What you eat is their business


Before you head off to the beach one last time this Labor Day weekend, pause to consider the Maryland food worker who may be serving your crab cake or pouring your beer.

Nearly 200,000 Marylanders -- slightly more than 8 percent of the entire workforce -- are employed in the food business. Their salaries vary, but very few are getting rich in this field. Restaurant and cafeteria workers on average earn a bit less than $17,000 a year; those in food manufactuing earn about $33,000 a year, according to state and federal statistics.

The workers include small entrepreneurs such as Janet Zumbrun, 49, of Hampstead who founded a barbecue sauce company with her husband, Karl Schwarz, 53, two years ago; Paul Ford, 42, a scientist at McCormick & Co.; and workers like Milton Chaffman, 21, assistant manager of Chick-fil-A in Cockeysville.

The number of Maryland workers in the food business has remained steady or increased slightly in the last decade, says Leonard Elenowitz, manager of the Maryland With Pride Program, which promotes Maryland-made goods.

Elenowitz estimates there are about 100 food manufacturers in the state, ranging in size from McCormick, which employees 9,000 people worldwide, to mom-and-pop operations like Janet Zumbrun's company, Karjan's BBQ Sauces. Elenowitz works closely with about 60 small ones, helping them develop their markets and distribution channels.

"There's a growing number of people who want to be their own entrepreneurs," he says. "They are proud of their product."

In the past decade, he has seen many small companies come and go. In the beginning, he noticed a number of entrepreneurs making mustards and vinegars. Today, the companies seem to be focusing on marinades, rubs and sauces.

So far, Zumbrun and her husband are beating the odds with Karjan's BBQ Sauces.

Like many food entrepreneurs, the couple didn't have a food background. She is a retired courts reporter and he is a retired truck driver.

Even the development of their sauce was a bit of an accident. One day, Schwarz asked his wife to make barbecue chicken. She didn't have any barbecue sauce in the kitchen, but she went into the pantry to see what ingredients she had.

"I started putting in these things I had heard go into a good barbecue sauce," she said.

The result surprised her. At her husband's encouragement, she wrote down the ingredients and began making small batches for friends. Now Karjan's produces about 1,200 bottles of sauce a month and is available in 70 stores in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"It's worked out great," Zumbrun says. "This is my retirement business."

Chaffman, on the other hand, is just starting out. He has been working at the Chick-fil-A on York Road for three years, making sandwiches, waiting on customers and helping keep track of inventory and the restaurant's 60 employees.

"Managers here do everything," he says. He has taken management classes with the company and has his eye on the future. "I plan to open my own Chick-fil-A," he says.

Ford, a chemist at McCormick, spends his days in a laboratory dressed in a white lab coat, working with some of the most advanced instruments in science.

He helps analyze the compounds that create flavor. He can analyze a strawberry, for example, and determine what makes it taste like a strawberry. Those compounds then can be duplicated for product flavorings.

"We think of ourselves as flavor detectives," says Ford, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry.

Margaret Heffner, 62, is also a detective of sorts, as an inspector at the Phillips Seafood plant on Fort Avenue in Locust Point. The temperature in the plant hovers above freezing, but Heffner says she is used to it and doesn't wear gloves.

She places a thermometer in a can of crab meat to make sure it is the proper temperature before a group of workers takes the crab to be made into cakes. She also makes sure workers are dressed correctly and that the crab cakes they make are the right size.

She has worked in food processing for more than 30 years, having started as a food-preparation worker at Horn & Horn. Some years back, she set a Phillips record, making 12,000 mini crab cakes in one day. Her record has since been overtaken, and she has moved off the production line.

Perhaps it is not surprising that after spending so many years in a seafood plant she no longer likes crab cakes.

"Eat a crab cake every day and you lose your taste for it," she says.

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