Linking generations

by Joel Crews
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Low, slow and steady: The mantra associated with cooking quality barbecue products is also the business philosophy of a third-generation, sausage-processing company in a part of the country where barbecue is a highly regarded and carefully scrutinized foodservice segment. For 75 years, the family owners of Krizman’s Sausage have each slowly and steadily grown the business that started three generations ago, with the care and expertise of a champion pitmaster tending his fire. In the process, the Kansas City, Kan.-based company has quietly become one of the best-kept secrets behind the menus of restaurants in what is regarded by many as “the barbecue capital of the world.”

Founded in 1939 by two Croatian immigrants pursuing the American Dream, Joseph Krizman Sr. and his brother-in-law, Matt Grisnik, started the company that is today known as Krizman’s Sausage. Originally, the duo’s business operated for more than three decades as Grisnik and Krizman, a modest neighborhood grocery store. During those years, the store sold a few pounds of sausage each day, based on recipes the founders brought from their homeland. The demand for those Old-World sausages steadily grew over the years, developing an almost cult-like following among residents of the Strawberry Hill area.

Growing up in the family’s business, Joseph Krizman Jr. says his dad asked him to temporarily fill in at the store after his partner retired and he was hindered by a health issue. “Just go down and salt the meat,” the senior Krizman told his son, with the assumption that his absence would be temporary. His son soon became a fixture at the store and eventually took the reins in 1972. The business back then is a far cry from what it is today, according to Joe Jr.

“My dad had an actual smokehouse,” he says, remembering how he used to help as his dad would climb up and into the old-school smoker. “Back then, you had to stand in the middle and hang sausages on a long stick,” he says with a smile.

And what are considered bare necessities today were dreamed-about luxuries back then. “For many years we had no hot water,” he says as an example, and the extent of the processing technology included a hard-to-clean stuffer made of cast iron. Air conditioning was a pipe dream and for decades, the store never had a telephone, relying instead on the generosity of a neighboring business when a phone was needed. “Finally, I said, ‘Dad, you have got to get a phone and we finally got one – a pay phone,” he laughs, remembering “it was a nickel for a phone call.”

By the time Joe Jr. took the torch from his father in the early 70s, soaring demand for the store’s sausage and waning sales among corner grocery stores like theirs justified his decision to raze the store and build a meat plant in its place, renaming it simply, “Krizman’s Sausage.” The foundation for the evolved business was based on the founders’ Old-World recipes.

“The two sausages my dad made his whole life were blood sausage and Polish sausage,” Joe Sr. says. “When I came in I saw that we needed to make Italian sausage; we needed to make bratwurst – because that was what everyone was selling then.”

Today, Krizman’s uses 18 basic sausage blends for the majority of its products. The second-generation owner remembers how he not only made the sausage at the plant and fostered relationships with wholesale customers, but also delivered sausage to those customers out of the back of his family’s station wagon. Every new item added to the company’s offerings since then, including Chorizo, Andouille, blood sausage, barbecue and even some chicken-Italian sausage and chicken-bratwurst, have enabled it to extend its reach among a variety of foodservice customers. They also make a breakfast sausage using ground sausage that is sold in a 2-lb. tube.

Wholesale focus

One of Kansas City’s longest-standing barbecue restaurants, Hayward’s Pit Bar-B-Que was also Krizman’s first wholesale foodservice customer, a partnership that continues today. In a town like Kansas City, establishing relationships with well-known barbecue restaurants has proven to be a key to success for the company. Krizman’s barbecue sausage, which is now offered in regular and hot varieties and can be purchased smoked or unsmoked, is its biggest seller among foodservice customers and among a handful of retail operators.

“Since then, the wholesale business has grown and now we sell to almost every-single barbecue restaurant in this town,” says Joe Krizman III, the third-generation owner. Joe Jr., who has seen the demand and popularity of barbecue-style meats go from a regional fad to a national rage, says restaurants that offer a superior sausage stand out from the crowd.

“Sausage is different than other barbecue meats because it’s a pretty specific flavor profile and one type of sausage is usually a lot different than the next,” he says.

For these restaurant operators, “being artisan means everything,” he adds. “And we are artisan.”

“Joey,” as his father refers to him, helped his dad as a kid by working at the plant, where walk-in retail business continued even after the grocery store was torn down.

“I was always in the business off and on growing up,” says the younger Krizman, who worked on holidays and weekends until he left home to attend college at Kansas State Univ. to studay finance and hotel and restaurant management. “I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do is work in the restaurant business’ – I loved that business,” he says. After graduating from college, his dad’s partner at the time (Joe Sr.’s cousin) fell ill. His dad asked the new graduate if he would work with him for six months, “while you figure out what you’re going to do and I figure out what I’m going to do,” recalls Joe Jr. “That was 27 years ago,” he laughs.

Fathers and sons

For 24 of those years, the father-and-son team worked together at the business. During his tenure, Joe III helped grow sales by working with distributors to increase the scope of its foodservice customers, which today, account for about 90 percent of its business. Operations were also streamlined when the owners contracted with a broker to handle and ensure the supply and delivery of quality meat to Krizman’s.

Processing efficiency has come a long way, too, since the days when a cast-iron stuffer was the workhorse of the plant. Today, Krizman and his crew rely on a Leyland mixer, a Biro grinder and an Ultrasource stuffer to process about 8,000 lbs. of sausage per week, the majority of which is frozen. Compared to many companies in this segment, “we’re still pretty small,” says Krizman, but the consistent annual growth of between 5 percent and 10 percent is comfortable. “We don’t want to grow too fast,” he repeats as he operates the stuffer at a processing table alongside his father, who methodically links the products as he has done for decades. “Every ring is linked and tied by hand,” he says.

Having unofficially retired three years ago, Joe Jr. still occasionally makes the trek from the suburbs to come to the store, usually working directly with walk-in customers during the busy holiday season. He still knows a lot of the retail customers that come in regularly. A recent renovation at the site where the original family business was founded includes the addition of a welcoming storefront to accommodate the steady flow of walk-in customers each day and creates traffic snarls on surrounding streets during the holidays. The business is open five days per week with production going on four of those days. Saturdays are non-processing days, dedicated to walk-in, retail sales only.

Krizman’s smoked, Polish sausage is its biggest retail seller during the holidays while the unsmoked, barbecue sausage is most popular the rest of the year. Krizman’s also sells its own style of sauerkraut, which marries well with the Polish sausage and is one of the most popular non-meat items, which also include a selection of rubs and sauces. Especially after the launch of Krizman’s Facebook page in 2010, and its website (www.krizmansausage.com) business is booming during the rest of the year, too, otherwise relying entirely on word-of-mouth as its only means of advertising.

Krizman is planning for the next evolution of his family’s company, where currently about eight employees work full-time during most of the year with temporary help assisting during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The company is nearly at capacity making 21 different varieties of sausage. Krizman sees the next opportunity in establishing a co-packing partnership with an area processor to have the products packaged and labeled for retail grocers. Being situated near the border of Kansas and Missouri, Krizman’s has to be federally inspected to be able to do business on both sides of the state line, which is advantageous as growth and distribution plans unfold.

“Fifteen years ago we had me, my dad, our cousin and one other employee working here,” Joe III says. He and his father worked hard to earn a place on the menus of Kansas City’s most iconic barbecue eateries, including names like Arthur Bryant’s, Fiorella’s Jack Stack and Smokehouse. His satisfying career has been a labor of love.

“I love working here; I love owning my own business. We’ve had slow, steady business over the years and I really get a lot of satisfaction working in our family’s business that we’ve had for 75 years,” he concludes.

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