Saratoga County business behind horseradish brand for nearly 100 years

Saratoga County business behind horseradish brand for nearly 100 years

Saratoga County has been bringing the heat for nearly a century, by way of horse… radish.

When Frank Whalen started peddling horseradish door-to-door throughout Ballston Spa and other parts of Saratoga Country in 1925, he used a horse-drawn flatbed wagon to top off designated containers left on his customer’s front porches and in milk boxes just beyond the kitchen door. The condiment is still made via Whalen's Horseradish, now in Galway, Saratoga County. Before hot sauces and chile pastes made their way into the common grocery repertoire, horseradish was a way to add a little kick to common recipes. Whalen’s Horseradish became as much a staple as fresh milk for local families, many of whom descended from central and eastern European immigrants who made their homes in upstate New York in the 1800s.

Whalen’s door-to-door delivery was the root of the eponymous company, Whalen’s Horseradish, that still thrives today not far from the original Ballston Spa location. Owner Tim Bibens  and his wife, Holly, bought Whalen’s Horseradish in 2013 from his cousin, Dan Bell. “There wasn’t a lot of variety in people’s diets back then,” said Bibens, who added that the same desire for fiery food now permeated the local culinary traditions and helped keep the craving for horseradish burning a century ago.

Horseradish is part of the same vegetable family as wasabi, cabbage and broccoli. It sends broad chartreuse-colored leaves from the ground each spring, but the pale root that looks like a rough parsnip is what is used for what we consider horseradish. When ground, horseradish releases a pungent, sharp oil that lends to the spicy, peppery flavor that is prized in mustard spreads and cocktail sauce. It is native to central Europe, where it became popular in Romanian, Polish and German recipes before being transported to England, where it was used as a medicinal root, and later to America when emigration from those countries reached its zenith in the early and mid-1800s. (Today, 16.3 percent of Saratoga County residents claim German heritage, while 7.4 percent report Polish roots.) Horseradish adapted well to North American growing conditions, although the rocky soil of the Northeast causes horseradish to grow craggy and scabrous, making it difficult to peel and grind for commercial use today.

Bibens continues to make his horseradish products today the way the company has always produced them, but the horseradish comes from a farm in Collinsville, Ill., considered the horseradish capital of the world, as that township produced 60 percent of the world’s horseradish crop. Bibens purchases 4,000 pounds of fresh horseradish root over the course of a year, receiving a delivery each quarter to ensure the roots are fresh and maintain all potency. He processes 50 to 100 pounds of roots a week. “I hand peel everything. I take all the imperfections out of the root,” he said. Bibens also grinds horseradish more coarsely than what other commercial horseradish companies produce. “It is a different texture, look and level of freshness,” he said.

The ground horseradish then gets topped with vinegar for straight ground horseradish, but it is also incorporated into mustards, cheese spreads, sauces, relishes and pickles. Everything is made in small batches to ensure quality, Bibens said, in the same Galway location on NY Route 29 as its retail shop, which was opened in 2014. “We are moving inventory every week,” said Bibens, distributing products with his own employees (he employs four people) through New York state and western New England. Pickles are the signature product, combining the beloved tang of a pickle with the fiery punch of horseradish. Pickled okra is the latest product to be released among the 20-plus products Whalen’s Horseradish offers, as an homage to Holly’s background. “My wife is a Texan and we spent a lot of time living in Texas,” Bibens said.

Texas is just one of the locales the the couple has called home. While he was raised in Schenectady, Bibens' career in quality assurance for electronic and aerospace manufacturing led him to live all over the U.S. Bibens, 62,  said, “I always wanted to settle back here,” and wanted to invest in a product-based company. When Bell quietly floated word that he was looking to sell Whalen’s, Bibens thought the timing was right to return home.

“I love this product, and if I love it, I know I can sell it,” he said. In the eight years since he bought the company, he has expanded the product offerings and grown the company to 40 wholesale locations. The COVID-19 pandemic has given an unexpected boost to the company, with internet sales growing from 18 to 30 percent and wholesale distribution up by 35 percent in the past year. Whalen’s Horseradish, he said, is an attainable luxury product that adds tremendous flavor in small doses and helps foster the desire to shop local. Store sales are perpetuated by word of mouth advertising, he said. “It’s taste buds and a lot of talking,” that get repeat customers coming back and new customers interested in trying Whalen’s Horseradish products, going so far as to launch the company’s horseradish mustard into the Mustard Hall of Fame in Littleton, Wis.

“Horseradish is fashionable with the ‘green necks.’ It’s a vegan, trendy food,” Bibens said, which has also helped give horseradish a boost in modern day marketing. He is working on a line of non-vegan sour cream products for future release, noting that there’s something about the sweet, smooth cream and zip of horseradish that seem to pair wonderfully. “I don’t know why, I only know that it tastes good,” he said. “We are always looking to freshen up the line (of products).”

Besides new products, Bibens says the century mark for the company will be one focused on internet sales. He sells products online at but finds the need to keep up with rapid delivery schedules set by online behemoths like Amazon is difficult for small businesses like his. “The general public is consigned to a life of delivery,” he said, but delays in shipping have been understood in the age of pandemic by his customers.

Bibens' own roots in the Capital Region run as deep as the horseradish he processes and the Galway location is near where his mother (and her sister, Bell’s mother) were raised, but he said that there will be a time when he knows he will need to put his peeler down. “I don’t have a date in stone, but there is a time when I see myself not doing this,” he said. For now, the distinct pungent flavor and customer satisfaction keep him elbow-deep in horseradish.

“If people have never had it, I tell them that their sinuses should be prepared for a blast," Bibens said. "It might make your eyes water, but it will put a smile on your face.”

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist., @DeannaNFox