Thirty years ago at the age of 35, Frank Isernio of Seattle, Wash., decided to change his career direction in a big way. He moved from selling Cokes to making sausage and selling it out of the back of his car. Today, at age 65, Frank isn’t thinking about retiring, as many people do at his stage of life. Nor is he looking to pass on the company to his children, grandchildren or anyone else for that matter. His mid-sized sausage processing company is taking off nationally, with his products set to be distributed this year by Wal-Mart. He’s selling sausage in 39 states, and just promoted Michael Durand, who worked as a sales manager for the past two years, to the position of general manager.

“It’s hard to believe what’s happening with my company,” says Isernio, CEO and president of Seattle-based Isernio’s Sausage. “I guess I never thought at this stage of my life things would be taking off like this.”

Thirty years ago, with the idea of doing something “different,” Isernio began making Italian sausage and “tailgating” it out of his car. “I guess you could say the most meaningful thing I’d done up to that point in my life was working in sales for Coca Cola Company,” he says with a laugh. But he also acknowledges working for Coke taught him to be a better businessman. “I learned the retail business. I learned about manufacturing, distribution, lots of lessons about business. All those things I put into the business I started and grew since 1980.”

Family beginnings
Frank’s career in sausage really began many years ago with his family. He grew up in Seattle’s Beacon Hill section, a neighborhood of first- and second-generation Italians. His mother, Angetina, raised rabbits and chickens in the backyard, and his father, Frank Sr., farmed the land and grew vegetables where the Boeing Field now stands. The Isernio family was one of the first producer-sellers at Seattle’s legendary Pike Place Farmers Market.

For years, Frank Jr. made sausage for family dinners and get-togethers with friends. Because of his passion and enthusiasm for doing this, those family and friends urged him to take what was a hobby to the next level. At the time, Frank was working as a pipe fitter, and didn’t think much of the idea because there was very little traditional quality Italian sausage available in Seattle. Finally, a neighbor making pasta in a converted basement in a home in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood offered to share working quarters with him. So Frank would work all night at his fulltime pipe-fitting job in the Seattle shipyards. Then he promoted and sold the sausage by loading it into his car trunk filled with ice, and then driving it around to local restaurants for their owners to sample. “I realized there was a market for all kinds of sausage in Seattle, a need that wasn’t being filled,” Isernio says, “There was especially a demand for Italian sausage, like there’s a market for Polish and German sausage in the Midwest. Here in the Northwest US, you had to look for sausage, it just wasn’t readily available everywhere.”

Even so, the demand for product was uneven. “On weekends, I would drive around with what I had made, and asked people to try it. Sometimes they wanted to. But other times, they weren’t even interested in it. Once I got them to try it, I found they really liked it a lot.”

A few years later by the early 1980s, the Isernio Sausage name was becoming well known in the Seattle restaurant community. Feeling more confident, Isernio decided to approach local grocery stores, and many agreed to sell his sausage in their fresh-meat departments. He spent thousands of hours going from one store to another and showing what he called “fresh, natural” sausage. “At that time in Seattle, most sausage sold in stores was what you’d call ‘commodity’ sausage – you know, sausage made from ‘mystery meat’ – what’s that old saying, you don’t want to know how sausage and laws are made?” he says.

Frank made Italian sausage using whole cuts of pork and natural spices.

More than pork and beef
By 1990, Frank began to realize more people were leaning toward poultry as a healthy alternative to pork and beef. He decided he could continue making his Italian sausage from lean pork, and at the same time make a chicken sausage appealing to those same customers. Continuing to use high-quality meat, Frank created Isernio’s Italian Chicken Sausage, using 95 percent lean, fresh all-natural chicken thigh meat. It is now his top-selling sausage variety, with the
pork items running close behind. He’s launched other chicken varieties, including chicken basil and sun dried tomato, chicken and apple, chicken breakfast, chicken spinach & feta, and chicken bratwurst. He’s also created a Spanish chorizo and British banger.

His pork sausages are made from 80 percent lean whole muscle pork shoulder. “Sometimes consumers ask me, ‘What does whole muscle mean?’ I tell them the same cuts of meat you’ll find in your local supermarkets and use in your entrées at home – in other words, no trimmings.” He admits calling his products “fresh” and “natural” can lead to some confusion among consumers, so he explains: “Fresh means it is not pre-cooked or cured in any way. It contains only fresh meat and spices. So, the consumer must cook it, and it is fresher-tasting than pre-cooked items found in grocery stores today.

“All-natural chicken and pork means it has not been altered or plumped in any way, the same goes for the spices I add. My products contain no nitrites, nitrates, fillers, MSG, artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, antibiotics or growth hormones. The sausages are in natural casings and are gluten-free.”

In 2010, Frank took a step that would revolutionize all of his sausage products. He introduced the Chicken Sausage Roll, available in five Italian and breakfast flavors – a poultry version of pork sausage roll. With the launch of the company’s chicken sausage rolls, the products are being sold in more than two-thirds of the US, including grocery chains like Albertsons, Safeway, Kroger and Quality Food Centers (QFC), a Kroger subsidiary, Super Target stores, Supervalu, Save Mart/Lucky and Winco Foods.

The sausage-roll products are sold in 39 states. “We make it fresh, then flash-freeze it and it’s thawed at distribution,” he says. In addition to the chicken rolls, his other sausage rolls include hot Italian, mild Italian, hot breakfast, mild breakfast and chicken apple sausage.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re touching the East,” he says, pointing to sales in supermarkets in Ohio and Virginia. Altogether, he makes 18 different sausage products.

Frank says what promises to drive his business even further is the promotion of Michael Durand to general manager of the company. Durand has been with Isernio’s since 2006, in that time contributing to the company’s overall growth of 63 percent. He has more than 20 years of consumer packaged goods experience. Before coming to Isernio’s, Durand served as western area manager at Brach’s Confections Inc., where he managed $40 million in revenue through direct-store delivery and supply channels. Before that, he was district sales manager for Kraft Inc., where he rolled out the new Di’Giorno Frozen Pizza line.

At Isernio’s, he has been vice president of sales for two years, including growing the company’s distribution beyond the Northwest US. Isernio says his new role will mean focusing on day-to-day leadership, as well as carrying out strategic plans across all departments and helping the company to meet the demands of future growth.

“Michael Durand is a stellar performer,” Isernio says of the newly appointed GM. “He’s the finest salesman I’ve worked with in my 30 years running this company. He was instrumental in launching [this expansion] from its beginning to where it is today,” Isernio says. “He has good insights on our trade, and he gets things done. He’s a very focused person, and he’s going to have a national sales director and East Coast regional director.”

Isernio says he wants to focus on the strategic, longterm end of the business, particularly looking at the company’s expansion, which is now under way.

The biggest part of that expansion is the movement of the company to a new facility. For the past 30 years, it has been located in Seattle, north of Boeing Field, operating with one line. “We’re looking at tripling the size of our company, because we really need three lines,” Isernio says. The new facility, which will be located in Kent, Wash., 10 miles south of Seattle, will triple the company’s space from 20,000 sq. ft. to 60,000 sq. ft. Frank says he is hoping to begin construction in a few months, in the middle of the summer. Completion should take about five months.

Because Isernio’s Sausage is a privately held company, Frank is reluctant to discuss the company’s financials. “If you look at commodity producers, I guess we’d be considered small,” he grants. But he describes his organization as “mid-size.” Despite the sentiment in the industry that mid-size companies have the toughest time competing today, he disagrees with that assessment.

“The advantage of mid-size and small companies is we can turn on a dime if we need to,” he says. “Big companies can’t do that. And small and very small companies don’t have the economy of scale we do. They’re forced in many ways to find a niche they can compete in. We do effective strategic planning, which I think gives us a competitive advantage. We have a big enough footprint, a history with major retailers, we can move across our business world with credibility.”

Expanding distribution
The next part of its expansion is expected to take place next month, when Isernio’s Sausage products come all the way to the East Coast, with distribution of some of its products at Wal-Mart, as well as additional Target and Super Target stores. “Wal-Mart is moving toward selling premium products, and that’s where we’re coming in,” Isernio says, speaking especially about his sausage roll products. “This is a brand new category for many retailers, and they’ve discovered people are buying these rolls who’ve never bought sausage or sausage products before.” This month, he began sales at Costco, offering 1 lb. pork rolls.

What makes a smarter sausage processor? “First, there is no substitute for quality,” Isernio says. “We’re going back to the basics, starting with good raw materials. Then sausage must be put in a context that’s appealing. The product has to perform. People are more discriminating today when it comes to food products, and we cater to their wishes and tastes. I also promote the idea sausage can be used in place of ground meat. I also can sell the sausage roll for a little less than a link product with no casing. But when selling a link product, I can talk about the craftsmanship going into making it.”

Frank is also involved in making recipe videos. “I started doing that last year, I made 21 of them. I also use Facebook and other social networking sites, and our web site.”

The current economic situation has helped Isernio’s sales. “People are eating at home more, so what we’re doing is right in line with that - making hearty meals with sausage,” Isernio says. His evaluation seems to fall in line with the latest economic prediction, showing the restaurant trade, usually the first to recover from a recession, may be 1-1/2 years behind. That’s because consumer trends to eating at home may continue for a long time.

“I’m jazzed about this. I started this company by myself, and I really believe you have to personalize what you’re doing to succeed today. You can’t just throw the product out there and hope someone shows up to buy it.”