Protein hero

by Bryan Salvage
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In 1949, Kiolbassa Sausage Co. began as a fledgling boning and sausage processing business located blocks from the once-thriving San Antonio stockyards area. Today, this sausage company is a leading Texasbased, high-end sausage processor offering many varieties of smoked sausage and one type of chorizo in 50 SKUs.

“Ours is not a complicated business model,” claims Michael Kiolbassa, president and grandson of company founders Rufus and Juanita Kiolbassa. “But it’s very much focused on execution. Successfully executing any idea requires 90 percent of our collective time and efforts. The devil’s in the details. As you grow, those little details become big dollars. And those dollars are opportunities for us to take that dollar and spend it wisely in building our brand.”

Kiolbassa sausage products are priced between $5 and $6 per 20-oz. package, each of which contains seven links. The company also manufactures a small number of highquality cured, smoked hams for Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, which are sold at the plant. Kiolbassa also makes sausage for sausage kolaches, which are made by a co-packer. Every second and fourth Friday of each month, rework gets packed into bulk 10 lb., 40 lb. or 60 lb. boxes and are frozen for schools, churches and fundraisers.

Kiolbassa’s strategy is paying off. Since 1988, its average annual growth rate has been 17 percent, and its annual sales are approximately $21 million.

“We’ve gone through the recession of the early 1990s, the dot-com bust, the post 9/11 recession and we’re now in the middle of the current recession,” Michael says. “In each case, we have never seen a drop-off in sales because people gravitate to quality.”

“My dad was the one who started the business, but over the years it was my grandfather who always made sausage for the family gatherings,” says Robert (Bob) Kiolbassa, CEO, son of Rufus and the father of Michael. “He pretty well patterned his way of making sausage to the way my grandfather did.”

When asked what was driving his company’s high-end sausage business, Bob quickly answers: “People recognize quality. You can taste the difference,” he adds. “My dad’s favorite slogan was ‘Quality is going to be remembered long after the price is forgotten.’”

In the late 1950’s, Rufus was diagnosed with brain cancer and he died in 1960 at the age of 45. “I had to step up

to the plate” Bob says, and he left college his senior year before graduating. Bob’s son, Michael, joined the company in 1987 after graduating from college and working for several years in the banking industry. “We decided at that point we really wanted to focus solely on our sausage business,” Michael says.

After Juanita Kiolbassa died in 1999, the company’s management organization was changed to its current leadership.

Quality products, people

Kiolbassa offers Polish-style, beef, jalapeño beef, country-style, and Mexican-style chorizo sausages, just to mention a few. Kiolbassa is billed as the No. 1 premium sausage in Texas and carries the tagline, Real Meat, Real Smoke, Real Sausage!. It also distributes products to customers in northern Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas.

“About 85 percent of our business is retail distribution, 15 percent is foodservice,” Michael says.

Although parts of the Kiolbassa plant are 90 years old, the facility underwent extensive remodeling in 2004-2005 to keep up with continuing growth. “We knocked out about 75 percent of the plant and maintained operations in that 25 percent area for a while – during that time, we actually grew the business,” Michael says with a smile.

This was possible because of the people employed by the company, Michael says, who include Sandra Kiolbassa, Bob’s sister and vice president; Sandra’s sister, Barbara Kiolbassa Britton, secretary/treasurer; Lance Peavler, long-time qualityassurance manager; Stacey Mueller, director of research and development and quality assurance; John Canales, production supervisor; Ismail Jaber, who has been plant manager for eight years; Mariano Antopia, smokehouse manager and employee for 10 years; Eli Strey, a long-time Kiolbassa master sausage-maker who retired a few years ago; and David Rosenbusch, who has been with the company for 35 years, just to mention a few.

A sausage showcase

The plant totals 25,000 sq. ft. – 85 percent of which is processing and warehousing space, 15 percent is office space. Kiolbassa’s plant is divided into three areas: the sausage kitchen, packaging and shipping and receiving. The temperature in the hallway separating processing from warehousing is maintained between 50°F-52°F while the processing area runs around 40°F. Processing rooms feature shiny, white wash-down friendly ceilings and walls and the rooms are brightly lit to aid workers.

“Our sausage kitchen has three stuffer lines that all make the same product at one time,” Michael explains. “We’ll change over, wash down if necessary and then process another flavor. We only make two items here: Mexican-style chorizo and smoked sausage.”

Kiolbassa makes sausage the oldfashioned way, Michael stresses. “We use a bowl chopper to make sausage, which is the traditional way that requires special skills. The bowl chopper gives our product the mouthfeel and special uniqueness you don’t find in many mass-produced sausages in the market. A bowl-chopper operator is a certified position. We spend a lot of time focused on that part of the process. If the bowl chopper isn’t operated correctly, you’ll have problems later on with binding, moisture retention, pH levels… all sorts of things can go wrong.”

Lance Peavler, QA department manager, who has been with the company for 20 years, was formerly a sausage maker. “He has been making sausage for a long time so he trains all of our bowl-chopper operators on methodology – what to do and how to do it. He’s very good,” Michael says.

Kiolbassa also operates three packaging lines. “We have a new Multivac shrink-film packaging line, which is a brand new technology for us and the industry,” Michael says. “It was installed in April 2009. It has improved our efficiencies in packaging on an exponential level. We package most of our smoked sausage and link sausage there. We have another Multivac line where we package our chorizo and ring sausage. And we have a peeler where we package our skinless line that’s primarily for our kolaches.”

On a regular roll-stock packaging machine, a regular poly film is normally used. “We use a shrink film on the new line so you have the ease of loading of a standard rollstock machine, but your vacuumpackaged product will retain the old-fashioned curved look,” Michael says. “We still do from time to time pack our products in bags, it’s very labor-intensive.”

“We gain an awful lot of capacity out of this new packaging machine. We can do more per hour than we used to as a department,” plant manager Ismail Jaber adds. “Each package maintains its integrity, shape, the quality we look for. We try to make sausage orders just-in-time regardless of how much lead time we get. Occasionally, we get a small order with not a lot of lead time [that] we do on the other packaging machine. I can roll a 30-50 box order on that equipment.”

Maximum throughput on the new system ranges from 3,600 lbs. to 4,000 lbs. per hour. “It reduced the handling of our product,” Michael says of the equipment. “We were previously hand-feeding products into a bag and putting the bags on a rotary chamber machine. We had up to 20 people feeding product into that line. We cut that number in half. From a GMP standpoint, that made a lot of sense.

“That operation was a bottleneck for us; the new equipment has allowed us to significantly grow the last few years,” he adds.

Kiolbassa Sausage Co. employs 100 people and operates one 12-hour shift generally five days a week. “One 12-hour shift is optimal because the sausage we make during that shift can be smoked during the night and packaged the next day,” Michael says.

The plant currently makes about 180,000 lbs. of sausage per week. “If you’re running seven days fullboard, our full capacity would be around 275,000 to 300,000 lbs. a week,” Michael adds. “So we have room for growth.”

Sausage-making is fairly simple, Michael insists. “What you put in is what you get out,” he adds. “The saying started with my grandfather and my dad. ‘If you put good quality ingredients in, you’re going to get good quality products out.’ We use high-quality cuts of beef and pork; some primal, whole-muscle cuts and no byproducts.”

Kiolbassa believes in creating a clean sausage, using only necessary ingredients. It does not use mono sodium glutamate, gluten, fillers, cereal, nitrates, dextrose or any other ingredients that lower the quality of a sausage, Michael says. Kiolbassa sausage is minimally processed. It features distinct colors and textures; other sausages appear as one solid color and are missing that meat texture, he adds. When cutting into a Kiolbassa sausage link, chunks of meat instead of a hot dog-like emulsion are seen.

Kiolbassa’s process and sausage recipes give the company an advantage over the competition because over the last 40 years many sausage companies have focused on a pricepoint instead of delivering a highquality product, Michael says.

Kiolbassa uses only natural casings. “People remember the snap and mouthfeel when they bite into our product,” Michael says. “We always have used natural casings and we always will. We use several suppliers, but we have a primary supplier who’s local – DeWied. They’re a great partner of ours and have been for years.”

The company also incorporates a natural smoke process. “As an industry, we have over-processed our food,” Michael claims. “We need to have simplicity in the way we make our food. That’s’ where the natural smoke comes in.” The company operates two gasfired Alkar smokehouses. These large, stainless-steel rooms hold about 4,500 lbs. of fresh sausage. The sausage sits in the smokehouse for nearly four hours where smoke from burning wood chips and steam cook the sausage.

“We got the first smokehouse in 2005, the second one in late 2006,” Jaber says. “Mariano Antopia is our smokehouse manager. He has been here for 10 years. He does an excellent job in bringing out quality product from the smokehouses…perfect color, product definition and yield. He has a lot of background in the sausage business. He was foreman of our sausage kitchen for a long time.”

“It’s a big job [to cook and smoke sausage properly],” he adds. “With clear casings, you have to work hard to get the color you want. On colored casings, we have to do the same thing... a little bit less or more time or temperature [in cooking or smoking] can give you an off-color.”

When Kiolbassa first started packaging its products for retail, it was dealing with brick, pit smokehouses, Michael says. “We had no humidity control. If the weather changed outside, you had to compensate…it was an art. We saw our product fade when it was in an anaerobic vacuum package so we chose light smoke colored casings to help inhibit color change.”

Meat safety begins with strictly adhering to GMPs and SSOPs, Michael insists. “This [extensive plant remodeling took place], in part, because we wanted to create a safer manufacturing environment for our products. As we continue to grow, we’re constantly looking for new and innovative ways to make our products and process safer. We have as safe a product as anybody else out there.”

Kiolbassa is developing nitritefree products now featuring a shelflife as long as its cured products… 75-days. “If you run it clean and you have good GMPs, you can do a lot… that’s where [food safety] starts,” Michael says. “I compare what we do to what craft beers did in their industry. We’re minimally processed; we use better, more natural ingredients; we focus on the process more; we use real smoke and we do it the old-fashioned way…we take our time,” Michael says.

The future

In beginning its new Lean manufacturing program, the company recently placed an information board in its main hallway for all employees. “It is a one-stop shop with charts,” Michael says. “It allows everybody to know what we’re focused on so we’re all moving in the same direction as a team. I’m very excited about this.”

Known as the “Kitchen Information Board,” it features the company’s mission statement, company goals, kitchen department goals, kitchen initiatives team training, pounds processed per hour, year-todate pounds per hour/month, weekly action plans and more.

A newly posted Kiolbassa Safety Center board includes emergency information, a first responders list, safe employee of the quarter, forklift certification information, a CPR certified list, total cost of accidents and total accident days.

Looking ahead, Michael believes his company must constantly focus on innovation to grow its business. “Last year, we hired Stacey Mueller, who has her Masters degree from Texas A&M in meat science,” he says. “She has four years experience in product development with one of the best retail companies I’ve ever been associated with. She brings a wealth of knowledge to our team.”

Sandra Kiolbassa, vice president who heads human resources and office management, says the company has prospered and grown since she joined in 1985. “We’ve taken a huge leap,” she adds. “We have no plans to sell the company. There aren’t many meat companies being managed by the third generation.”

Michael doesn’t envision Kiolbassa Sausage Co. branching out to produce different products such as refrigerated meals or lunch meat. “We’re a sausage company, we’re always going to be a sausage company,” he concludes.
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