Cultivating a following
January 10, 2011
by Larry Aylward
The sausage gods must be watching over Lou’s Gourmet Sausage Co. Then again, it’s amazing what a devout customer base can do for a business. Cleveland-based Lou’s Gourmet Sausage is going on 60 years old. And the family owned business, operated by brothers Joe and Frank Vinciguerra, who took over the business from their father, Lou, and his partner in 1984, is going strong. However, the company hasn’t thrived without its share of challenges over the years. But when Lou’s Gourmet Sausage was down, it was the company’s loyal following that helped it back up.
“It’s amazing we’ve been able to keep it going,” Frank says of the business. “We’ve been very fortunate.”Overcoming challenges
Lou’s Gourmet Sausage has nearly tripled its production and revenue the past five years. And this after its biggest customer, Tops Friendly Markets, exited the Northeast Ohio market in 2006 and closed 46 stores, causing the company to lose 40 percent of its business.
The Vinciguerra brothers were stunned by the announcement and hoped the company could endure the hit. The brothers were confident it would, considering the business had survived similar setbacks over the years.
“We were devastated,” Joe recalls. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
What Joe and Frank didn’t do was sit back and feel sorry for themselves. They made plans to upgrade their facility, knowing that converting their operation to case-ready packaging would attract new retail customers.
The only major account the company had remaining was Heinen’s, a chain of 16 supermarkets that’s still a big part of the company’s business today. Without Heinen’s, the business may have folded.
Still, it was tough to grow the business in the months following Tops’ departure. Other grocery stores, including retailers who had moved into the supermarkets vacated by Tops, didn’t want to take on Lou’s Gourmet Sausage because they were content with their current offerings. That is, until the Lou’s fans began calling those retailers and asking why they weren’t selling their favorite sausage.
In time, the phones started ringing at the company’s modest office on Cleveland’s east side. On the other end were meat buyers calling from the supermarkets, including representatives from some large chains.
“We got a call from Super Walmart saying they’d like to have a meeting with us,” Joe says. “They told us, ‘We’d like to have your product in our stores; there have been numerous people in the area asking for it.’’’
The meat buyer from Pittsburghbased Giant Eagle, which moved into some of Tops’ former stores, also called. He wanted to meet with Joe and Frank as well about supplying their business.
“Now we have our foot in the area chain stores, and we’ve become a very well-known product in the area,” Joe says.
The company has a bigger following than ever, which is reflected in its accounting books. Sales were $1.6 million in 2009 and will be close to $2 million this year. Sales were about $500,000 only five years ago.A new approach
It was a good thing Joe and Frank had the insight to upgrade their facility because the increased business came fast and furiously. Sausage production grew from 5,000 lbs. per week to about 15,000 lbs. per week over the course of a few months. The business grew from four employees to 22. The company had to purchase property next door to expand its building and add loading docks.
“We used to go into these little stores with 5- or 10-lb. boxes on little trucks,” Joe says. “Now we go into warehouses with pallets of sausage wrapped on half of a semi truck.”
The Vinciguerra brothers have spent about $500,000 the past few years expanding the building and updating it with new equipment, including a new Risco stuffer, to make it more state of the art.
“We had to change our way of thinking,” Frank says.
The company also had to change its packaging. It had to convert its 5-and 10-lb. box packages, which were previously broken down and wrapped by retailers, to 1-lb. packages that were case- and scan-ready.
“Now the product is just taken out of the box and put on the retail shelf,” Frank says.
The product line has grown along with the business. It now offers about 25 varieties of pork and chicken sausage. In addition to its mild and hot Italian sausage, which is made in pork and chicken versions, Lou’s offers Sicilian sausage, featuring sweet red peppers, fresh scallions and Italian spices; Italian sausage with wine and Provolone cheese imported from Italy; chicken sausage with feta cheese and spinach; and Andouille sausage, based on a recipe from a famous French Quarter restaurant. The company also offers chorizo sausage, kielbasa and bratwurst. All of the sausage is fresh.
Lou’s has grown from producing 300,000 lbs. of pork sausage per year to 1 million lbs. annually. The company produces about 70,000 lbs. of chicken sausage annually.
The sausage sells for $3 to $4 per lb. at retail, depending on the variety and is produced three nights a week and, because it contains no preservatives, is shipped out on trucks each morning.
“You can’t make it any fresher than we make it,” Joe says. The foundation
Interestingly, the business was going through a downturn when Joe and Frank purchased it. One of the company’s largest retailers decided it was going to make its own sausage in house. The company’s business plummeted about 65 percent, but Joe and Frank hit the streets selling and steadily grew the business.
Lou’s Gourmet Sausage actually began as Roma Wholesale in 1940 when the Vinciguerra brothers’ grandfather, Joe Guiseppi, came from Sicily and settled in Cleveland. Guiseppi opened Roma Wholesale, which sold Italian meats, pastas and other goods not found locally. But the business closed in the late 1940s.
That’s when Joe and Frank’s father, Lou Vinciguerra, who worked at Roma Wholesale, took a job as a salesman for a company called Northern Foods. But Joe heard from more than a few people that they were missing the Italian sausage sold at Roma Wholesale. In fact, those people asked Lou if he could make it for them. Finally, Lou asked his friend Ben Cangemi, a local meat-market owner, if he could borrow his facility to prepare the sausage. “He was making a few-hundred pounds of sausage a week to take care of these people,” Joe says.
This went on for a few years. Then, the owner of Northern Foods, who knew Joe was making the sausage on the side, told him about a new chain starting in Cleveland called Food Town.
“He told my dad he’d like to introduce him to Food Town’s owners and get his sausage in the stores,” Frank says. “That’s when this all began.”
Food Town opened four stores and later expanded. Lou became the exclusive wholesale supplier of Italian sausage in the area. The chain stores were a success and Ben Cangemi closed his meat market in 1954 and joined Lou to officially open Lou’s Gourmet Sausage.
The business continued its steady growth in the 1960s and 1970s. The company also began servicing restaurants, pizza shops and import stores. In 1984, Joe and Frank bought Ben’s share of the business.
Joe and Frank, who are both in their early 60s, credit their products’ quality for the company’s longevity and success. They say their dad and Cangemi emphasized quality, something they’ve never forgotten over the years. Lou Vinciguerra was 83 and still running the stuffing machine in the production room at the time of this death six years ago.
“We try to maintain a quality level all the time,” Joe says. “We learned a lot from the old-timers and their ways. They laid the foundation.”
Joe and Frank tout the care they take in creating their products, which contain no preservatives and leaner pork.
“Our product is 80-percent lean pork,” Joe says. “Other products are 60-percent lean. We pay a little more money [for raw material] to maintain that level.”
The original recipe for the Italian sausage is from Sicily and has been tweaked over the years and now features about half the salt of the original recipe as well as a finer, less-fat pork. The Italian sausage has always been the company’s mainstay product. The key to a good Italian sausage is the blend of ingredients, the brothers say.
“We crack our fennel through coffee grinders to make the oil explode,” Joe explains.
Lou’s Gourmet Sausage buys it’s pork from Excel, and receives two deliveries a week. Production occurs three nights a week. Frank works the stuffing machine, and Joe does the mixing. The pork delivered on Saturday will be made into sausage and out the door early Monday morning and delivered before noon.
“That product is made from pigs walking around three days ago,” Joe says proudly.
The chicken sausage is 95-percent lean. The company buys its chicken from Gerber Poultry, an Ohio-based poultry processor that offers freerange chickens with no antibiotics.
Another reason the business is increasing is because sausage is an affordable product, Frank says.
“People aren’t eating steak as much,” he says. “Our customer base is growing. Sales are steady every week.”
Joe and Frank have entertained thoughts of taking the business national. In fact, a friend of theirs who lives in Florida prepared some of Lou’s Gourmet Sausage for his friend, who happened to be a buyer from Publix Supermarkets, a large retailer in the South. The buyer asked the Vinciguerra brothers’ friend where he got the product. When the friend told him, the buyer said, “Do you think they want to be in 1,100 chain stores in the South?”
The brothers were intrigued by the offer, but when Joe began working some numbers he found it would be near impossible to pull off. “When I started adding it all up, we would have to make 30,000 lbs. of product a day,” he said. “We can’t do that. We can only produce 60,000 a week here.”
More business has meant more money spent on the operation. The bigger retailers expect Lou’s Sausage to take more safety precautions with its business, such as putting up metal detectors and implementing a terrorist plan.
“When you get bigger and add employees and accounts, obviously your challenges get a little bigger, too,” Franks says. “But we seem to have everything under control.” In good hands
Joe and Frank both studied music in college and are accomplished musicians. But the sausage business is in their blood. They have fond memories of their dad bringing them to the plant when they were children. They would make boxes for the sausage.
“We’ve been in the sausage business since we were seven years old,” Frank says.
Frank says their father taught them honesty, integrity, fairness and to pay attention to detail – the keys to operating a successful business. Like their father, the brothers work a lot of hours. They’re at the plant seven days a week. One rule of the business is the brothers pay everyone else – from suppliers to staff – before they pay themselves.
“We’ve done business that way for years,” Joe says.
The brothers own the building and have minimal debt. They also try to do as much in-house work as possible, from repairing equipment to bookkeeping. Frank is a Mr. Fix-It, and Joe is good at accounting.
“We don’t pay people to do things we can do,” Joe says.
Joe’s 24-year-old son, Joe Jr., is the heir apparent of the business, although the Vinciguerra brothers have no current plans to retire.
“We’re still very passionate about the business,” Joe says.
But the Vinciguerra brothers will leave the business in capable hands when they pass the torch to Joe’s son, who has worked full-time at Lou’s for five years as its production manager. He loves the business as much as his father and uncle.
“It means a lot to me to carry on the family name,” he says, “and there’s no better way of doing it than taking over the business.”Larry Aylward is a contributing editor based in Cleveland.