Norm Heinle holds up his disfigured right hand, which he learned to live with many batches of handmade sausage ago, as in 39 years.
"All it took was one revolution of the grinder going backward when it should have gone forward," Heinle explains of his injury.
Heinle underwent several surgeries after the accident in 1976 and ended up losing parts of his fingers. But the injury didn’t stop him from making his acclaimed sausage, which has been popular throughout northeast Ohio and the entire state for than 50 years. People will drive an hour or two to Heinle’s Sausage Shoppe to purchase a pound of bratwurst, smokies or leberwurst.
The 70-year-old Heinle has worked at the business, which opened in 1938 on the west side of Cleveland, since 1959. He was 13 when he was hired to perform odd jobs there, such as mowing the grass and washing pots and pans, when it was known as Kirchberger Sausage and operated by a German immigrant, Hans Kirchberger, who came to America with sausage-making smarts based on old-world recipes.
When Heinle was 15, Kirchberger taught him his craft. Soon, Heinle was making German wieners, blood sausage, mettwurst and other specialty products in the production area of the modest retail store. After several years of working at the business and honing his skills as a sausage maker, Heinle purchased the business from Kirchberger in 1974.
It wasn’t long until Heinle, confident in his craft, began experimenting and making flavor-centric bratwursts and other items. He and his wife Carol, his partner in the business, also took continuing education courses at The Ohio State Univ. to keep up with the times. Heinle eventually changed the name of the business to the Sausage Shoppe, but he never strayed from Kirchberger’s recipes, which put the business on the map.
“To this day, the recipes for German wieners and liverwurst are still the same,” Heinle says. “We still use natural sheep casings with our German wieners like we always have.”
Heinle also remains old school in his approach to processing other items, such as bacon, which he admits goes against the time-is-money philosophy his peers preach to move product quickly. Heinle lets pork bellies cure with a dry rub for 10 days before smoking and slicing them into bacon to be sold. It’s almost a two-week process from start to finish.
“Everybody tells me we’re nuts for doing it like that,” Heinle says, noting that more traditional processors inject and smoke bellies overnight and then slice them at lightening speed into bacon that is sold the next day. “But people come in and tell us that they have never tasted bacon like ours.”
While Heinle has introduced new bratwurst flavors to keep up with the taste trends – including Yuengling beer and cheddar, Jack Daniels, garlic and black pepper – he still makes the sausage the same way he has for years, which he admits is labor intensive. Heinle still uses a 1945 (the year he was born) Ty Linker with the original paddles to stuff sheep casings. He prefers to perform the task manually because natural casings are more delicate than collagen casings and require more artisanal treatment.
Because natural casings cost more and making the sausage is labor intensive, Heinle proudly charges $9.99 per lb. for most of the 25 flavors of preservative-free bratwurst in his meat case. He knows that’s a pretty penny to pay, but he believes the product is worth the price.
“We have consistently offered higher quality products,” he says. “I could buy my pork a lot cheaper and it would be fatter, but we don’t skimp on ingredients. If we did that, we’d be gone.”
The Sausage Shoppe has been recognized locally and nationally by the media. In 2007, American chef, author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain stopped in the Sausage Shoppe to sample its old-world products and featured them on his Travel Channel food show.
“Bourdain was nuts about the blood sausage,” Heinle says.
As time marches on, though, the Sausage Shoppe has lost some of its older customers -- aged European immigrants who settled in Cleveland -- who purchased liverwurst, blood sausage and head cheese on a regular basis.
“We still get some 80- and 90-year-olds who come in and buy those items, but we definitely don’t sell nearly as much of it,” Heinle says.
It saddens him somewhat that those products have lost their luster and are shunned by many younger consumers. But Heinle doesn’t fight it.
“I’m still learning what people want and don’t want,” he adds.
Beer-laden bratwurst is something they do want, which is a reason Heinle struck a deal recently with a local craft brewery to feature several bratwurst made with its savory suds.
While he still loves the business and the art of sausage making, Heinle is working less these days, which he says some customers have noticed.
“They don’t see me in the store on Saturday, and they assume I’m dead. And then they wonder if the product will ever be the same,” Heinle says with a grin.
While their assessments are somewhat grim, Heinle considers them compliments. They are a testament to his sausage-making legacy.