Transcending tradition

by Lawrence Aylward
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Jim Dixon, owner of Gibbs Butcher Block
Jim Dixon, owner of Gibbs Butcher Block in Columbia Station, Ohio, has formulations for 300 different sausages.

Jim Dixon says he’s a trendsetter in the world of sausage. It’s a bold statement, but Dixon, owner of Gibbs Butcher Block in Columbia Station, Ohio, is on to something.

At his small-town meat market, located about 30 miles from Cleveland, Dixon processes about 300 varieties of fresh gourmet sausage, offering about 40 different flavors a day. Dixon uses no preservatives in his sausage, which are made with lean pork and chicken and stuffed in 35-mm hog casings.

According to Mintel Group, a global market research firm, Dixon’s approach is on trend. In a recent report, Mintel stated that a wider variety of healthier, naturally positioned items and an increasing interest in new flavors have spurred growth in the sausage category. Mintel estimates that overall retail sales for the sausage and hot dog category are forecast to increase 24 percent from 2014-2019, topping sales of $9.6 billion. That number comes on the heels of 18 percent growth between 2009 and 2014 to estimated sales of $8.7 billion.

“Addressing consumer health concerns through more natural products, fresh presentations, and satisfying the need for variety through ethnic and innovative flavors has helped encourage consumers to purchase again,” according to Mintel.

Health, freshness and variety are factors that Dixon has addressed at Gibbs Butcher Block for several years. He touts the leanness of the sausage, noting that he only uses 90 percent lean pork and all-white, skinless chicken.

“Sausage is supposed to be the leftovers – the trim and the pieces that didn’t make it. You grind them up and put them in a casing. But I don’t do that here,” he says.

People want to feel good about what they eat, Dixon says. “A lot of people tell me how much weight they have lost from eating our chicken sausage,” he adds.

There are also a few older customers who have told Dixon his sausage is too lean, but Dixon isn’t about to fatten up his offerings.

In its report, Mintel noted that 45 percent of consumers cited fat as a concern when making a purchasing decision, followed by sodium, preservatives and calories. “This indicates there are opportunities to present products that are healthier, but they must taste good in order to be well received,” Mintel concluded.

Dixon agrees, if it’s lean, it has to be flavorful. While the base proteins of his sausage are low fat, Dixon believes that other ingredients, such as fruit, cheese, bacon and veal, add moisture to the formulations.

Flavors and formulations

Mintel found that consumers are buying sausages again.
Addressing consumer health concerns and satisfying demand for variety has helped encourage consumers to purchase sausage again, according to Mintel.

Dixon, who formerly worked in the restaurant industry, says many of his sausages originated from restaurant menus that offered such dishes as chicken piccata, chicken parmigiana and veal marsala.

“Items like that translate well as ingredients into sausage,” adds Dixon, who sells most of his varieties for $5.99 a pound.

While Dixon doesn’t study food trends earnestly, he stays abreast of what flavors are popular. For instance, knowing that hot and spicy is in favor, Dixon offers several versions of sausage dedicated to that category, including Trinidad scorpion chili, Carolina reaper and jolokia (ghost pepper) chili, among others.

“It’s getting hotter and hotter,” Dixon says, literally and figuratively, of the spicy trend.

Some varieties are based on popular sandwiches, such as the original reuben griller sausage, which combines cooked corn beef, Swiss cheese and a touch of sauerkraut. Others are based on Asian and Mexican dishes, such as chicken cashew stir fry and bean burrito sausages.

Dixon says his fruit-flavored sausages, including blueberry, cherry, peach mango and strawberry banana, have also gained a following. The key is to achieve a subtle taste of fruit, not something overpowering.

Dixon is also capitalizing on consumers’ affinity for brand-name booze, such as Jack Daniels whiskey and Captain Morgan’s rum. In fact, a sausage simply named Jack, which incorporates Jack Daniels and smoked cheddar cheese to the blend, is the shop’s most popular variety.

During the year, Dixon also celebrates the holidays with special sausages. At Christmas, he adds Great Lakes Brewing Co.’s popular Christmas Ale to a sausage. At St. Patrick’s Day, he makes a corned beef and cabbage sausage, an Irish whisky sausage and a sausage laced with Guinness beer.

There are also varieties that appeal to children, such as the spaghetti and meatball sausage, which includes 20 lbs. of cooked spaghetti and 40 lbs. of meatballs in each batch.

While Dixon does offer versions of bratwurst, kielbasa and Italian sausage, he doesn’t pretend to rely on tradition when it comes to sausage making.

“People will come in and say, ‘Hey, will you make a Slovenian sausage?’ I don’t even know where to start [for something like that],” he admits.

While most of his concoctions are his own, some come from customers. A 10-year-old girl suggested the bacon, egg and cheddar sausage.

Managing the formulations for so many varieties has been challenging, Dixon states. For instance, making cherry sausage was a process. At first, the cherries kept exploding inside the casing when cooked, which caused a mess. But like any seasoned sausage maker, Dixon relies on trial and error – and plenty of patience – to achieve the exact formulation. Over time, he has become savvy about the procedure.

“Now when I come up with a new combination, I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing,” he says.

While Dixon offers about 40 varieties daily, he sells almost every ounce of sausage, which amounts to about 2,000 lbs. a week. The key to moving it is the four-hour taste testing promotion held every Saturday at the business. During that time, customers sample about 200 lbs. of sausage.

The people who attend the promotions represent several walks of life, from bikers to farmers to businessmen to moms and dads with their kids. It’s not uncommon for 700 people to show up. Dixon says the promotions have been a boon to his business.

“If we make a new flavor on Friday, we sample it on Saturday and see how the reaction is,” he says. “And we have just decided the future of that sausage.”

His advice for other sausage makers looking to expand their offerings is simple: Make sure it’s going to move.

“If you have five new flavors you want to sell, you have to sample them first, even if it’s just behind the counter,” he says.

Beyond tradition

In time, Dixon could see some of his flavors being produced by large-scale manufacturers, especially flavors that are spicy and sweet. A sausage made with spaghetti and meatballs by a large processor might be a longshot, but who knows? Twenty years ago, who expected Tyson Foods to offer a pineapple and bacon sausage via its Aidells brand at major grocery chains?

Dixon believes sausage making is extending beyond tradition, and he is happy to help lead the charge. “I’ve been asked to put coffee in a sausage. I’m thinking about it,” he says.

Scanning his shop’s meat case and the diversity of flavors, Dixon says, “If we had 10 different sausages, and they were the same every day…it just wouldn’t be the same.”

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