“People’s tastes change,” says Richard Ward of Sierra Madre’s E. Waldo Ward & Son Inc. “My dad used to make lots of pickled watermelon. But people don’t use as much sugar as they used to.” His son Jeff nods. “But we still make pickled peaches and other fruits, like kumquats.”
You have to figure that if anyone knows what people like when it comes to pickles, spiced fruits, jellies and jams, these third- and fourth-generation Wards do. Their nearly century-old company makes artisanal preserves and specialty foods -- from traditional pickled fruits to stuffed olives and marinades -- in a small two-story factory behind a stately yellow Victorian house on a residential street in the historic section of town.
If you weren’t armed with the address and warned that E. Waldo Ward’s gift shop, factory, offices -- and citrus grove -- are hidden from the street, you’d miss the discreet little sign. And you’d miss their fantastic array of products such as blood orange marmalade, sweet-tart pickled kumquats or “sliced cucumbers” that are really extra-thin-sliced bread and butter pickles with a subtle bite. The marmalades and preserves are made with fresh citrus peel from the family’s orchard and pure cane sugar, rather than with corn syrup, as most mass-produced jams are.
It’s rare these days to find a family that’s been able to stay in business through four generations, and rarer still to find a gourmet food company that hasn’t been gobbled up by one of the big corporations. For the Wards, it all began with marmalade.
Edwin Waldo Ward was a New York-based food salesman who, like so many at the turn of the 20th century, came west for his health. He bought 10 acres and built a house and barn in 1903, then gradually expanded his holdings to create a 30-acre citrus ranch.
One of the products Ward had been flogging as a salesman was English marmalade. He decided that marmalade could be made just as well in California, and imported and planted Seville orange trees, the variety used in marmalade.
In 1915 Ward began experimenting with recipes, and in 1917 he built the factory and began making marmalade. His biggest customers were the railroads and Fred Harvey (famous for his restaurants and hotels along the railroad lines), for whom Ward made “ringlet” marmalade, which contained an artful array of round Seville slices.
Walk through the factory today and you’ll find that many of the machines and burners in use could just as easily be in a museum. The nine regular employees work with burners that date from 1915 as well as a 1930 stainless steel citrus-peel slicer with a wall full of accessories.
Some of the products are made in massive kettles, but many of the more delicate items -- say pickled peaches -- are cooked on the antique burners in pots hardly larger than a home-preserver might use. Two of the six kettles date from World War II. They’re shiny clean, constantly in use.
Like the original marmalade recipe. “Nobody complains,” Richard Ward says. “So we don’t change it.”
But then, there is a museum -- a room in the barn where the Wards have stashed the apparatus they’ve outgrown, such as the original machine that capped the jars. On one wall are three vintage citrus crate labels, including an art nouveau rendering of a beautiful woman, her hair floating sensuously around an orange.
Outside in an open shed is a restored 1952 Chevrolet truck that’s a regular feature in Sierra Madre’s annual Fourth of July parade (the Ward family as a whole was named Grand Marshal for the 2007 centennial celebration).
Spread out behind the buildings are the citrus groves. During the Depression, the Wards sold their south property and more acreage was sold in subsequent years. Now Richard and Jeff Ward have just under three acres where they grow pesticide-free blood oranges, Valencias, Sevilles, tangerines, tangelos and kumquats for their products. They purchase other ingredients.
“Jeff creates the recipes,” Richard says. “Right now we’re looking at pumpkin syrup. Jeff doesn’t think so. But my wife and I had it on French toast and it was wonderful. I was trying something different with our pumpkin butter, and it didn’t set, so the syrup was born.”
“We’re always thinking up crazy ideas,” Jeff says. “My dad’s really good at tasting.”
A recent creation was roasted raspberry chipotle sauce, which has become a big seller. So has orange papaya marmalade. Their mango citrus marinade has not. “It’s delicious, but it hasn’t caught on,” Richard shrugs.
“We get feedback,” Jeff says. “We go back there and mess around, make 10 or 20 batches and give them to friends and family to try.”
The Wards also cook and can for other companies, including a number of small barbecue sauce purveyors.
On a July afternoon, Simeon Greene of Simmie J’s Gourmet Barbecue Sauce in Rancho Cucamonga bursts in as if on cue, exuberant over sales he’d made at a personal appearance at a Gelson’s market before the Independence Day weekend.
“Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it!” he says. The Wards point out that his sauce is made from his recipe, but he waves away the response. “It’s always good, it’s always consistent.”
The Wards may use some elderly machinery, but the factory’s production standards are up to date: Weights, pH, sugar content and brix are precisely calibrated; temperatures are consistent.
Richard Ward has certainly not retired, but when the time comes to pass the business on, it will be a smooth transition. Jeff is already manager and creator of new products as well as being the computer wizard. He also monitors supplies of the 350 ingredients they keep in stock along with jars and caps, which aren’t the snap to obtain that you’d think they’d be.
Cooking and canning go on from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week; the output averages 200 to 300 dozen bottles a day. Christmas is the busiest time, and gift baskets (which Jeff intimates are a pain to make) are a big part of the business.
Jeff created the E. Waldo Ward & Son website (www .waldoward.com), which is sophisticated enough to allow customers to have purchases shipped to several addresses on one order.
On the site is a photo of a hand holding a jar of grapefruit marmalade, sunlight turning it an amber that evokes an aroma of toast. That’s Jeff’s hand; he took the photo.
After a childhood spent playing in the groves, Jeff studied food science at UC Davis, joining his father after graduation. Neither of his sisters was interested, but his sister Pam lives in the yellow Victorian; the rest of the family has strayed no farther than Pasadena.
Jeff has no children, but there are five nephews, a couple of whom, he claims, may be interested in the business.
Richard rolled his eyes. “Who?” he scoffed.
“Two of Jenny’s kids,” Jeff insisted.
“Mmmph,” Richard said.
Along with their hundreds of faithful customers, we can only hope.