The Chicago-based processor takes co-packing to the extreme. 
In two years, Makowski’s Real Sausage Co. will be celebrating its centennial at its home on the South Side of Chicago. With roots in a small Wisconsin butcher shop, the family owned sausage processor has made a name for itself as a full-service custom sausage processor in Chicago offering product development, production, packaging and marketing of new sausage products to its customers around the country.

Leading the operation is 40-year-old Nicole Makowski, the fourth generation of the Makowski family to own and operate the sausage business. Makowski bought the company from her father and uncle at age 22, and for the past 18 years has been finetuning operations, transforming Makowski’s Real Sausage into the streamlined custom-processing sausage company it is today.

“We do co-packing to the extreme,” Makowski says. Today, the company has more than 200 SKUs, which include different proteins, seasonings, package sizes and product claims, such as organic, grass-fed, humane-certified, Halal and nitrite- and nitrate-free.

“The big guys are eating up all the little guys – it’s a very costly business to be in,” Makowski explains. “As a small meat processor you have to differentiate yourself – we do this through our custom processing and co-packing.

“By going out there and doing all these custom products it has really put us on the map as being someone different in the sausage business.”

Small but mighty

Makowski’s sausage plant isn’t a typical processing facility. Found on the South Side of Chicago, just outside the historic meat-packing district, Makowski’s Real Sausage is housed in a three-story brick building. Each floor contains a different part of the operation. All told the plant encompasses 16,000 sq. ft. of space – from the basement to the third floor of the building.

The basement is used to store raw materials. The main floor includes the loading dock out front, offices and the packaging room. The second floor houses everything related to processing and production including the spice room, grinding room, the smoker room – featuring three smokehouses – the cooler and two sausage stuffing lines. The third floor is used for dry ingredient storage.

The plant operates two shifts – from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 2:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. – five days a week. On any given day, the plant produces between three and 15 different types of products, in batches as small as 200 lbs. and as large as 10,000 lbs. Depending on the time of year, weekly production runs between 35,000 lbs. and 70,000 lbs. Peak sausage season runs from the end of April to December. Year round, 35 employees work at Makowski’s (28 of them are in production-related jobs from operations to maintenance to quality assurance). However, during peak sausage season, the plant hires an additional 10 temporary workers to help with increased production.

After product is grinded and mixed with seasonings it is run through one of two stuffers – both of which can run natural casing or skinless products. Then product is loaded into “trucks” or cages that hold between 200 lbs. and 300 lbs. of product. The trucks are moved around the production floor on tracks attached to wooden beams in the ceiling. The trucks are then wheeled into one of the three smokers. Each of the smokers can hold four trucks of product at one time. Because of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guideline prohibiting the use of wood smoke at facilities in the city limits, which was enacted in Chicago in the 80s, all three smokers use liquid smoke.

After going through the smoker, the product is sent to the cooler and then transported downstairs to the packaging department in a “dumb waiter” style elevator. The elevator system is also used to transfer ingredients from floor to floor.

“We are always looking for better ways to maximize production and increase production efficiency,” Makowski says. “But since we make so many different items, you cannot always overcome that challenge. We run into some operational issues because of the size of our facility. Our smokehouses are not pass through and we only have 65 cages.” Each department – ready to eat and raw processing – must depend on each other to free up cages, so production can continue.

Most of the product is made on a weekly basis. No product is stored longer than one week. All orders are shipped or picked up from the facility weekly.