At age 22, most people are still trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Maybe they’re finishing college and getting their first jobs. Or perhaps they’re still trying new things while searching for their livelihood and passion.

Not Nicole Makowski.

At 22, while others her age were accepting entry-level positions with their first employers and buying new cars, she was buying her family’s sausage company and taking on the role of president.

In 2002, Nicole Makowski became the fourth generation, and first woman, to run the Makowski family sausage business. The business that grew out of a small butcher shop in Wisconsin, is now a Chicago-based gourmet sausage processor two years away from celebrating its centennial.

Generation to generation

The Makowski family business – that’s been in operation in Chicago for almost 100 years – started out in Wisconsin in 1915. After emigrating from Poland, Louis Makowski opened a small butcher shop specializing in smoked sausages and hams in Lublin, Wisconsin. He ran the business in Wisconsin for five years before moving to Chicago’s south side to open Victory Sausage in 1920. After years of success and growth, Louis had the opportunity in 1938 to buy out the Real Sausage Co., which was filing for bankruptcy. Victory Sausage moved into the Real Sausage location (where the company still resides today) and changed its name to Real Packing Co. Around this time, the next generation – Ted Makowski – came to work for the company, and by 1946 had taken ownership.

In 1952, generation No. 3 – brothers Jerry and Louis Makowski – started working at the family sausage company. During this time the company switched from producing canned goods, which were popular during the war, and started producing deli meats. “With each generation, product mix and product development changed,” Nicole says. “Every generation of the business has been different. We started with old-world style cured sausage, then went to canned goods, then lunch meats – and now we’re into the claimed meats area of organic, natural and grass-fed products.”

By the early 1970s, the company was back to sausage production and with that came a name change to Real Sausage Co. In 1985, the reins were passed on as Jerry and Louis became the third-generation owners of the business.

Nicole remembers visiting her family’s business when she was a kid, so it wasn’t a surprise that she started working at the plant during high school in the late 1990s. In fact, working at the plant was her first “real” job, she says. She worked summers at the plant – from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the packing cooler – learning the business from the ground up. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that she would end up in the sausage business – “early on, I wasn’t sure that it was for me,” she explains.

But soon after high school, things changed.

“When I was 19, my grandfather sat me down and told me he felt that I was the right fit for the family business. He saw that I had worked really hard throughout high school and saw how hard I was working to learn the business,” Makowski says. “He told me to start studying business in college during the afternoons and work at the plant the rest of the day – so I did.”

After a few years of studying business, and learning about the sausage side of the business by working in sales, she was ready to take over. In 2002, at the age of 22, she got a loan to buy the Real Sausage Co. from her father and uncle. “I found a true love for the sausage business,” she says. “It was our family business and I was so excited about the opportunity to take over and see what I could do. My dad promised me that he was going to let me run things the way I wanted. He really gave me the reins to run free.”

The first line of business was changing the company’s name to Makowski’s Real Sausage Co. Nicole wanted to keep the connection with the company’s past by keeping “Real” in the name but also wanted to pay homage to her family’s roots by putting Makowski front and center on the logo. When she asked her dad what he thought of the idea, he responded, “Four generations of Makowskis, why not?”