The Zweigle family has been in the hot dog and sausage making business in Rochester, NY, for more than 140 years. The company has been handed down from generation to generation five times over and is now being led by Julie Camardo, great, great granddaughter of the original owners, Wilhelm and Josephine Zweigle. But there was a time when Camardo wasn’t sure if the family business was in her plans for the future.
“My mother encouraged me to pursue what really was of interest to me,” Camardo said. Her mother, Roberta Camardo, was the fourth generation to lead the family business starting in 1995. “I wasn’t truly sure that Zweigle’s was something that I wanted to take over.”
But the family ties were strong and her connection to the family business eventually pulled her back to Rochester after college. However, taking the reins from her mother wasn’t a foregone conclusion – at least not at first.
“When I was living in Baltimore [at age 26] and called my mom to say I was thinking about coming back to find out if Zweigle’s was something I was interested in continuing, she said she wasn’t sure if she had a job for me,” Camardo said. “I said, ‘OK. I’ll find another job and if something opens up, you can let me know.’”
Her mother soon found a job for her and so began the task of becoming the next leader and the next generation of the family to run the business.
It’s not unheard of for a hot dog and sausage-making family to have German roots, and the Zweigle family is no different. Wilhelm and Josephine Zweigle emigrated from Germany to Rochester in the late 1800s. First working with a sausage maker brother, and soon starting his own sausage company, Wilhelm opened his butcher shop on the corner of Joseph Avenue and Kelly Street in downtown Rochester, in 1880.
The couple sold Old World German sausages to shoppers, saloons and neighborhood markets in the area. Wilhelm died three years later of typhoid fever, but Josephine was able to keep the business running – just one of the many women to have a strong impact on this family business. In 1887, Josephine married Henry Frey, also a butcher and sausage maker by trade, and the two kept the company going until her two sons, Bill and Leonard, took over in 1912 and renamed the business Zweigle Brothers.
The siblings continued to grow the business, expanding to the building next door to the shop’s original location, and adding more customers and products to the growing menu. Included in the growing product portfolio was weisswurst – the German white sausage was a predecessor to the company’s infamous “white hot,” a well-known Rochester mainstay that still sells today.
In 1931, Leonard died leaving his brother and son, Leonard Jr., to continue running the business. Soon after, Zweigle Brothers started a partnership with the Rochester Red Wings baseball team to sell hot dogs at home games – this sponsorship continues today.
The company continued to expand with the addition of more modern processing equipment and a packaging line. Bill Zweigle died in 1954, and his wife Mary assumed ownership of the company. At the same time, Robert Berl, nephew of Bill and Leonard, joined the company. Berl bought out Mary and Leonard Jr.’s shares a couple years later to become the sole owner of the company, and changed the name back to Zweigle’s Inc.
As the business continued to grow through the years, it was necessary to move into bigger facilities, none of which were far from the company’s original Joseph Avenue and Kelly Street location. Staying in downtown Rochester has always been important to the family.
“Rochester has been our base for 140 years,” Camardo said. “When it came time for our recent expansion, we did look at other places, but it made good business sense for us to stay here. This community supports us, and always has.”
In 1995, the fourth generation of the Zweigle family – Roberta Camardo (Berl’s daughter) – took over as president. A few years later, in 2002, Julie Camardo moved back home to start her career with Zweigle’s. Her sister had chosen another career path, so her involvement in the company was the only way to keep it in the family down the line. She worked in sales, human resources, payroll and operations, learning every aspect of the business firsthand from her grandfather and mother. Her grandfather, Robert Berl, died in 2004. Years later, in 2009, when her mother passed away, she was ready to take the reins as president.
In 2015, Camardo was named chief executive officer and Kevin Salva took over as president and chief operating officer, the first non-family member to hold an executive role at the company.
“I am so proud of this 140-year-old business,” Camardo said. “I’m proud to be able to continue the legacy, not only as a multi-generational family business, but also as a woman-owned business. And I truly believe all the women that came before me would be very proud of where we are today.”
Camardo has three children – ages 15, 12 and 9. Her oldest daughter has mentioned the possibility of being the sixth generation to run the company in the future.
“She hasn’t started working here yet, but she’s expressed interest,” Camardo said. “I’ve told her she needs to work somewhere else first to get experience and to help her decide if this is really what she wants to do…She really does love the company and already has pride knowing it’s been in the family for so long.”
Red or white?
While the Zweigle’s business and legacy was born from traditional German sausage, today the company features a wide range of beef and pork hot dogs; sausage varieties including German and Polish and a line of chicken sausage; deli products including beef bologna and olive loaf; fully cooked chicken strips and meatballs; and recently added breakfast sausage links and patties.
But Zweigle’s hangs its hat and its reputation on its hot dogs. The natural casing, nitrite-free “reds” and “whites” are known all over New York state, and wherever Zweigle’s products are sold. The whites are a bockwurst style cooked sausage made from ground pork, beef and veal. They are emulsified and stuffed in casings and stay “white” after cooking.
The company’s “reds” are Texas-style larger hot dogs made from pork and beef that have the traditional “red” hot dog look.
“The natural casing Texas hot dogs are our No. 1 seller – 8-to-1 – over the white hots,” Camardo said. “But if you’re from Rochester, you know us for our ‘white hots.’ All those snowbirds from Rochester that go down south love to bring their white hots with them to serve to their friends. We have a little bit of a following.”
Part of Zweigle’s regional recognition stems from its partnership with another Rochester-based company – Wegman’s Markets. The supermarket chain, founded in 1916, now has stores throughout the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern regions. And most stores carry Zweigle’s products – both under the Wegman’s and Zweigle’s brands.
“In the meat department at Wegman’s, it’s all private label – we have 12 or 13 items there that are all under the Wegman’s brand,” said Steve Vacanti, vice president of marketing and sales. “We also have Zweigle’s products in the dairy where they merchandise their hot dogs.”
The stores also carry a line of poultry sausage, pork sausage – andouille, chorizo and Polish – breakfast sausage and fully-cooked chicken strips. About half of the Zweigle’s product in Wegman’s stores is under the store’s private label brand.
The company also does private-label products for some regional Aldi, Ahold and Giant Carlisle stores.
From a foodservice side, Zweigle’s works with US Food, Sysco, Palmer Food Services and other regional operators to distribute its products in fast-casual dining establishments in the area as well as wherever hot dogs are commonly sold. The company also maintains stadium partnerships with its American Hockey League team – the Rochester Americans – and its minor league baseball team – the Rochester Red Wings.
“We have such a strong brand position in this market that, for the most part, if there’s a hot dog on the menu, it’s going to be ours,” Vacanti said.
Foodservice accounts for around 15% to 20% of Zweigle’s business – although it did drop to around 13% in 2020 due to the pandemic when foodservice sales everywhere declined.
Zweigle’s has had four plant expansions at its current location on Plymouth Avenue. The building the company took over in 1968 was previously owned by Schrader Meat Packing and was originally built in the 1940s. The current facility is 80,000 square feet.
The first expansion on the original plant was done to provide a higher level of food safety – dividing the plant’s operations into a raw side and a separate fully cooked side.
“That really took us to where we could entertain co-pack and private label agreements with customers,” Salva said. “We now had [in 2005] a fairly state-of-the-art facility with regard to temperature control, pressure control, air sanitation, that really set us apart from others, and made us able to go out and start producing non-branded products.”
Next, there was a warehouse expansion that allowed finished product to be stored in-house instead of at a third-party warehouse off-site.
In 2015, Zweigle’s built what Salva refers to as its “Field of Dreams” expansion. “If we build it, they will come,” he said.
This expansion incorporated a new spiral oven cooking system with the ability to chill or freeze with CO2 prior to packaging. The addition provided the opportunity for new product development – namely the addition of its line of fully cooked chicken products and meatballs.
“This gave us more product development flexibility,” Salva said, “and took us out of the complete seasonality of hot dog production.”
The company now offers a line of organic precooked meatballs under its Mama Camardo brand and breakfast sausage and patties, fully cooked chicken breasts and strips and sausage crumbles which soon will be sold under its Savory Sensations brand.
Last year, Zweigle’s designed and rebuilt its facility, replacing anything that remained from its original 1968 building.
“We got all new raw material storage, cold storage, grinding facilities, mixing and stuffing lines,” Salva said. “Everything from a flexibility, labor utilization, ergonomics standpoint is set up for future growth.”
The plant features four sausage lines, three packaging lines and the spiral cooking and chilling area with a push-in, push-out front end which allows for product flexibility.
“Not knowing where the growth in our business would be and where the opportunities in product development would lead, the front of that line was built for a push-in, push-out system,” Salva said. “So, you can run meatballs or you can run fully cooked chicken breasts or sliced chicken or breakfast sausage.”
The product is then sent through the cryogenic freezer and into a vertical bagging line.
Part of the most recent expansion included acquiring adjacent property to provide additional space for the future.
“We are in an urban location, with very limited growth opportunity within our block, so we had to buy the next block,” Salva said. “That will really set us up for a nice future. It will give us the ability to grow and keep our business in the city of Rochester, which is very important to the folks who work for us and to the city itself.”
More than half of the company’s employees live in the city of Rochester.
Beyond hot dogs
The ongoing plant expansion is priming Zweigle’s for the future – both in production and product development. Research and development is spearheaded by Mike Bidzerkowny, a 47-year veteran of the company, but falls on the shoulders of all the company executives.
“From the small company perspective, you wear many hats,” Salva said. “We’re not Johnsonville or Hormel with a giant R&D department. Instead, product development, product ideation comes from everyone within the company. As we grow, more time and resources can be allocated to R&D but for now I call it a team effort.”
Many of the R&D projects are sales driven. At times, a customer will come to Zweigle’s with raw materials and a formulation and ask them to put it together and run it through the equipment. Other times, customers will ask for a type of sausage and ask Zweigle’s to do the formulating.
They can run samples as small as 5 lbs to as large as a 600-lb run on the production floor.
Reactive R&D – responding to customer requests – is just one side of product development.
“On the proactive side, we have several things going on,” Vacanti said. “Our next big push from an R&D front is in plant-based. As a 140-year-old German sausage company, who would have thought we’d be looking at an all-plant product, but the category is gaining traction and we’ve been working on developing our own matrix for the past year. We’re just getting to the point now where we’re comfortable with what we have that we’ll soon be putting it into small-scale production to make sure it can run through our processes.”
There is also a line of frozen breakfast bowls in the works as well as other sausage line extensions.
While the coronavirus (COVID-19) wasn’t the first pandemic Zweigle’s survived – the company was into its second generation when the 1918 Spanish flu plagued the United States – it still took its toll on operations, as it did with the entire meat industry.
“On the retail front we had to temporarily suspend the production of several items just to focus on the items that we could get through the facility with the most throughput,” Vacanti said. “Because demand on the retail side was so accelerated, up front we saw a 220%, 230% increase in orders going out. Then it settled back into the 50% to 60% range and now it is still bumped up about 15% to 20% over our usual numbers.
“Obviously on the foodservice side, it was just the opposite. We saw 70% to 80% contraction up front when restaurants abruptly closed down in New York. Now we’re running in the 25% to 30% range.”
Salva added, “We’re a small company, so we’re nimble. We pride ourselves on being able to service our customers and give them what they’re looking for.”
As a small processor, the company was able to quickly adjust its product mix and production schedules.
“We took the stance very early on that we were going to treat this situation very seriously,” Salva said. “We immediately segregated production. If you worked on line 1, you are on line 1. You did not work on line 2 or 3 or 4. You didn’t go to breaks with line 2, 3 or 4. Breaks were all staggered. People were separated in cafeterias.
“That’s where we have an advantage being small – we could do all that quickly. I felt really bad for those large manufacturers where there’s just no way that they could adapt quickly.”
Weekly COVID response meetings were held last year and are still being held today.
“With this new wave of COVID coming, we want to be on top of it,” Camardo said. “And as the vaccine gets rolled out, we want to be out in front to be one of the first essential worker companies that are going to be vaccinated. We want to be able to offer that to our employees.
“The one positive part about COVID is that it has brought to life of how essential all of our businesses are to everyday life,” she said. “We’ve always thought we were essential, but it’s been nice to have the recognition within the food industry and public as well.”
As essential employees, production employees received bonus pay from the company during the early days of the pandemic – in late spring and summer – when production numbers were at a high.
“We knew that they were putting an extra effort and working hard, and we felt it important that we recognized them for that,” Salva explained.
For more than 140 years, Zweigle’s has been governed by its four core values – quality, accountability, caring and integrity. With its push toward future growth, the company is adding “continuous improvement” as its newest value.
“It really does signify who we are and what we have been doing for so many generations,” Camardo said. “We sort of revamped our mission a little this year, but deep down it’s still about creating memories through great tasting food since 1880.”