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Smokin' success

by Kimberlie Clyma
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Ask Rodney Roth how business is going and he’ll most likely respond, “Smokin!” That’s because he lives and breathes smoked sausage, and has done so for most of his 45 years.

“I was born into the sausage business. My grandfather was a German immigrant, a butcher by trade, who taught sausage making to his family,” Roth explains. “When he came to the US, he passed the baton on to my parents and then they passed it on to me. I grew up in the business…I love this business.”

His love and excitement for the sausage business is what drove him to work for his family’s sausage company – Blue Ribbon Sausage – for five years. But it was his entrepreneurial spirit that drove him to purchase Holmes Smokehouse in 2000. And in just over 10 years, Roth has taken the Holmes brand, which had $600,000 a year in sales in 2000, to a company boasting more than $50 million in annual sales today.

“When I bought Holmes, I saw an opportunity in the market for a nitchy sausage company,” he says. “Holmes was a high-end sausage brand that was flying under the radar, but it had a great reputation and a lot of potential.

“I approached Mr. Holmes and told him I wouldn’t change his recipes, but I wanted to get his product into more people’s mouths,” he explains. “He agreed and sold me the company. Then I started on my goal: not to be the biggest sausage maker, but to be the best.”

Rich history, rich taste
Holmes Smokehouse was founded, in 1970, by Luvine Holmes in Rosenberg, Texas. He started with a small meat locker and worked to develop the company’s award-winning sausage recipe using only premium cuts of meat seasoned with an old-fashion blend of salt, pepper and garlic and smoked with pecan logs. Holmes always used to say, “You can’t make good sausage cheap, and you can’t make cheap sausage good.”

When he took over in 2000, Roth had big plans for the company, but none of them included changing the old-school way of doing things. “What we’re doing at Holmes, what we’ve always done here, is slowing things down, doing things the old-fashioned way,” he says. “We don’t cut any corners, we use quality meats and seasonings, we slow-smoke our meat using hard woods – we never use liquid smokes. And our customers love our sausage.”

But Roth’s challenge, which began 12 years ago, was to get more customers to love Holmes products. Roth had to stop thinking like a sausage maker and start thinking like a marketer. For this, his MBA in marketing from Univ. of Texas came in handy.

“I knew going into this that there was no shortage of sausage companies out there, so we had to make sure our company and our brand stood out,” he says. “As soon as I bought the company, we started working on marketing to lift the brand. I’m trying to have fun with an old-fashioned category, and I think it’s paying off.”

Roth started publicizing the company’s products on billboards – he describes as “cheeky and bigger than life” – around the Houston area. He also created a 21-ft. mobile smokehouse, which travels year-round to grocery stores, state fairs and sporting events giving customers a chance to taste Holmes’ products.

Marketing efforts in Houston brought Holmes recognition from The Houston Chronicle as the No. 1 sausage in the city. But that’s not enough for Roth and Holmes Smokehouse.

“My goal is to continue to put this brand on the map,” Roth says. “We have distribution all over the state of Texas and we’re getting into parts of Oklahoma and Louisiana. I want to continue to transform this company from a regional company to a super regional company, and potentially go even further than that.”

Something for everyone
In order to branch out beyond the Texas borders, Holmes needed to expand its product line. In 2000, Holmes featured five different smoked sausage varieties, but now offers much more. Their line now includes a selection of smoked sausages (including jalapeño, green onion, pork and venison and Andouille), Cajun-style boudin varieties, as well as bacon, hot dogs and jerky. Holmes is now working on a line of gourmet smoked chicken sausages.

“We needed to have a breadth of product so that we could be attractive outside of Texas, so we developed an extensive line with different flavors that would attract different consumers,” Roth explains. “First, we looked at the states contiguous with Texas, and we found out there was a shortage of good local sausage brands – all they ever saw in their meat cases was the national brands.”

Holmes has been working to fill that void. In addition to partnering with chains such as Winn-Dixie, which will bring the product into other southeastern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, the company sells a lot of its products under private-label brands, which allows even more consumers to enjoy Holmes sausage.

Football fans during the 2011 NFL season also got the chance to enjoy Holmes sausage when visiting Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium. Holmes became the exclusive sausage purveyor at the stadium this fall. “Cowboys stadium called us looking for a high-end regional sausage to offer at their stadium,” Roth explains. “They were looking for something different so we developed a jalapeño and cheese variety that you can only get at the stadium.”

The call from the Cowboys wasn’t the first time Holmes had been approached with a special product request. Holmes sausage was also selected to be served at the Presidential Inaugural Ball in 2005 as a part of the ball’s Texas-food theme for Texas-born George W. Bush.

Dreaming big
Though being No. 1 in Houston, served at Cowboys Stadium and having been chosen as the food served at a presidential Inauguration are all accolades to be proud of, Roth says he’s more proud of his state-of-the-art facility, all-star R&D and marketing team and exemplary food-safety certifications.

Holmes received recognition from Walmart for its food-safety systems in addition to being BRC (British Retail Consortium) and Steritech-certified in food safety.

Its 25,000-sq.-ft. processing and packaging plant in Burton, Texas, was the former home of the Schultz family-owned Burton Sausage company. Holmes bought out Burton Sausage in 2008, kept the 30-year-old Burton brand and its products and brought in production operations of the Holmes products as well. “The plant was in great shape when we purchased it – all we did was add some new stuffers and packaging equipment, and now we can produce 10 times more than we did at our old facility,” Roth explains.

Roth is hoping an expansion will be necessary in the future as the Holmes Smokehouse brand continues to grow. “We’re going to keep promoting our product and see where that takes us. We’ve already gotten a lot of people to try it and they love it,” he says.

When Roth took over Holmes Smokehouse at 34 years of age, he had a dream: “I had this vision that this company could be the next Oscar Mayer, but that doesn’t happen overnight – slow and steady wins the race,” he says. “We’ll continue to come out with innovative, different products that customers can’t find anywhere else – and people will keep trying them and loving them.”

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