MILWAUKEE – In the meat-processing industry, there are only a few family-owned companies that successfully transition through multiple generations of ownership. Even fewer not only survive but thrive throughout the torch-passing evolution. Milwaukee-based Fred Usinger’s Inc. is one of those rare exceptions. Founded by a German sausage maker more than 130 years ago, Usinger’s has become a downtown fixture in Milwaukee, backing up to the Milwaukee River and facing Old World 3rd St. where the facility is a six-story legacy to the business Fred Usinger started about 138 years ago. Fred, who immigrated to the US from Germany after learning the art of sausage making, settled in the Milwaukee area in the 1870s when he was about 18.

Fred’s first job in the city was working as a sausage maker for a meat company owned by another family. It was about 1880 when he bought out that family’s business and put his family’s name on the window. The business included a butcher shop, which his great-grandmother ran, and a processing plant, where Fred worked tirelessly to build a reputation for creating the best-tasting sausage in Milwaukee. Fritz points out that many of his great-grandfather’s formulations have withstood the test of time and are still used today.

The site of that store and the plant is within a few hundred yards of what would be the longtime home of the company’s manufacturing facility and headquarters.

“It’s hallowed ground,” says Fritz from his office on the second floor of what was formerly a bustling, commercial processing plant and retail butcher shop where his great-grandfather, grandfather and father established the Usinger name as one of Milwaukee’s most iconic sausage brands. The retail store continues operating there today as does the adjacently located headquarters. However, the company’s processing operations have shifted away from 3rd Street.

“Back in ’83 we built a new sausage kitchen,” adjacent to the original plant, says Usinger of what is today referred to as “The 83 Kitchen.”

The plan at that time was to build out Usinger’s processing facilities to the street corner and transition out of the original, multi-level plant, mostly because economic development in other parts of downtown was somewhat stagnant. But Usinger’s leaders agreed to tap the brakes on plans to continue with the next phase of construction as city officials began to invest in revitalizing the downtown area and other properties that were better suited for food production became available in the area.

After agreeing to purchase the plot about 1.5 miles south of the original facility in the early 1990s, the family owners envisioned building and moving operations incrementally to the new site while maintaining the historical building on the Milwaukee Riverwalk.

 “In hindsight, it was really the right move,” says Fritz of the company’s investment in the new plant. It allowed Usinger’s to maximize its ability to focus on specialty processing and increase its capacity, which had become challenging at the aging plant. The company now employs about 160 workers.

“We were able to streamline our processes,” Fritz says, which is critical “when you make as many products as we do. We’re small-batch, multiple changeover; like a big job shop.”

Still smokin’

Since the beginning, Usinger’s calling card was and continues to be its use of fresh ingredients and the Old-World technique of smoking its sausage products over an open, wood-burning fire.

“On our heritage products we haven’t changed the formula from how my great-grandfather made them,” Fritz says. Utilizing open fire pits has also been a signature processing technique for Usinger’s to achieve its “campfire flavor.” It was the centerpiece of the company’s original facility and a priority in the design of the new plant.

“We didn’t want to change the smoked flavor when we built the new plant, so we replicated the brick smokehouses we’d used for 100-plus years,” Fritz says.

Read more about Usinger’s in the November issue of MEAT+POULTRY.