Restaurant News & Reviews

Paso Robles' secret ingredient: vanilla

Vanilla beans from R.R. Lochhead's farm in Tonga dry in the sun.
Vanilla beans from R.R. Lochhead's farm in Tonga dry in the sun.

As cooks throughout the nation start ramping up their holiday baking, it’s very possible that the bottle of vanilla they’re reaching for was produced in Paso Robles at R.R. Lochhead Manufacturing Co.

The company’s roots date to the vanilla business started in 1918 in Missouri by Raymond Lochhead’s father, Angus T. Lochhead.

In 1963, lured by the temperate climate and proximity to both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Raymond Lochhead established his R.R. Lochhead Manufacturing Co. and set about becoming a premium wholesale supplier of gourmet vanilla products to discerning chefs and companies.

One of those companies was Dreyer’s ice cream, and when its then-president, Ken Cook, decided to step away from that position in 1980 and start his own retail flavoring business, he tapped Lochhead for the very best vanilla. Cook grew the brand into a top-notch enterprise, and when he passed away in 1991, the Lochhead family opted to buy Cook Flavoring Co. themselves.

In addition to vanilla flavorings, powders and beans, the Cook’s brand also includes hundreds of other products, from organic orange extract, to almond powder, to coffee flavoring. Though the labels on the bottles have a Tacoma, Wash., corporate address, all the products are made at R.R. Lochhead Manufacturing, which is still family-owned and -operated.

Raymond Lochhead’s daughter, Josephine, and her husband, Don Schmidt, represent the vanilla company’s third generation. In the fourth generation are the Schmidts’ daughter, Margaret, who is poised to add her Cal Poly chemistry degree to the operation, and her brother, George, who works in production. (A younger brother, Henry, is in high school.)

Though a ubiquitous worldwide ingredient, vanilla is astonishingly labor-intensive to produce. The vanilla plant itself is a vine, specifically an orchid. When it blossoms and is pollinated, it produces “fruit” in the form of a vanilla bean. Alas, the only insect that pollinates it is found exclusively in Mexico.

In the rest of the vanilla-producing world, each individual blossom must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours or the blossom withers away. They don’t all bloom at the same time, so all the vines must be revisited each day. The vanilla beans don’t all ripen at once, either, so they also require daily visits during the harvest period.

As Josephine explained, for the premium vanilla beans that R.R. Lochhead uses, timing at harvesting is absolutely critical “because it’s important not to pick them until they’re perfectly ripe (at about nine months). If you pick them green, you don’t get good flavor, just like wine grapes.”

From there, the beans are cured — laid out in the sun on drying mats every day and rolled up in those mats every night “to sweat” — a process that can take up to four months. By the time the beans are sorted, sold and turned into a bottle of vanilla, it may easily have been a year and a half since the blossom was hand-pollinated.

Many producers use pressure and/or heat to produce vanilla extract. Josephine explained that R.R. Lochhead Manufacturing uses only cold percolation, a method that isn’t as fast, but retains far more flavor and vanilla character.

In addition to all the labor, consider the fact that vanilla is also a worldwide agricultural commodity. As such, it is vulnerable to factors such as weather, mold, theft, price fluctuations, crop shortages, political unrest, etc.

Lochhead/Cook’s is somewhat buffered on a small scale because it is a vertically integrated operation due to “establishing plantations in the Fiji islands and Tonga islands, a curing station in Bali, Indonesia, and most recently, in Costa Rica and Uganda,” as its website notes.

“It’s definitely a very niche market,” acknowledged Josephine. “It takes a lot of chemistry, expertise and risk. Still, it’s a very fun business.”