Staying in style

by Joel Crews
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Smith Provision still uses the slogan that dates back to its founding in 1927: “Good taste never goes out of style.” The Erie, Pa.-based processor, which was a retail butcher shop when it was purchased by Anton Weber in 1947, has proven tradition never goes out of style either. With hot dogs and sausages being the first, and still the most-popular, item the company sells, the fourth generation of Webers is still running the evolving meat-processing business. Eighty-three years later, Smith’s success still depends on the long-term consistency and growth of the hot dog and sausage segment.

“When most people think of Smith’s, they think hot dogs,” says John Weber, who along with his brother, Michael, represents the third generation of family ownership of the business. “It’s our No. 1 product,” he adds. “We’ve done natural-casing wieners since Day One.”

Neither John, who joined the company full-time in 1980, nor Michael, who came aboard in 1974, ever had aspirations of carving out careers in the meat business as youngsters. Working at their dad’s meat company while growing up was a family obligation, but making meat their life’s work wasn’t something they fathomed. As they each went about earning their college educations, they continued working at the family business founded by their grandfather, Anton “Tony” Weber. Tony, who was trained as a butcher in Germany, immigrated to the U.S. and in 1937 founded Schaller & Weber, a New York-based retail butcher shop, along with a business partner.

About a decade later, Tony’s son, Max, a Swiss-trained chef- and his wife (and then only son, Michael), came to the U.S. to help his father run Smith’s, a butcher shop Tony purchased in Erie, Pa. earlier that year. “This was a reuniting of our family,” John says. As experts at making traditional German sausage, they grew Smith Provision Co. until it became too successful to continue operating at its limited space in Erie. The family moved the business in the early 1960s not far from its original location, still in Erie. The move was prompted, in part, by the shift of strategy away from retail sales with more emphasis on manufacturing. In an effort to sell more product to retail distributors, the Webers transformed what was previously used as retail space to processing areas filled with smokehouses, processing equipment and walk-in refrigerators.

Having stayed at the same location since the early 1960s, the company is again outgrowing its current facility despite several renovations and updates to the plant. “Everything we produce is cooked and most of it is smoked and cooked,” says Weber. And after all these years, the space is becoming tight and the smokehouse equipment is aged and well used. “We’ve added on several times at this location,” says Weber, of what is now the company’s 30,000 sq.-ft. processing facility, which is now bursting at the seams and landlocked in the city. This year, Weber and his brother are planning to take the plunge by adding 10,000 more sq. ft., either by building a new facility or moving to an existing space and renovating it.

“We’re going to need to be under construction within a year to retain the capability of smokehouses and continue production,” says Weber. “We hope to incorporate flow-through smokehouses and incorporate air chillers into the smokehouse installation, which we don’t have space for now.”

Managing growth

Smith’s business has steadily increased through the years. Two to three percent growth each year, over time, has put the plant at full capacity. “We’re pretty maxed out, but we need to plan for growth.” For this regional company, that means exploiting the nearby markets. They have set their sights first on Pittsburgh, Pa. and then Cleveland, having already expanded into the Buffalo, N.Y. market a number of years ago.
“Over the past 10 years, we concentrated on selling near home. We see the potential for growth wide open, but to do that we need more capacity,” says Weber.

After establishing production of hot dogs, the founding Webers rolled out bologna, which became another mainstay through the 1940s and 1950s. Smith’s then began adding other value-added products to the mix, including bone-in hams and sausages. The philosophy for adding new products, according to Weber, was, “The smokehouse is sitting here overnight; why not use it? And as long as we’re making ham, why not bacon?”

In a typical year, the company will process 2 million lbs. of hot dogs and an equal amount of hams. The Smith’s line of hot dogs includes: natural-casing wieners, skinless and Jumbo-skinless wieners. Sausage offerings include Kielbasa, Andouille, Cheddarbest (cheese-infused) and Italian. Other products include a variety of ringed bologna, liver pudding and braunschweiger and bone-in and boneless hams. The company’s $10 million in annual revenues are evenly divided between foodservice and retail and to customers of all sizes, from the mom-and-pop retailers that only operate seasonally all the way up to select Walmart and Sam’s club stores, as well as at convenience stores and a number of supermarket chains. Smith’s maintains approximately 50 employees, including Michael’s daughters, Emily and Sara, as well Sara’s husband, Ray Kallner. In fact, it was Ray who negotiated a deal this past fall that made Smith’s the official hot dog of the Univ. of Pittsburgh’s athletic department. Smith’s will be the exclusive hot dog served during athletic competitions held at Pitt’s Petersen Event Center.

Quality in, quality out

The goal for growing the hot dog part of the business has never been to become the low-cost leader. To the contrary, says Weber, his products tend to cost more than many of the competitors’. Part of the reason is the premium-meat suppliers and spice companies Smith’s principals relish. For the Webers, another integral part of processing premium products means doing certain things the old-fashioned way while taking advantage of technology. To impart smoked flavors, for example, “we don’t use liquid smoke,” says John, adding that real wood is burned in the company’s smokehouses using a computerized drive that feeds wood chips to a controlled fire. Smith’s uses cutting-edge technology (including Handtmann and Reiser high-speed stuffing and linking equipment) to produce traditional-looking products. “It’s a blend of old traditions and new technology,” he says. “Today’s technology facilitates repeatable quality. If it tastes good once, that’s not good enough.”

Weber points out that selling products at a higher price point can make for challenges in luring new customers. After all, selling a package of hot dogs at a cost that is comparable to the cost of a steak is hard for many consumers to swallow. To overcome this obstacle and establish new customers focused on value, Smith’s serves up thousands of pounds of samples at many product giveaways throughout the Northeast. It is a strategy that will become of even more importance as the company pursues new markets and continues growing under the fourth generation of Webers. The same philosophy applies, today and in the future, says John Weber: “Quality makes for loyal customers.” •
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