Meat royalty

by Steve Krut
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Vollwerth's sausage kitchen in 1929.

Vollwerth’s Sausage Company uses the promotional line “The King of Meats.” But this Hancock, Mich.-based company seems to have all the components to back up its assertions and tens of thousands of customers who maintain there is something quite royal about their products.

After all, this is a family-owned business, which next year enters its 100th year of operation and now has a fifth-generation family member involved in the operation.

Adam Manderfield, president, is ecstatic about the wave of growth the company has enjoyed and is reminiscent about its heritage. “Richard Vollwerth was a German immigrant who came to this area during the great copper boom of 1915 and began using his meat experience to open a butcher shop in his basement,” he says. “It wasn’t until 1930 that he moved to a larger facility, which was actually a former church a few blocks from his home, and started larger-scale production.

“Things were simpler then,” he adds. “The recipes were very basic and the equipment, like the 80-year-old smokehouses, were homemade. We really haven’t changed those basic formulations for our meat products. We still use hardwood chips for smoking meats and think that the taste and quality of our products can’t be duplicated.”

Adam, a fourth-generation member of the family, worked with his cousins in the business as teenagers in high school. When he completed studies in business management at Northern Michigan Univ., he returned to Hancock to help the family run the business. At age 34, he has tackled most responsibilities in the plant, including sales representative, production manager and sales manager.

Adam Manderfield, president and twin brother Jared Manderfield, vice president, represent the fourth generation of Vollwerth's Sausage Company.

Yet, it is his role today that gives him the greatest rush of enthusiasm.

“A company this old can get stale or stagnant,” he cautions. “But we’ve embarked on a course of constantly developing new products and new markets.” And it all centers on comfort foods, which he defines as those tastes and flavors that remind you of the way home-cooked food made you feel as a child, tastes that you were in love with and felt good about when you were growing up.

His twin brother, Jared Manderfield, serves as vice president of distribution and facilities management, and a cousin, Richard Vollwerth, represents another element of the fourth-generation working at the plant, along with an aunt, Maryann Seel, the secretary/treasurer and office manager (third generation). Also helping in the facility over the summer is another cousin, Tony Fisher, who represents the fifth generation at the operation.

USDA inspection

The firm operates under US Dept. of Agriculture inspection and has never had a slaughtering facility, although their wholesale program is supplemented each fall with about 10,000 lbs. of venison sausage they produce from meat brought in by hunters.

The 20,000-sq.-ft. plant, which has seen a parade of additions since 1930, churns out more than 100 different products. But thanks to the drive for new products exhibited by Adam and the six other co-owners, that repertoire is growing in leaps and bounds.

Originally, the main products were natural-casing hot dogs and later some skinless wieners, along with ring bologna. Through careful attention to their wholesale customer base and a well-designed in-store sampling and demonstration program, the company has taken off from it’s Upper Peninsula base and is now reaching markets in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Baroni Co. acquisition

In 2008, the firm bought out the Baroni Company, a specialty producer of spaghetti sauce and ravioli, which was founded in 1935. They changed their name to Vollwerth & Baroni Companies and moved that entire operation to their plant and have spun off into new canned products like their Michigan Sauce, a chili-based hot-dog sauce without beans. After a month of exposure to these new offerings, customers are reordering and that market is growing.

The Baroni acquisition prompted a name change.

“The Baroni operation had a lot of parallels with the meat business,” Adam reflects. “They also had a USDA inspection program for canning and we had to be trained in that area. But it is a great complement to our basic operation of making meat products. We are thinking about new canned-meat items as a potential boon for our business.”

The wholesale market base has provided feedback that has led the company to supplement its bratwurst line to include pizza, Cajun and BBQ flavored brats. The original hot-dog inventory now includes foot-long or bun-length versions and the standby ring bologna formulation.

The company steadily built its wholesale trade around meats, including braunschweiger, Thuringer, summer, Polish and Italian sausage, but they have added their own signature items, such as Sauna Makkara, a Finnish-style sausage perfectly suited as a snack to hang on the stove pipes of saunas that dot the Great Lakes.

Cherry enhancement

Ever reaching out to find new customers, the company recently teamed up with Cherry Republic, a Traverse City, Mich., marketer of everything cherry. They make private-label cherry summer sausage for that firm.

And, through its in-house distribution network, it has become a distributor for such Upper Peninsula-made items as Trenary Toast, a regional beef, pork, potato and vegetable pie called the pasty; and Arthur Bay Cheese out of Appleton, Wis.

Signature products like Michigan Sauce have caught on with consumers.

“The need for new-product offerings is critical,” Adam reiterates. “We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do our own in-house research and development and use our employees to be our test market. When they sample something we want to try out, they will not hurt our feelings if they tell us they don’t like it. They will give us their honest opinions and offer suggestions or tell us how it might be improved. That is important to us as a family operated business and important to our employees, as well.”

Gaining exposure through participation in regional events, such as beer fests, bridge fests and even the state fair, is a critical part of marketing for Vollwerth’s. They do some newspaper and of late television advertising, but work with a combination of their own hot-dog vendors to sell their product, cooked to company specifications, at these regional events.

About 95 percent of the firm’s volume is in the Upper Peninsula, but designs on expansion loom in the family’s plans.

The company is a strong contender in the gift-box market, primarily for holiday seasons. Their meat gift boxes are also offered with regional cheeses. But Adam says a major renovation of its website – www.vollwerth.com – is being unveiled this month and should spur their e-trade business, which already boasts shipments to all 50 states.

On an annual basis, the company produces tons of sausage, and with the new products from Baroni, marketing ideas coming on line and the enthusiasm exhibited by this family – they may be in for a long and successful continued reign.

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues.

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