At the age of 60, Fritz Usinger says retirement is nowhere on his radar. The soft-spoken president of one of Milwaukee’s oldest and most iconic sausage processing companies, Fred Usinger’s Inc., says coming to work each day is something he still loves, even after almost 40 years. He thrives on the adrenaline and energy he gets from the daily challenges and opportunities presented by running the company his great-grandfather started in 1880.
“I don’t anticipate hanging it up and walking away from it,” he says.
During his tenure, Fritz has been a part of leading the company during a time of transition, including moving the company’s processing operations out of its six-floor, century-old building on 3rd Street to a newly built facility about a mile away. Fritz thrives in his company’s back-to-the-future existence, which includes carefully balancing technology and tradition. At least weekly, he makes the five-minute drive to check on things at the newer plant, where he is very much at home having spent most of his summers during high school and college working in operations at the former processing plant where his father and grandfather were working.
Every July for almost two decades I’ve crossed paths with Usinger, the fourth-generation president of Fred Usinger’s Inc., at the American Association of Meat Processors annual conference, including this year’s event in Kansas City, Missouri. During an informal chat, he agreed to schedule a show-and-tell to give me a tour around the new plant and share the history of the company (see this month’s cover story on Page 14). During that visit I got a sense of the adrenaline and energy Fritz feeds on and gained an appreciation for the company’s German heritage and how each generation of Usingers has honored the rich history and maintained its traditions.
One of those traditions is the retail store that has been a part of the company since its founding. Walking through the doors into the store is like stepping back in time. Longtime customers are trained to literally take a number and patiently wait their turn to step up to the marble-accented counters to place their orders with one of the hustling workers behind the refrigerated display cases. It’s an important part of what has made Usinger’s a fixture in downtown Milwaukee.
“That’s our image,” says Fritz of the old-school retail store. “It’s our front door. Our roots are as quality sausage makers and that’s the image we like to portray,” he says.
Meanwhile at the new facility, Fritz has an easy, genuinely friendly rapport with the plant workers that represent the bulk of the company’s 160 employees. During our visit, he recognized employees and called them by name, sharing a joke and a smile as he walked through each part of the operation.
A whimsical part of the history of the company that Fritz is committed to keeping alive is the legend of the Usinger’s elves, which are subliminally represented throughout the plant in its décor and as a quiet background in the store and especially throughout the headquarters. If you ask Fritz, he’ll tell you the elves are much more than mascots and their nocturnal contributions are not just folklore.
“We, the humans, are kind of the front for this operation,” Fritz says of the mysterious and mischievous beings. “The sausage-making, magical elves do all the heavy lifting and we reap the benefits.”
Usinger’s longevity and Fritz’s approach to non-retirement all began making sense, especially when he knowingly asked me with a smile: “Did you notice that a lot of us around here have beards?”