changer is the fact they hand-peel all the horseradish they use.
“A lot of big companies just throw the whole root in and don’t peel it, but that makes it so much more bitter,” says Graham, adding that although tedious, hand-peeling gets the best flavor results.
|Jars of Hee Haw Horseradish. Don Denton photography|
After making the decision to try and grow the brand, the family decided to pitch Hee-Haw to CBC’s Dragons’ Den. They were asked to present on the show, and four out of five Dragons gave them offers.
“We went with Manjit Minhas because she is well-versed in the food and beverage industry but it just never came to fruition,” explains Graham. “What an incredible experience, though. Meeting the Dragons was great, and the producers were absolutely amazing. It was a blast.”
Despite early successes, the entrepreneurial couple faced a tough year in 2017 with issues around jar sizes and SKU errors, and they say at times, they almost felt like giving up.
“We just felt like we were facing roadblock after roadblock last year and it got tough,” admits Graham. “It’s still just the two of us managing this company, while working and raising two kids. It’s a lot. But we are both still invested in this to make it work and we are always learning and being inspired by it.”
Six months ago, they moved production to a federally-inspected and approved kitchen in Vancouver, which opens up where they can distribute their horseradish. It’s still made by hand in small batches, but the federal kitchen designation allows them to qualify for approval by the FDA.
“We are hoping to branch into the U.S. and break into the rest of Canada, so this is the first step in doing that,” Graham explains.
But growing their business and chasing their dream also comes some growing pains.
“It’s easy to stay small and sell in the farmer’s markets and local grocery stores,” Graham says. “What we’ve found is that middle ground, where we want to be right now, is very tough to find. You seem to either have to stay small or go huge, and we’re kind of stuck in the middle.”
Despite that challenge, Pam says they’re lucky to not be selling in a particularly saturated market.
“There isn’t much competition when it comes to horseradish and I think, ultimately, it’s because it’s not a very nice thing to work with,” she laughs.
The product line currently has three varieties — Dam Hot, Double Hot, and Redonkeylously Hot, which are available across B.C. in grocery stores and online from the Hee-Haw website.
As for how they see the company growing in the future?
“I just want to reach that goal of getting our product into the U.S. and the rest of Canada,” says Graham. “Beyond that, I don’t even know. With something like this, when you started in such a small way, it’s crazy to think it’s already been as successful as it has. We’re very lucky.”