Retail links

by Joel Crews
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Long before Scimeca’s Italian Sausage Company evolved into an iconic sausage processing company supplying nearly every Kansas City area supermarket, the Scimeca name was best-known for its neighborhood grocery store on Independence Ave. in Kansas City, Mo. Beginning in 1935, Scimeca’s Deli and Italian Market founder Frank Scimeca patiently began building a loyal customer base that would be the basis for his thriving family business, one that has evolved and grown over the years and is now lead by his son, Phil, and his grandson, Frank.

It is this umbilical-like attachment to the Scimeca brand and its recognition for quality and service that has led the Kansas City Royals baseball team and the Kansas City Chiefs football team to designate Scimeca’s as their teams’ "official sausage," an endorsement that is promoted on its retail packaging and even on the exterior of its 10,000 sq. ft.. processing plant. The endorsement not only allows the company to supply stadium concession stands with their products, but it helps grow the retail side of the business. Despite the growth of the company and its focus on marketing and processing sausage, however, the principals remain committed to the old-school approach to business and to manufacturing its products.

Phil sold the family’s grocery store about seven years ago. It was there that Phil cut his teeth on the meat business and learned the value of quality and running a business. "Back then, we had a crank machine that did 20 lbs. at a time," Phil recalls fondly. "I started working there when I was 12 years old. "That’s all I know – the meat business. I wouldn’t know how to work somewhere else."

Shifting gears

Retail business ownership is synonymous with long hours. This was the motivation behind Phil’s idea of starting a business serving the retailers and foodservice operators, rather then the consumers directly. "For years, I worked 60 to 70 hours a week and I rarely saw my kids growing up. I never saw my dad much, either," he says, which is why when his son told him he wanted to make the family grocery business his career, he proposed something a little different. "I warned him, ‘you’ll never see your kids, so instead let’s open a sausage company,’" Phil remembers. In 1993 they did just that.

Sixteen years later, Frank is president of the sausage company he and his dad started from a small facility on Truman Rd. in Kansas City. "Our first processing room was a 15 X 25 foot cooler," recalls Phil, where during the first week in business, Scimeca’s Italian Sausage Co. sold 700 lbs. of product. Today, the company sells over 15,000 lbs. of product per week and annual sales this year are expected to top $2 million for the first time.

"We’re in every grocery store in the city," says Phil, and the Scimeca products are ingredients on some of the finest menus in the metropolitan area. For foodservice customers, Scimeca says leanness is a huge issue, especially in today’s economy. "Chefs look at 10 lbs. of our product and know after it’s cooked they’ll have nine-and-a-half lbs.," he says. "That’s profit to them."

As for taking the products beyond the Kansas City metropolitan area, Phil says the challenge is the shipping costs, although the Scimecas are in negotiations to get the products onto the concession menu of a professional sports team in Denver, and there is a chance the products could be sold to a foodservice customer in Las Vegas in the future. The Scimecas see a lot of potential in growing its concession business to first include local college sports venues and eventually "we want to be in all the college concessions," says Phil.

Scimeca’s now-famous Italian Sausage uses a recipe the eldest Scimeca brought over from Palermo, Italy, and for years sold from the family’s grocery store. The recipe includes imported Pecorino Romano cheese, part of a formula that has become as sacred as Colonel Sanders’ seven herbs and spices. "We’ve never touched it," says Phil of the recipe. "Why would we?"

In true, old-school fashion, Scimeca’s sausages are cranked out by hand, using a table-top linker. It’s not that Phil hasn’t’ heard of automated stuffing and linking systems capable of churning out thousands of lbs. of product per hour. It is about the quality of the products, he iterates. "We’ve looked at the automated equipment," says Phil, "but it smears the ingredients and the fat so much that it doesn’t do the product justice.

Processing 120-lb. batches at a time, the company’s staff of about a dozen workers diligently churns out about 15,000 lbs. of products per week that are packaged and labeled at the plant and distributed to foodservice and retail customers from the company’s fleet of six refrigerated trucks. Through the years, Phil has learned some tricks to ensure the quality of his products.

Before any of the sausage is shipped, for example, it is stored in the walk-in freezer "to get a little crisp on it," says Phil. He also points out the importance of having the same person scooping and mixing the spices day-in and dayout for the sausage, filling zip-locked bags with enough spices to season 120 lbs. of meat. "It never changes," he says. Similarly, the company’s sausage is 82-percent lean product… "all the time," which gives customers and consumers more bang for their buck consistently.

Scimeca’s Italian sausage is produced in links or ropes and the company also produces a variety of other products, including: chorizo and andouille sausage (which is fresh, not smoked), beer brats, Italian steak, chicken spiedini, in addition to their own brand of spaghetti sauce, marinara and a marinade. The protein products are all produced from meat that is free of hormones, steroids and preservatives. About seven years ago, Scimeca’s rolled out its turkey-Italian sausage to appeal to health-conscious consumers. In 2007, the chicken-Italian sausage was introduced. "They’re 4-percent fat; that’s it," says Phil.

The company works with a local co-processor to produce its cooked and smoked products for concessionbased customers. Pre-cooked products include: jumbo Italian, Polish and Sheboygan bratwurst sausage, meatballs, crumbled Italian sausage and chicken parmesan. Scimeca’s is also the private-label processing company behind another Kansas City-based company, Begulia’s Italian Sausage Co. "It’s a relationship that works well for both sides," says Phil.

Phil is perhaps one of only a handful of company owners whose office isn’t situated around a computer. Phil leaves the I.T. side of the business to his son, Frank, who, at the age of 36, is more plugged in and comfortable with the high-tech side of the operation. The Scimecas are hands-on owners. It isn’t unusual for Phil to play the role of receptionist, answering phone calls and taking orders while Frank frequently runs hot-shot deliveries to customers or works on the processing floor whenever needed.

In a town like Kansas City, where the meat business is a vital part of the historic fabric, Phil realizes the importance of staying plugged in to the business climate, including keeping an eye on local competitors, several of which are also family businesses. He says there is a friendly competition among his local counterparts. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for one of the local sausage companies to call the other to borrow sausage casings, for example. "We’ve all been around here since the 1930s," says Phil, "and there is a mutual respect for each other’s businesses."

As the economy causes retail customers to tighten their financial belts, some value-added meat processors have been forced to experiment with using less-expensive ingredients to shave production costs and stave off raising the price charged to their customers. Phil insists his company remains committed to using the quality ingredients that have put it on the map. "It’s not an option for us to scrimp," Phil says. Besides, he adds, the difference in price between his products and many of the competitors’ less-lean offerings is pennies per pound. For Scimeca’s, the cost difference between producing 72-percent lean and 80-percent lean product is about a dime a pound. "Why would you ever compromise quality over 10 cents?"

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