If it ain't broke, don't fix it

by Bryan Salvage
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How far would you drive to buy great sausage – 100 miles? My wife and I do just that every several months. We drive about 50 miles from Elburn, Ill., in northern Illinois to Walworth in southern Wisconsin to buy sausage made by Cher-Make Sausage Co. in Manitowoc, Wis., at a Sentry supermarket. Manitowoc is located up near Green Bay and the Sentry store in Walworth is the closest store to me that sells this brand of products.

My love affair with their products began with a product tasting at their office. In January 2011, I visited Cher-Make to write a feature for the February issue of Meat&Poultry. While some traditional sausage makers may succumb to the temptation of cutting costs in this troubled economy by downgrading ingredients, processes and packaging, Cher-Make executives made it clear to me they remain committed to the company’s long tradition of producing fully cooked sausage the traditional way.

Tom Chermak, president, and grandson of Emil Chermak, who founded the company in 1928, told me, “We never compromise on our ingredients, cooking times or processes.”

He added Cher-Make processes wieners/hot dogs, summer sausage, specialty sausage, ring bologna and bratwurst. Twenty-seven SKUs were being made at that time under the Cher-Make brand, but in total the company processes 250 SKUs. It also offers Smokey Valley, a smaller-sized summer sausage brand for gift packers. The company’s most popular products are summer sausage, precooked brats and natural-casing wieners. Most products are gluten- and MSG-free.

Maintaining the flavor profiles it has become known for is critical to its continuing success. As a result, Cher-Make does not change its product recipes. “At some point, we just locked in our recipes...probably in the 1970’s. We don’t really play with our products too much,” Chermak told me.

Although his company doesn’t constantly grind out new products, Chermak says it’s pretty good at it. The company doesn’t have an R&D department so it uses a team approach by incorporating people from different departments for new product development. “And we have good spice suppliers who are pretty creative,” Chermak says.

Newer products include Cher-Make Natural Cheddar Cheese Summer Sausage, Homegame Bratwurst and Pepper Jack Bratwurst. After sampling these new bratwurst products and more toward the end of our interview, I was hooked. The winning taste and snap when you bite into one of their bratwursts can’t be beat.

Cher-Make brand retail products, which are distributed throughout Wisconsin and in parts of Minnesota, play heavily into the company’s continuing success. But it’s the company’s growing, nationally distributed private-label and co-packing businesses that are driving business.

Cher-Make is very particular when it comes to making new products. Before accepting a new private-label order, for example, it first decides if the product is a good fit for the company. “If a customer is looking for a value point that’s a lower-priced item that uses mechanically separated meat and fillers, that’s not what we’re set up to do,” Chermak insists.

This company also co-packs sausage products that are sold at sports and entertainment arenas in Wisconsin. Some are sold at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, and two regional sports arenas in Green Bay, among other venues.

Although a processor of Old World products, it takes a modern approach to ensuring and maintaining product quality. As part of the company’s commitment to make only authentic products, Cher-Make established an 11-person, professionally trained, sensory panel that monitors product attributes. “This data driven, scientific approach allows us to monitor products for 11 different attributes including flavor, texture, bite and appearance to ensure a gold standard,” Chermak says. “It also allows us to measure flavor throughout the shelf-life of the product.”

Cooked product shelf-life ranges from 90 to 120 days; summer sausage shelf-life ranges from six to eight months. “We suggest keeping it close to six months on our summer sausage shelf-life, which is pretty conservative,” Chermak says. “I want to make sure people have a good eating experience.”

Cher-Make consistently achieves this goal and the proof is in its sausage, so to speak.

Over the years, many of my favorite products ranging from salad dressing to bagels to soda have messed with their product formulations. I can only assume this was done to address higher ingredient costs or to make healthier-alternative products. But once these products lost their winning flavor, they lost me as a customer.

In an industry where the old saying ‘the only constant is change” is so true on so many levels, it is reassuring to me as a loyal customer this company feels Old-World product quality trumps price and the healthier alternative trend – and when it comes to product formulations, they also apparently feel...if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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