Nicole Makowski took over as owner and president of Makowski's Real Sausage Co. when she was 22 years old.
At age 22, most people are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Maybe they’re finishing college and getting their first jobs. Or perhaps they’re still trying new things while searching for their livelihood and passion.

Not Nicole Makowski.

At 22, while others her age were accepting entry-level positions with their first employers and buying new cars, she was buying her family’s sausage company and taking on the role of president.

In 2002, Nicole Makowski became the fourth generation, and first woman, to run the Makowski family sausage business. The business that grew out of a small butcher shop in Wisconsin, is now a Chicago-based gourmet sausage processor two years away from celebrating its centennial.

Generation to generation

The Makowski family business – that’s been in operation in Chicago for almost 100 years – started out in Wisconsin in 1915. After emigrating from Poland, Louis Makowski opened a small butcher shop specializing in smoked sausages and hams in Lublin, Wisconsin. He ran the business in Wisconsin for five years before moving to Chicago’s south side to open Victory Sausage in 1920. After years of success and growth, Louis had the opportunity in 1938 to buy out the Real Sausage Co., which was filing for bankruptcy. Victory Sausage moved into the Real Sausage location (where the company still resides today) and changed its name to Real Packing Co. Around this time, the next generation – Ted Makowski – came to work for the company, and by 1946 had taken ownership.

In 1952, generation No. 3 – brothers Jerry and Louis Makowski – started working at the family sausage company. During this time the company switched from producing canned goods, which were popular during the war, and started producing deli meats. “With each generation, product mix and product development changed,” Nicole says. “Every generation of the business has been different. We started with old-world style cured sausage, then went to canned goods, then lunch meats – and now we’re into the claimed meats area of organic, natural and grass-fed products.”

By the early 1970s, the company was back to sausage production and with that came a name change to Real Sausage Co. In 1985, the reins were passed on as Jerry and Louis became the third-generation owners of the business.

Nicole remembers visiting her family’s business when she was a kid, so it wasn’t a surprise that she started working at the plant during high school in the late 1990s. In fact, working at the plant was her first “real” job, she says. She worked summers at the plant – from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the packing cooler – learning the business from the ground up. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that she would end up in the sausage business – “early on, I wasn’t sure that it was for me,” she explains.

But soon after high school, things changed.

“When I was 19, my grandfather sat me down and told me he felt that I was the right fit for the family business. He saw that I had worked really hard throughout high school and saw how hard I was working to learn the business,” Makowski says. “He told me to start studying business in college during the afternoons and work at the plant the rest of the day – so I did.”

After a few years of studying business, and learning about the sausage side of the business by working in sales, she was ready to take over. In 2002, at the age of 22, she got a loan to buy the Real Sausage Co. from her father and uncle. “I found a true love for the sausage business,” she says. “It was our family business and I was so excited about the opportunity to take over and see what I could do. My dad promised me that he was going to let me run things the way I wanted. He really gave me the reins to run free.”

The first line of business was changing the company’s name to Makowski’s Real Sausage Co. Nicole wanted to keep the connection with the company’s past by keeping “Real” in the name but also wanted to pay homage to her family’s roots by putting Makowski front and center on the logo. When she asked her dad what he thought of the idea, he responded, “Four generations of Makowskis, why not?”

When she bought the family business at age 22, she didn't receive a lot of support from the industry- but now after 18 years running a successful sausage operation, Nicole Makowski has proven herself.

Making her mark

The company’s name wasn’t the only change Nicole brought to the family business. After running operations for a couple of years she wanted to pursue the all-natural, organic market and custom manufacturing. This entailed tweaking existing operations.

“A couple years in, when I was about 24, I did a restructuring of the business with management. I removed myself from the office and I went onto the floor to develop better processing procedures – better ways of doing things,” she explains. “We had been in a rut of always doing things the same way we’d always done things. And from a process flow standpoint, it wasn’t working well.

“In order to be able to become organically certified I needed to go out into the plant to learn what it took – what we had to change in our operations to pursue that business,” Nicole says. “Besides, I like my employees to see that I’m okay with putting on boots and a frock and getting out there on the floor.”

Making changes in operational flow allowed Makowski’s to build a name for itself in custom sausage processing.

“In this market you have to define yourself as a small processor,” Nicole explains. “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. The referrals from customer to customer are really what keep our business going.”

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. “We do co-packing to the extreme,” she says. “We are a specialist in product development – in creating something really unique for the market. There are very few companies that are doing what we do.

“The difference between the third generation and fourth was that I wanted to be different and creative in the sausage world. I didn’t mind all the work that came with balancing multiple projects,” she explains. “Not that my uncle and dad didn’t like creating new creative sausages, it just wasn’t as popular then as it is now. I wanted to make a new name for the business, but still keep our old-world gourmet sausage line alive.”

Man's game

Nicole Makowski has been making a name for herself in the sausage business ever since she took over 18 years ago. The industry wasn’t as confident in her abilities to run the business as her father was – but she’s proven herself one customer at a time.

“When I first took over the business, there was some negative chatter in the industry: ‘Jerry’s daughter is running the business – we’re not sure about that.’ There wasn’t a lot of support, which was hard. But then again, I was pretty young,” Nicole explains. “But now that I’ve been in the business for 18 years, it no longer bothers me. I feel very confident in my ability to run the business now – and I’ve had some great successes through the years.”

In addition to her successes, Nicole fully admits that she made some mistakes early on in her career – “but that happens to everyone,” she says. “I made mistakes not costing out things correctly, biting off too much, taking on too much business and then losing some of that business because I couldn’t handle it all,” she explains. “They were all really important lessons that I needed to learn which have helped me make the right decisions for the business today.”

She adds: “I love being a woman in the meat business. Even with all the four-letter words – not including pork and beef – I’ve learned to have a tough skin,” she says. “Hard work and dedication pay off no matter what sex you are.”

Nicole and her husband Chris have two sons – Anthony and Christian – who could one day be the fifth Makowski generation to run the family business. Currently only 10- and 7-year-olds, the boys have a few years to go before their grandfather sits them down to talk them into taking over the sausage company, as Nicole’s grandfather did with her at age 19.

“I don’t know if they will want to take over the business, but I certainly hope they will,” she says. “I hope I can build a brand and diversify enough to allow us to be successful into a fifth generation.”