Kowalski Companies, a regional hot dog processor located near Detroit, has been in business for 95 years. Sahlen’s, a regional hot dog maker based in Buffalo, has been at it since 1869.
The two companies must be doing something right.
Joe Cordray, professor of animal science at Iowa State Univ. and an expert on hot dog processing, says there is one thing that leads to repeat sales at supermarkets and allows companies like Kowalski and Sahlen’s to stay in business for as long as they have: consistency of product.
Kowalski and Sahlen’s have cured hot dog processing down to a science. But don’t think for a minute that the two companies have gotten complacent in their approach.
Kowalski manufactures skinless and natural casing franks and an array of other products, including sausage, kielbasa and bologna. Sahlen’s offers several varieties of hot dogs, sausage and deli meat.
Michael Kowalski, the family-owned company’s fourth-generation president and CEO, says the company has endured for so long, not because it has changed so much with the times, but because it has remained authentic to its roots.
“The reason that you make it to the fourth generation in 95 years is because you have a good product to sell and you establish a name in the market,” Kowalski says. “But to have that many years, you have to be able to adapt to what’s going on in the market. Sometimes people choose to adapt in ways that change the product and change it in a way that’s not necessary. We’ve always stayed true to our recipes and formulas.”
“A hot dog will never not be part of a baseball game or a golf outing or a family picnic,” says Mark Battistoni, Sahlen’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We have a longstanding reputation for making a quality product with a very distinct flavor.”
Not easy to be consistent
“There are a lot of things that make up quality and one of them is consistency,” Kowalski says. “When you buy something and like it, you want it to be the same every time you buy it. The best way we think to do that is to keep the ingredients the same.”
Kowalski says he knows other hot dog manufacturers “that chase the least-cost formulation” and use reduced-priced ingredients in blends to achieve the best profitability.
“No. 1, we always used fresh meat,” Kowalski says. “Whatever the cost...that’s the cost.”
Battistoni refers to least-cost formulation as “monkey business.” He says some hot dog processors aim to make hot dogs taste like they once did by using different and cheaper ingredients.
“That’s not a function of our business,” he adds.
Battistoni believes a good quality hot dog is made from either all beef or all pork and beef. “We’re not a big fan of using mechanically separated chicken in order to cut cost or absorb moisture,” Battistoni adds.
Hot dog manufacturers were tested last year when pork prices soared due to concerns about porcine epidemic diarrhea. Kowalski says he was paying more than $1 a lb. for picnics and shoulders.
“We tried to raise our prices as much as we could, but we didn’t change our formula,” he says. “I can’t say that all of our competitors did that.”
In the goal to maintain consistency, Cordray says hot dog processors have to make sure they’re getting consistent product from their suppliers. That doesn’t mean staying with the same suppliers, but it does mean staying with the same raw materials and adhering to the same percentages of protein, says Cordray, who also stresses the importance of keeping the same specs.
“We have to have a consistent product coming in,” Kowalski says. “If you put garbage in, you get garbage out.” When raw material arrives, it’s checked for color and temperature, among other things.
Kowalski purchases from the same suppliers, but he doesn’t rule out trying somebody new. “Consolidation on the slaughter side of the business makes that difficult,” he says. “But being loyal [to our suppliers] does help us and provides us the consistency we want.”
Mixing is also vital for maintaining consistency, especially for texture, Cordray points out.
“Texture can relate to how well protein is extracted during the manufacturing process,” he adds. “In the manufacturing of cooked sausages, including franks, you want to maximize the protein extraction.” Some hot dog manufacturers will pre-blend meat with salt and let it sit for a day to let the protein extract, Cordray notes.
Joe Sahlen, production director at Sahlen’s who represents the company’s fifth generation of employees, calls mixing “the core of what we do” in hot dog processing. In other words, they don’t mess with the procedure.
The key with mixing is to achieve a consistent blend, but to not overblend or underblend, Kowalski points out.
“You want an exact distribution throughout the entire blend…to distribute flavor, water and encapsulate the fat with the protein,” he says. Once the product is in the casing, there’s no turning back, so it’s vital to get it right, he adds.
Protein is extracted mainly during mixing and the goal is to achieve a “sticky” emulsion, Cordray says. If an emulsion is undermixed, the protein will be underextracted.
Stuffing is also critical to consistency, especially from an economic standpoint, Cordray adds. Understuffed casings lead to lightweight product that can’t be used. Overstuffed casings will cause packages to weigh more, which can impact a high-volume processor financially.
Cordray says color is also an important aspect of consistency, whether it comes from a drench, liquid smoke or atomization of natural smoke. Regarding the latter, even a few extra minutes in the smokehouse can impact color.
Regarding appearance, Sahlen cites experience. “You kind of get used to what they are supposed to look like when they are done,” he says. “That has been part of our quality process here.”
Cordray also advises processors to use as high quality water as possible when processing hot dogs. Sahlen’s gets water from nearby Lake Erie, which Battistoni says is of high quality. Battistoni says poor water quality can impact flavoring and code life.
“A lot of people think the Great Lakes aren’t as clean as they once were, but we have good water coming to our door,” Battistoni says. “I can’t imagine that many manufacturers the size of us or greater would put themselves at risk by not having a supply of good water.”
Kowalski stresses the importance of new equipment in the consistency chain. The company recently installed new stuffing equipment in its plant, which is expected to add efficiency to the operation and ensure an even more consistent product.
Previously, the plant used a stuffer and linking machine from different companies, but the new stuffer and linker are from the same manufacturer and were built to work in unison. Even after a week of use, Kowalski says he noticed that the particle definition inside casings had improved because of reduced smear.
But it’s never easy to achieve a consistent product, Kowalski says. A reason for that is skilled labor.
“The biggest problem we face is the available labor talent,” he adds.
That’s why Kowalski is looking to future technology to help the company further maintain consistency in its hot dogs and other products.
“From a technology standpoint, the equipment does the same things it was doing before, but [the newer equipment] just does them better,” he says.
Kowalski also checks the consistency of his company’s and other company’s hot dogs by conducting a squeeze test. He’ll simply squeeze a package of hot dogs. If they are “squishy,” that means they have a poor formulation. If the product is firm, it signifies a hot dog that will offer a snappy bite.
Only the best
It’s easy to get distracted when a company has been around nearly 100 years and its competition is trying new things to gain market share. Kowalski has seen everything from low-fat hot dogs to all-natural hot dogs to no-nitrite hot dogs. But during that time, the company stayed the course with its original frankfurters, which are still smoked by burning wood chips.
“There’s a place for all-natural cured hot dogs, but there’s also a place for us. If you ate this product 50 years ago, it’s going to taste the same now as it did back then,” Kowalski says.
Battistoni says there will always be an audience for Sahlen’s original hot dogs, even if they contain corn syrup, an ingredient heavily criticized as unhealthy. People will keep eating them because they like them – and the formulation hasn’t changed.
But Sahlen is doing its due diligence to devise a product with a cleaner label.
“The challenge for us as a manufacturer is to try and come up with a product that is representative of the Sahlen label, which is a premium-quality label,” Battistoni says. “But we won’t do it if it doesn’t represent high quality and consistent results. We want to make sure that what we do make is considered by the people who eat it as the very best.”