The Chicago-based processor takes co-packing to the extreme. 
In two years, Makowski’s Real Sausage Co. will be celebrating its centennial at its home on the South Side of Chicago. With roots in a small Wisconsin butcher shop, the family owned sausage processor has made a name for itself as a full-service custom sausage processor in Chicago offering product development, production, packaging and marketing of new sausage products to its customers around the country.

Leading the operation is 40-year-old Nicole Makowski, the fourth generation of the Makowski family to own and operate the sausage business. Makowski bought the company from her father and uncle at age 22, and for the past 18 years has been finetuning operations, transforming Makowski’s Real Sausage into the streamlined custom-processing sausage company it is today.

“We do co-packing to the extreme,” Makowski says. Today, the company has more than 200 SKUs, which include different proteins, seasonings, package sizes and product claims, such as organic, grass-fed, humane-certified, Halal and nitrite- and nitrate-free.

“The big guys are eating up all the little guys – it’s a very costly business to be in,” Makowski explains. “As a small meat processor you have to differentiate yourself – we do this through our custom processing and co-packing.

“By going out there and doing all these custom products it has really put us on the map as being someone different in the sausage business.”

Small but mighty

Makowski’s sausage plant isn’t a typical processing facility. Found on the South Side of Chicago, just outside the historic meat-packing district, Makowski’s Real Sausage is housed in a three-story brick building. Each floor contains a different part of the operation. All told the plant encompasses 16,000 sq. ft. of space – from the basement to the third floor of the building.

The basement is used to store raw materials. The main floor includes the loading dock out front, offices and the packaging room. The second floor houses everything related to processing and production including the spice room, grinding room, the smoker room – featuring three smokehouses – the cooler and two sausage stuffing lines. The third floor is used for dry ingredient storage.

The plant operates two shifts – from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. – five days a week. On any given day, the plant produces between three and 15 different types of products, in batches as small as 200 lbs. and as large as 10,000 lbs. Depending on the time of year, weekly production runs between 35,000 lbs. and 70,000 lbs. Peak sausage season runs from the end of April to December. Year round, 35 employees work at Makowski’s (28 of them are in production-related jobs from operations to maintenance to quality assurance). However, during peak sausage season, the plant hires an additional 10 temporary workers to help with increased production.

After product is grinded and mixed with seasonings it is run through one of two stuffers – both of which can run natural casing or skinless products. Then product is loaded into “trucks” or cages that hold between 200 lbs. and 300 lbs. of product. The trucks are moved around the production floor on tracks attached to wooden beams in the ceiling. The trucks are then wheeled into one of the three smokers. Each of the smokers can hold four trucks of product at one time. Because of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guideline prohibiting the use of wood smoke at facilities in the city limits, which was enacted in Chicago in the 80s, all three smokers use liquid smoke.

After going through the smoker, the product is sent to the cooler and then transported downstairs to the packaging department in a “dumb waiter” style elevator. The elevator system is also used to transfer ingredients from floor to floor.

“We are always looking for better ways to maximize production and increase production efficiency,” Makowski says. “But since we make so many different items, you cannot always overcome that challenge. We run into some operational issues because of the size of our facility. Our smokehouses are not pass through and we only have 65 cages.” Each department – ready to eat and raw processing – must depend on each other to free up cages, so production can continue.

Most of the product is made on a weekly basis. No product is stored longer than one week. All orders are shipped or picked up from the facility weekly. 

Most sausage connoisseurs in Chicago are familar with Maxwell Street and its infamous Polish sandwiches. Makowski's produces Polish sausage for a number of Maxwell Street stands in the city. 

Safe and sound

The Makowski’s facility also houses one of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Chicago district offices. The representative has an office on the second floor and is in the plant twice a day walking the production floor, looking at records and performing food safety tests. “We love having the USDA in house. It’s great having an extra set of eyes looking at our operations,” Makowski says. “We appreciate knowing if there’s something we need to fix or work on.”

In addition to being reviewed by USDA, the plant is regularly inspected by a third-party auditor. The company verifies processes and procedures to ensure operations keep food safety top of mind.

“Food safety starts with employee training – making sure that everyone is properly trained on food safety procedures,” Makowski explains. “We have a lot of food safety procedures in place. The last thing we would want to do is make anyone sick. Food safety is very important to me.”

Five years ago, the company had a product recall. The recall wasn’t food safety related – rather is was for an undeclared allergen. “Having a recall was a big deal and was very costly – I want to be sure we do whatever we can to avoid that happening again.”

Last year was the first year Makowski decided to invest in recall insurance. “It’s very expensive, but it’s worth it,” she says.

Makowski's has two stuffers on its produciton floor- both can handle skinless or natural casing sausage.

Customer relations

Fifty percent of the company’s product is sold under the Makowski’s Real Sausage brand, the rest is co-packed for foodservice and retail customers around the country. Makowski’s customers are 50 percent foodservice and 50 percent retail – 25 percent are large customers, 50 percent are medium-sized and the remaining 25 percent are small-batch customers. And, 98 percent of the sausage produced leaves the plant cooked and ready to eat; 3 percent is raw.

“All our raw product is for foodservice customers, and we have a co-packer that handles that product for us,” Makowski says. “We run more efficiently running cooked product than we do raw product. If we ever wanted to get into more raw product we’d need to set up a second shift after we’re finished with our cooked product for the day. For now, we’ll stick with what we’re doing, but there’s room for expansion if we decide to get more into raw processing.”

Makowski’s distributes product nationwide, primarily through distributors in the Midwest.

In addition to wearing the hat of president and owner, Makowski also manages all the sales for the company. “I’ve built so many relationships through the years that the customers are used to, and prefer, dealing with me,” she says. “We’ve had three different sales reps through the years, but in the end, it’s easier for me to handle that part of the business because it requires a lot of work.”

Nicole Makowski is the fourth generation of her family to own and operate Makowski's Real Sausage Co.
Part of the extra workload comes from helping customers with product development and marketing. “We do more than just make sausage, we offer custom processing for many of our customers,” she explains. Coming up with new product formulations and recipes takes trial and error and years of practice. “Everything I’ve learned in this business has been learned hands on. I’ve learned so much working with my customers.”

Makowski has learned that quality ingredients are the key to quality product. “I like to buy by raw materials from the same suppliers so I can guarantee the product I’m producing,” she says. “It’s very easy to make high-quality product with high-quality ingredients – I can do that all-day long. But making cheap product from cheap ingredients isn’t easy. That’s not something I want to get into.”

In addition to the quality of the ingredients, product formulation depends heavily on the types and amount of each ingredient. “We can only add so much fat to a formulation and we can only add certain ingredients,” Makowski says. “Sometimes we’ll have foodservice customers who suggest a certain type of sausage filled with all sorts of ingredients that we can’t create without an adjustment to the recipe. That’s when having good customer relationships is crucial.”

Solid customer relationships and the strength of the Makowski family name has served Nicole Makowski well for the 18 years she’s been running the company, and was the bedrock of the business her great-grandfather, grandfather and father ran for eight decades before her. “The Makowski’s brand is my heart and soul,” she says. “I want to continue to push that brand and see it out in the market more. And I want to continue to help companies with product development to help them get their brands out in the market more,” she explains. “I really love what I do.”