CONGERS, N.Y. — Sweet air packs an aromatic wallop as you walk from room to room at Star Kay White, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of extracts and flavorings used by big-brand ice cream producers. The company’s factories form a four-building campus in an industrial park 20 miles north of the Bronx, where they were it was located for 30 years.
Each week, three-quarters of a million pounds of the ingredients that build ice cream are churned out here: flavored bases, syrups that are turned into swirls, and add-ins like brittles, nuggets, and mints designed to withstand freezing. A food scientist and a flavor tester work together in the company’s research and development lab developing formulas for new and exotic flavors.
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Five generations of the Katzenstein family have run the business since 1890, when German immigrant and flavor chemist David Katzenstein, with his brother Sam, opened a corner shop in Lower Manhattan (decades later the World Trade Center’s North Tower would stand in the spot). The brothers developed flavored extracts — vanilla, peppermint, cinnamon, rose, strawberry, and rum — and sold them to bakers, brewers, distillers, and ice-cream makers. “Their first sale was on Valentine’s Day,” says Ben Katzenstein, 56, the fourth generation to work in the business, and now Star Kay White’s executive vice president. The name Star Kay White is a combination of two earlier companies, Star Extract Works and Kay-White Products, which the Katzensteins ran.
From the original location, sales increased when David began to craft confections along with the extracts to add to ice cream. This helped the company survive the Depression and two world wars, when ice cream was a relatively inexpensive treat that people could afford. The business grew when David’s son Miles Katzenstein, a chemistry major at Columbia University, joined and created signature flavors, like the popular favorite, rum-raisin.
The rich aroma of vanilla envelops a chilly room as Madagascar beans steep in alcohol for weeks and undergo a slow, cold process to make vanilla extract without sugar or additives. The powerful scent of chocolate embraces a visitor in another room, where workers in white caps tend to 1,000-gallon cold tanks of a viscous liquid on its way to becoming a deep, rich chocolate extract that “we sell all over the world,” says Alex Katzenstein, 28, Ben’s son and a fifth-generation employee. “Nobody knows how we make it.”
The chocolate extract captured the attention of pastry chef, cookbook author, and Paris resident David Lebovitz, who blogged about it on his website davidlebovitz.com. He writes in an e-mail, “I like to add a dash to my chocolate desserts. It lends a more rounded flavor to the notes already in the chocolate, and the touch of alcohol adds some complexity.”
The Katzensteins are reluctant to reveal names of their smaller clients. “It’s a secretive business,” says Ben, “Although I will tell you we’ve been making butter crunch for Friendly’s since 1935.” They have also developed products for Breyers, Sealtest, Borden, Hershey’s, Howard Johnson’s, Haagen Dazs, Turkey Hill, Perry’s Ice Cream, and Ben & Jerry’s, according to the website. The truth is, most ice cream producers don’t want the public to know that outsiders conjure up their flavors. “Companies come to us when they have concepts and we develop the flavors for them,” explains Marylyn Eichenholtz, a 27-year Star Kay White veteran and flavor tester. “So it’s crucial for us to come up with hot items.”
While business is largely commercial, the company does sell extracts to retailers in 2-ounce bottles in dozens of flavors, some unusual, like anise, clove, and cinnamon. Several extracts are made from the original formulas. “We use the best sources,” says Alex, who talks about lavender from Provence and $10,000-a-kilo roses from Bulgaria.
Ben’s father, Walter, 85, the founder’s grandson, is Star Kay White’s president, and this marks his 65th year with the company. “He’s at work every day at 5 a.m., even if it’s snowing, “ says his grandson, Alex. Recently, spearheaded by Gabe, 27, Alex’s brother and an avid cook, the company has begun offering a new line of extracts for cooks, not just for bakers, with flavors such as basil, cilantro, oregano, parsley, rosemary, and cardamom. Gabe says that the new bottles lend a fuller, fresher, and more potent flavor that can’t be imparted with dried herbs or powdered spices.
As each new generation adds products and flavors, the business has grown and prospered. Now, the fifth generation is making its own imprint on the company.
STAR KAY WHITE extracts are available at Russo’s, 560 Pleasant St., Watertown, 617-923-1500; Wilson Farms, 10 Pleasant St., Lexington, 781-862-3900; Foodie’s Duxbury Market, 46 Depot St., Duxbury, 781-934-5544; Crosby’s Marketplace, 118 Washington St., Marblehead, 781-631-1741; and Sur La Table locations, or go to www.starkaywhite.com.
Ann Trieger Kurland can be reached at [email protected]