While some traditional sausage makers may succumb to the temptation of cutting costs in this troubled economy by downgrading ingredients, processes and packaging, Manitowoc, Wis.-based Cher-Make Sausage Co. remains committed to its long tradition of producing fully cooked sausage the traditional way.

“We never compromise on our ingredients, cooking times or processes,” says Tom Chermak, president, and grandson of Emil Chermak, who founded the company in 1928.

Cher-Make brand retail products, which are distributed throughout Wisconsin and in parts of Minnesota, play heavily into the company’s continuing success. But it’s the company’s growing, nationally distributed private-label and co-packing businesses that are driving business.

“About 40 to 45 percent of sales are from Cher-Make brand products — the rest is from private-label and co-pack,” Chermak says.

Cher-Make processes wieners/hot dogs, summer sausage, specialty sausage, ring bologna and bratwurst. Twenty-seven SKUs are made under the Cher-Make brand, but in total it processes 250 SKUs. It also offers Smokey Valley, a smaller-sized summer sausage brand for gift packers.

The company’s most popular products are summer sausage, precooked brats and natural-casing wieners. Most products are gluten- and MSG-free. Product developers are working to reduce sodium in product formulas without sacrificing quality.

Maintaining the flavor profiles it has become known for is key to its continuing success so Cher-Make does not change its product recipes. “At some point, we just locked in our recipes...probably in the 1970’s. We don’t really play with our products too much,” Chermak admits.

Although his company doesn’t constantly create new products, Chermak says it’s pretty good at it. The company doesn’t have an R&D department so it uses a team approach by incorporating people from different departments for new product development. “And we have good spice suppliers who are pretty creative,” Chermak says.
Newer products include Cher-Make Natural Cheddar Cheese Summer Sausage, Homegame Bratwurst and Pepper Jack Bratwurst.

Cher-Make also invested in a rich, new packaging look for its family of sausages, which its executives feel matches the superior quality of their products. New packaging featuring photos of local athletes and community heroes create excitement.

“We feature the image of a Wisconsin dairy farmer on the label of the Cheddar Cheese Summer Sausage packaging,” Chermak says. “We’re featuring my grandfather and company founder Emil’s photo on signature items, such as natural-casing wieners, ring bologna and summer sausage. These are the same products that were featured in my grandfather’s butcher shop. Our new labeling says ‘quality’ and that the product is authentic sausage, made true to the type of sausages that we grew our business on.”

Cher-Make co-packs sausage products that are sold at sports and entertainment arenas in Wisconsin. Some are sold at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers, and two regional sports arenas in Green Bay. “We’re also with the Timber Rattlers minor league baseball team in the Appleton area. It gives good exposure for our products,” Chermak says.

Before accepting a new private-label order, Cher-Make first decides if the product is a good fit for the company. “If a customer is looking for a value point that’s a lower-priced item that uses mechanically separated meat and fillers, that’s not what we’re set up to do,” Chermak insists.

Cher-Make approaches each private-label opportunity by first doing an “uncovery” exercise to ensure the new product will be unique and fill a need. “We can custom make a product that will help differentiate our customers’ products rather than us just saying, ‘Here’s a hot dog, it’s X cents a lb., in a five to one and here’s the shelf-life,’” Chermak says.

Ever-expanding plant
Built in 1947, Cher-Make’s 72,000-sq.-ft. processing plant has undergone numerous expansions and investments over the years to keep up with growing product demand. The complex employs about 150 people who can produce up to 400,000 lbs. of finished product weekly. Although Chermak doesn’t divulge company sales, he adds, “We’ve doubled our growth in the last 10 years. We’ve had steady, constant growth.”

Cher-Make Sausage Co. has always been a family-owned business. “My father, Art Chermak, and my uncle, Merlyn Hoefner, who joined the company in 1951, built the business to what it is today,” Chermak says. This batch-processor of authentic sausage products has been family-owned and operated since its doors opened in 1928. Emil Chermak passed away in 1954.

Numerous Chermak and Hoefner family members work for the business. “My cousin, Chuck Hoefner, is operations manager. He does all of the meat, casing and spice buying; develops a lot of our formulations; and does a lot of smokehouse schedules. His brother-in-law, Bill Becker, the Cher-Make brand sales manager, oversees a five-person sales team throughout the state.”

Generations of other families not related to the owners have also worked at the plant. “Take Joe Koneczka, smoking supervisor,” Chermak says. “His dad ran the kitchen area and his mother was a long-term employee in the packaging area.”

Production begins in the pre-blend department, where all pre-blends are set up. Blending is done on opposite shifts the day before sausage is made to ensure a 12-hour hold time to properly set up product. All products are made using fresh cuts of beef and pork in time-tested formulas that ensure a good, clean eating experience and products that are not greasy, Chermak says.

Next is the final blend where the final grind is applied and spices are added.

All spices are natural and products are naturally smoked. Next, product enters one of four stuffing lines overseen by Marc Kopidlanski, stuffing supervisor. Product then proceeds into the smoking department, on to packaging and finally on to distribution.

To keep up with increasing orders, the company added a new pre-blending area in 2007 that can produce 180,000 lbs. of product per shift. This addition totals 4,480 sq. ft.

“The pre-blend formulation area allows us to receive raw materials, produce pre-blended, fat correct batter and better manage the flow of these materials to the rest of the production process,” Chermak says. “This allows us to have a more consistent product, enhance the quality of the products we produce, improve the flow of raw materials and reduce costs. We installed a 5,000-lb. blender, which is fed by two grinders. The room is also set up for raw material storage and finished pre-blend staging.”

Cher-Make also added onto its smokehouse area, maintenance area and the packaging area. The smokehouse addition totals 1,720 sq. ft. “Smokehouse throughput was a major constraint on our growth,” Chermak says. “The additional space in this department allowed us to install two, eight-cage smokehouses. This took us up to a total of 10 Alkar smokehouses, and increased smokehouse throughput by 28 to 35 percent annually.”

The expanded packaging department runs high-speed, packaging machinery for easy-open, resealable packages and the addition totals 4,992 sq. ft. The increased cooler space allows for increased rail space to be able to accommodate more products coming into the packaging area, Chermak says. “The additional room allowed us to have the space to also install a resealable packaging machine, and set up another packaging machine that we had, to improve throughput and efficiencies,” he adds.

“We use Multivac, gas-flushed and vacuum packaging, plus we offer resealable options on a number of different packages,” Chermak continues. “We have a number of different packaging configurations. One reason we’re so successful in private-label and co-packing is we have a large stable of products and product designs – base products we can offer customers and potential customers when they visit us. When it comes to private-label and co-pack, we’re a custom shop in many ways.”

Cher-Make is installing TGI Enterprise 21 fully integrated business management software, which is scheduled to be operating in April. Chermak explains, “The meat business is a yield business. We have been doing a lot of work manually and on paper. We decided we needed software to help us better understand and ensure control. It will allow us to make better decisions.

“We’re installing software that can give us a lot of data and help us on the plant side to reduce costs,” Chermak says. “We’ll use this system for manufacturing scheduling and more. We have a lot of things on paper and a lot of independent pieces of software we use to manage our business. For the first time, it will all be married together.”

Everything will be wireless; plant workers will have hand-held computer guns, he adds. “If there’s a food-safety or quality check that needs to be done, you can’t go to the next step until that information is entered into the system,” he continues. “From there, we can extract it and see how we’re doing. If something comes up out of line, the operator will know right away. And if the issue is serious, certain people will get immediate e-mails. The plant manager will get one if there’s a problem with the oven temperatures, for example.

“Cher-Make is doing some customization on this system, too, he says. “We have been working on this for three years,” Chermak adds. “Everything on the system is backed up. No hires will be necessary to manage and operate the new system. “In fact, it will free people up.”

Staying authentic
As part of the company’s commitment to make only authentic products Cher-Make established an 11-person, professionally trained sensory panel that monitors product attributes. “This data driven, scientific approach allows us to monitor products for 11 different attributes including flavor, texture, bite and appearance to ensure a gold standard,” Chermak says. “It also allows us to measure flavor throughout the shelf-life of the product.”

Cooked product shelf-life ranges from 90 to 120 days; summer sausage shelf-life ranges from six to eight months. “We suggest keeping it close to six months on our summer sausage shelf-life, which is pretty conservative,” Chermak says. “I want to make sure people have a good eating experience.”

Teamwork pays off
The most recent plant expansions were accomplished thanks to innovation and teamwork. Fred Konchan, plant manger, used software he had to help design the plant additions. “He created renditions of each new department,” Chermak says. “He’d start with basic parameters and department folks would come back and say, ‘This will work but that won’t.’ Everyone had buy-in.”

Cher-Make’s vision is to be the quality leader in manufacturing ready-to-eat, fully cooked sausage products — and to be proactive. To fulfill this vision, the company continues to invest in employee training and reinforces practices that support its employees in food safety, quality concepts, quality tools and quality culture.

The plant’s production office/quality lab is located in the middle of the production floor, complete with windows for easy view onto the floor. “Here we do our HACCP, QC and sanitation,” Chermak says. “We just built a new lab to do more product and environmental testing.”

“This is the central spot to meet if we have a production issue or concern,” adds Linda Carter, quality assurance manager.

Food-safety champion
Cher-Make’s food-safety committee is active. “They meet every two weeks. It’s cross-functional in composition,” Chermak says.

The company also teams up with Silliker Laboratories, Cook and Thurber, Deibel Labs, Steritech and Ecolab to ensure its food-safety programs meet and exceed industry standards.

“Cher-Make conducts three external audits per year and our food-safety committee conducts another 24 internal audits per year,” Chermak says. “We also have full product recall tracing capabilities, from consumer to ingredient or raw material to product.”

The company uses other employees who rotate from various departments to assist committee members in conducting food-safety audits. “It’s another set of eyes,” Chermak says. “We do three outside audits a year. All of this gets fed back to us so we’re constantly monitoring and improving. We try to come up with unique ways of training other than just ‘Watch the video’....We’ll include games; do things to make training different and fun.”

Cher-Make uses an Alternative Two Compliant Listeria program to test for Listeria. The company also incorporates comprehensive allergen programs utilizing a validated cleaning program to ensure safe products. All products are submitted to metal detection, with all metal detectors being calibrated daily and are individually validated on a product-by-product basis. All employees get food-safety training every six months.

Taking ownership
Many improvements have been made throughout the plant because employees are encouraged to speak up, Chermak says. “They see things on the floor and if they think something could be done better, they bring it up and a lot of times we change policies or improve our practices,” Carter adds.

Chermak also credits the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP), though the state department of commerce, for assisting in the plant’s continuous-improvement efforts. “They offered to do a complete audit of our plant,” Chermak says. “Six people sat in the lunchroom and talked with our employees. They came back with 200 recommendations. They looked at everything from turns of inventory to the moods of our people. Then they said, ‘How can we attack this?’” WMEP’s field rep, Larry Franke, eventually joined Cher-Make as vice president of finance.

This exercise convinced Chermak the company had to make changes whenever necessary to remain successful. “So, we created teams. I was involved in one team that worked on net weights, while other teams worked on eliminating waste throughout the operation,” Chermak says. “Then we got into Total Quality Management. We had technical-skills experts come in and teach us different methods. Then we said we have to get the right culture here so everyone read a book that everyone liked and agreed on titled “An Ounce of Application is Worth a Ton of Abstraction: A Practical Guide to Implementing Total Quality Management” by J. Michael Crouch.

“Everyone from office personnel to line people got a common language and we really worked on culture,” Chermak adds. “The last big step we took was deciding to hold continuous improvement meetings once a week run by a different employee each time.

“We encourage our people to speak out,” Chermak continues, “and they aren’t afraid to say anything. They get in front of supervisors and run meetings. In private-label and co-pack, customers give us their brand and the have our people involved so if they’re stuffing a product and if the product should be but doesn’t look like Andouille sausage, for example, they are empowered to stop the line.”

“Cher-Make also has a group of veteran supervisors called The Docs, who know how to address any problem,” Chermak says. “We have some people who have been here more than 30 years and they know what they’re doing. We work well together.”

Looking ahead
Chermak says his company needs good equipment that’s going to yield consistent product, superior food safety and allow the flexibility to make different products in a variety of grinds. And the company just began putting together a five-year building plan to improve product flow in the plant. “We have no immediate need to expand, but we have the physical space to grow,” Chermak says.

But, Chermak insists, Cher-Make will continue to depend more on employee craftsmanship than further automation. “Speed is important. But if automation compromises our product or creates more waste, then we defeated our goal of creating quality products.”

Cher-Make’s short-term challenge is addressing increasing material costs. “Nobody wants to see price increases, but they’re coming,” Chermak warns. “But I still think there’s a place for premium products like ours and if people are going to pay more, they want the best.”

Long-term challenges include staying true to what it processes and identifying new customers who find value in carrying premium, authentic products. “Cheapening formulations and higher automation can get you some things, but how we make our sausage through our craftsmanship is what real sausage-making is all about,” Chermak says.

The company’s major opportunity remains helping customers differentiate their products from the competition. “We can help them to grow and differentiate,” Chermak says. “Private-label can be exciting and unique... and it is. We must continue to align ourselves with companies that want to develop products that set themselves apart. I see that as a real opportunity.”