Nueske's: An iconic company looking to the future
Dec. 8, 2016
by Joel Crews and Bob Sims
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Nueske's works to grow conservatively while preserving the dedication to quality the company was founded on in 1933.
For more than 80 years, Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats has produced high-quality smoked meats. The company continues to modernize the plant and make improvements to processes in areas such as equipment, packaging and custom-built smokehouses, but the recipes have not changed. Customers will never find binders, fillers, extenders or added water in Nueske’s products, a point of pride for the company’s family and leadership.
The dedication to quality doesn’t come exclusively from the original recipes. Nueske’s recipes, leadership team, raw materials, and especially the employees on the floor from top to bottom, all contribute as a whole to the premium-quality the company provides to its customers and consumers nationwide.
In an interview with MEAT+POULTRY, Nueske’s discusses the ways tradition, production and its people come together to provide marketplace premium-quality products from its current 45,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility with an expansion planned for completion in mid-2017 and in its retail store.
MEAT+POULTRY: What are the different categories of SKUs Nueske’s offers and what channels are used for distributing them?
NUESKE’S: Nueske’s sells through both ecommerce, www.nueskes.com, our company store in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, and through distributors to foodservice and retail channels, and each channel has generally the same core Nueske’s products, although often in pack sizes unique to the channel. Bacon makes up the bulk of our SKUs, with ham and sausage coming just behind bacon, as far as product and pack variety.
M+P: What’s been the best-selling item historically and what’s the fastest-growing item?
NUESKE’S: We are best-known for our classic Applewood Smoked Bacon. It’s one of our original products and is truly our signature flavor: sweet, rich, and robustly smoky. Over the past decade, bacon sales have steadily increased.
M+P: What was the chronology of the non-bacon product lines and who usually initiates and develops new products?
NUESKE’S: Products, other than bacon, that are part of our core offerings are ham, sausage and poultry. We don’t come out with new products as often as many companies do, largely because we are so deeply focused on our current consistency and quality of our classic products. Roughly every five years we might have a new product launch, with some of our most recently added products (added in the last 10 years) being Wild Cherrywood Smoked Uncured Bacon and our newest product, Applewood Smoked Jalapeño Bacon Cheddar Bratwurst, which was introduced to foodservice and retail this fall.
We love being able to add new products but we take time to make sure the products are right for us, are the best-tasting, most consistent specialty meats that they can be, all the while maintaining our focus on our core products. Much like our stance on being the best rather than the biggest, we want to produce the best products, not the widest variety.
M+P: What distinguishes Nueske’s bacon from others in the market?
NUESKE’S: Nueske’s uses custom smokehouses, designed by the family, and that design is not shared with anyone. Our bacon is smoked over glowing embers of sweet applewood logs for a minimum of 24 hours. Over the years, we’ve seen bacons labeled as double-smoked, and sometimes that bacon might have seen the smokehouse twice for 2 hours at a stretch. Twenty-four hours, minimum, gives us a nice slow smoke time and the way our meats are infused with natural smoke during this process is what gives us the flavor we are known for; Nueske’s signature smoke.
M+P: How many employees does it take to achieve the Nueske’s signature flavor and how many shifts do they work per week?
NUESKE’S: We have approximately 175 employees and run two shifts, five days a week. We balance technology with tradition carefully. Our people are our biggest asset and we rely on our team members for our quality. We don’t have heavy automation; that is not the only way to meet demand. Passionate employees diligently following our process control is what gives us the consistency we promise to our customers.
Nueske family members have always contributed to the company's success.
M+P: Can you discuss further the role employees play in the quality Nueske’s produces?
NUESKE’S: We are so appreciative of the employees we have. Our region has what we think is an amazing work ethic; maybe everywhere does, but we feel very lucky to have employees who are so proud of what they do and what they create that our quality is ensured by their passion. They have the power to pull product that they feel isn’t of our quality off the line at any point and they are an integral part of what keeps our consistency and quality steadily high. Everyone knows they are a part of keeping our culture alive and they feel that – way deep down – and respond accordingly and with passion.
M+P: When Bob (Nueske, founder R.C. Nueske’s son) passed away in early 2015 there was an outpouring of sympathy and appreciation from the industry. What do you remember most about that difficult time in terms of the positive words and lessons learned after the loss of an industry legend?
NUESKE’S: We have held everything that Bob valued and envisioned at our core. Unknown to most of the company at the time of his passing, Bob had left a small book with BIG content behind for employees and family. He had been in the process of writing his vision for the company and his beliefs and values about our company’s culture. Employees were each given a copy of this book, published after his passing and titled “Beyond Bacon.” Since Bob had been open (always a good talker and an even better listener) with his employees, many of us had been lucky enough to talk with Bob, face-to-face, about the parts of the company culture that were most important to him, but having it all in print was a touching thing for each of the employees and the family, and that book serves as a compass for all of us and also as a way to introduce new employees to our vision and culture.
M+P: What is Glenn Gazzolo’s role as president? How long has he been in that position and what is the mix of family and non-family members in the leadership team?
NUESKE’S: Glenn Gazzolo has been with Nueske’s for 12 years and works in tandem with the Nueske family on running the day-to-day business. This current structure was part of our succession planning. After Bob’s passing, Glenn became president and Tanya Nueske, Bob’s daughter, moved into the role of CEO. These were moves that had already been planned for the future. Bob’s son, Nathan, recently moved back to Wisconsin and is now working closely with all departments to immerse himself in the family business.
M+P: What improvements and investments has the plant received in recent years, and how has it upgraded its food safety processes?
NUESKE’S: We have specialized food safety and sanitation processes in place and we are adding technology that allows us a faster response time and enhances process control.
Throughout our evolution, the quality of our products has been a mainstay for us. Over the years, we recognized the need for external certifications for food safety and quality. We trained and prepared our teams and applied for BRC (British Retail Consortium) certification. This was an undertaking of all our plant employees, as much of the audit process relies on employee participation and actual performance to the standards set forth by the certifying party. This, too, resulted in an overwhelming positive score and certification. A more recent audit from last December yielded a score of a double A. This is an amazing score and something our employees recognize is a key aspect of who we are. These yearly audits require us to pay constant attention to all the processes within our plant and the industry.
Founder RC Nueske and the company's first delivery truck.
M+P: How have the retail store, mail order business and distribution evolved over the years?
NUESKE’S: We started out with our founder, R.C., peddling meat from the back of the family car in the 1930s. This business quickly turned into a meat counter and smokehouse in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, and the store and meat plant were attached to the family home. R.C. grew the delivery fleet over the next few decades. In about 1979, Bob and Jim Nueske, R.C.’s sons, opened the current Company Store location and shortly after, we went from being a state-inspected facility to being USDA-inspected and we began to distribute over state lines. Then, in the 1990s, we began to develop the mail order part of the business, which has evolved into our current ecommerce channel. During this time, our distribution also continued to expand. On another ecommerce note, this summer, we went live with a responsive design site, so you can easily view www.nueskes.com on any device.
Nueske’s has been distributed at the national level for several decades, and while national distribution has grown, we sure love seeing Nueske’s in stores and restaurants right here at home. Wisconsin pride!
M+P: What has Nueske’s meant to the community, and how has that relationship evolved?
NUESKE’S: Nueske’s is a large employer in the small village of Wittenberg. The area is rural and the population of the town hovers around about 1,100 people, so as an employer of 175 people, that’s significant to the community. Nueske’s supports the Wittenberg community’s endeavors in the arts, through support of special events, and other community improvement efforts, including refurbishing the village’s aging band shell, funding new street lamps, and by becoming part of the Adopt-A-Highway program.