1,500,000 POUNDS! That’s the official estimate of how much leberwurst The Sausage Shoppe in Cleveland, Ohio has sold since its inception in 1938. And in 1938 leberwurst sold for only 35 cents a pound. Each March, owners Norm and Carol Heinle celebrate the founding of The Sausage Shoppe with anniversary sales, such as 61 cents per quarter pound on "Cleveland’s Best" Fresh Kielbasi (plain or garlic), Slovenian Sausage (sugar free), Award-winning Leberwurst, or the Italian Sausage.
All anniversary specials are "Made in the Back; Sold in the Front."
To add more excitement they have special prices each business day during March, such as a pound of Irish Potato Sausage for 61 cents to each customer who purchases more than $10 in products. And every Wednesday of the year, the Sausage Shoppe offers customers over 55 10-percent off on all regular priced meat products.
Founded by Hans Kirchberger on March 3, 1938, as Kirchberger Sausage, The Sausage Shoppe today continues to use traditional German recipes Hans brought from Germany, to produce award-winning products.
Today, The Sausage Shoppe is noted for its aggressive, creative marketing and a Web site, but none of that replaces the store’s original emphasis on quality products.
Fresh beef and pork are combined with natural spices to give each product its own distinctive taste. Sausage Shoppe products contain no preservatives, additives, chemicals, nitrates, MSG, or filler. All the homemade items are low in salt and fat.
And as Norm and Carol look back on decades of successful operation as a specialty meat processor and retailer, they credit the original emphasis on quality and the advice of many industry friends along the way.
"I learned sausage making from a German master sausage maker," Norm says. "He never closed the business for a vacation, and you were never sick! I worked 60 hours a week for 15 years."
In 1974, Norm and Carol started to buyout the Kirchbergers. For advice, they called Erwin Buchman, an Ohio salesman who had sold a cooler to the company when the original owners were building a new meat plant ten years earlier. "He was an industry pioneer who saw tomorrow when most of us could not see today," Norm remembers.
Norm says that Buckman spent his leisure time promoting the industry and its future. When Norm called him for advice, two years into the buyout, Buckman suggested the Heinle’s go to the American Association of Meat Processors convention.
"With 4 young children in tow, we went off to see what the future of the business would bring. For the next 20 years we closed the store and we went to AAMP," Norm says.
Benefits? "Our customers began to expect new products would be tested and presented after each convention."
"Mr. Buchman championed the idea that things would not always be like they currently were," Norm recalls today. "Things would change, and it was important to look at where the future was going".
Buckman was also a believer in seeing the whole picture, so he recommended the Heinle’s attend an American Meat Institute convention. Norm explains that though he and Carol were not interested in growing the Sausage Shoppe into a large business, they headed to AMI.
At AMI they learned valuable lessons just by seeing how other size business in the industry were responding to changing customer needs.
"AMI was the industry--adults only, not a family setting," Norm says. Nevertheless, every ten years he and Carol returned to see the "big picture".
By the late 1970’s profits were steadily growing for The Sausage Shoppe. Norm and Carol had a staff of 12 working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. to keep up with the increasing sales.
And back to AAMP the Heinle family went. Norm and Carol’s children made friends they still have today. For their part, Norm and Carol made friends with other processors, friendships that continue to this day.
Included in that group of friends were Iowa’s Ken Richman and Chuck Bogaard and their wives. "They faced the same problems we Ohioans had. We are still friends, and still in business, as we meet at AAMP functions".
Part of those meaningful friendships was sharing ideas. All of the sausage making was done by hand. For 15 years, Norm learned under a Master Sausage Maker. "He never shared a word to anyone about our secret recipes. 'NEVER PUT ANYTHING IN WRITING' was the motto", Norm says.
Then a workshop changed Norm’s thinking, and his future.
Merlyn Eichman, a processor from Seward Illinois shared during a workshop about a problem in his meat shop and how he paid dearly for that problem. Eichman told processors to document everything about each employee … when he is late or skips work, write it down. Keep detailed notes.
Well, at The Sausage Shoppe, nothing was ever written down. In 41 years of business… not one recipe was written down… not one note on an employee’s performance… nothing.
"Carol and I went back to Cleveland and wrote. Thanks to this man we still write everything down - 20 years later. Each employee has a notebook and we have a notebook for each product we make. We detail when any product is changed, what we change, and why we changed it".
And Norm is particular about changes. "In refining products, change only one aspect at a time. If you change one ingredient, keep the smoking time and temperature the same.
If you change the casing, keep the recipe the same. If you change too many things at once, you will not be able to tell which change led to a better product".
"The 80’s were trying times. Many leading Cleveland meat companies - large and small - closed. The Ohio Association of Meat Processors and AAMP helped us through the 80’s," Norm says.
The help came in many ways.
For instance, at an OAMP meeting, the Heinle’s old confidant, Erwin Buckman, got them to attend three-day programs put on by The Ohio State University Animal Science Department. "He told us, ‘You will learn new things and meet new friends’. He was right again!"
Lessons learned from OAMP and AAMP helped the Heinle’s grow their business to its present status. Today The Sausage Shoppe is a retail exempt business in the city limits of Cleveland.
It has 2,000 square feet - 500 feet of sales area, 500 feet of smoke and cook room and 1,000 feet of everything else. The business is in a self-standing building, with a 10-car parking lot, in a residential neighborhood.
As the 1980’s drew to a close Norm and Carol picked up on an alarming trend: meat was no longer the main part of a meal. AAMP-sponsored workshops and seminars helped the Heinle’s stay profitable.
In one, Dr. Dale Huffman of Auburn University explained how McDonald’s was responding with the McLean Deluxe. In another, Chef Koegler of the Culinary Institute of America emphasized less salt in meat products. By adding other spices, lean meat items could retain their flavor without adding fat.
At one AAMP convention, ideas came from Belgium on how small processors should rely on marketing and unique products.
At another AAMP convention, the Heinle’s learned from Dr. Dean Henderson & Dr. Dennis Buege that survival of the 90’s would be in diversification of existing, established recipes, not necessarily an all-new recipe lineup.
Networking with other processors confirmed what Norm and Carol suspected: meat consumption was down and nutrition was in. Phone calls to other friends confirmed that this was a nationwide trend, not just a Cleveland thing.
"The key to surviving the 90’s would be to keep the recipes the same for the existing consumers while inventing new recipes for the next generation," they concluded.
To learn more, Norm and Carol went on a whirlwind trip to conventions, attending more than a dozen within a two year period during the early 90’s. The Heinles were impressed by Dr. Joe Cordray, now of Iowa State University, with his gospel of "VALUE ADDED" and the A.C. Legg Spice Company (The Purvis Family) with their commitment to new spice recipes for the 90’s.
"Meat was no longer a dirty word", Norm said about the 90’s. Dr. Joe was preaching science & sanitation, but he and A.C. Legg also were preaching that, "meat was ‘value-added’. Make your product for the new generation; give them what they want".
Erwin Buckman’s words were ringing in Norm’s ears: "The future is now. You need to adapt".
So Norm and Carol adapted. "Our customers enjoyed our leberwurst ‘liver sausage’ but not the packaging - a natural hog casing". Norm says, giving an example. "I learned that in Belgium, liver sausage was packaged in a tub (a pâté.) We began to offer pâté, and our product went on to win the blue ribbon for years in cured meat shows."
At the 1996 AAMP convention in Louisville, Norm was impressed with the message that European’s were doing more with less. "We took our ideas back to Cleveland and started testing, and this testing continues today.
Realizing the importance of listening to the consumer. Norm samples products nearly every Saturday. Many suggestions from consumers have led to new products.
"The children are the future. Sample your new products with them in mind," he says. "Last year’s biggest sellers were Maple Brats, Salsa Brats and Green Pepper and Onion Brats. These were all suggested and sampled to customer’s children."
To keep consumers interested in its R & D, The Sausage Shoppe often gives away samples of new products or holds contests for consumers to name a new product.
Norm is an avid reader of Dr. Cordray’s columns. "We read them and change our ways. He said to try making a product for one month. So March has become our Potato sausage month.
"We went to our notebooks and found a 25-year-old recipe. We market it as an original, only made in March for the Irish! We start taking orders for it in February.
"So, as Dr. Joe said, we make it for a limited time!"
Norm and Carol also credit Dr. Cordray for their smoked Italian sausage. They got the recipe from one of his columns. "We are the only one in Cleveland to make and market it. It is a summer grill item only".
Other product ideas came, thanks to Dr. Ron Layton, who invited the Heinle’s to Oklahoma, to participate in a three-day seminar that included processors from Texas, Vermont, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. "Frank Witt and other industry leaders were present to share their expertise with us, the ‘mom and pop processors’.
Remembering this seminar, Norm says that again, new friends were made and he gained a respect for processing techniques of the West and East. "These family people made terrific products we had never tasted before: rattlesnake jerky, turkey drumsticks, and duck sausage were but a few of the recipes shared."
Norm and Carol returned to Cleveland and started making jerky. The Sausage Shoppe’s jerky went onto win the blue ribbon at the next AAMP convention.
For the last six years The Sausage Shoppe has been recognized as a leader in the Cleveland area in varieties of Bratwurst. The ethnic diversity of the area led the Heinles to create many new recipes; each meets the tastes of a different group.
Many of the brats are 95% lean pork and are sold fully cooked and smoked. Consumers know they can count on The Sausage Shoppe for variety in their summer-time meals.
The Ohio Pork Producers Council awarded The Sausage Shoppe 1,000 points -- a perfect score -- for their innovative all-pork entry: 12 Brats, 12 Buns, $12.00.
"It’s now five years later," Norm says, "and we still offer this promotion each summer. The brats shorten cooking time, so consumers can have a quick, yet nutritious meal.
This year The Sausage Shoppe plans to have 20 varieties of Bratwurst available from April 1 to September 30. As this article is being developed in mid-February, 18 of the 20 have been tested and approved for this year.
The Sausage Shoppe also capitalizes on local events when searching for new product ideas. The Cleveland Bicentennial led to a bratwurst with apple-jack brandy, celebrating Cleveland’s past.
And since sports are a big part of Cleveland, the all-star baseball and basketball games led the Heinle’s to develop an All-Star bratwurst. "These were featured on local TV. We are currently working on an 'Expansion Dawg' to commemorate the return of the Browns.
"And when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum opened, a Sausage Shoppe Pâté in the shape of a guitar was featured at the opening ceremonies."
As health concerns about red meat and sausage dictated change, Norm tapped into hidden resources. Carol (who happens to be a nurse) and Norm’s only brother (a doctor) were able to provide yet another view of the consumer’s tendency to eat less meat in their diets.
After listening to their consumer concerns, Carol consulted dietitian Marilyn Teeple and Nutritional Data Resources to gather additional research on the role of meat in a healthy diet. With this information in hand, Carol befriended Rita Bolton, the test kitchen cook at The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer newspaper. The two frequently consult with each other about new ideas.
"We have the support of our city," Norm explains. "As you see on our Internet web page, www.sausageshoppe.com, we are very fortunate to be a Cleveland business. Our mayor, radio and TV stations and newspapers and magazines support us.
"As you visit our web page, you see how blessed we are. It is totally constructed and maintained by Dink Inc., our youngest son, Dennis who is a MIS University of Dayton 1999 graduate."
Recognition is also an important factor in the survival of The Sausage Shoppe. Many ethnic writers have sought out The Sausage Shoppe to include it in their recipe books or news articles. Recently, Cleveland Magazine named all three varieties of The Sausage Shoppe’s Kielbasi as the "Best in Cleveland". Norm adds: "In a city as ethnically diverse as Cleveland, with so many mom and pop stores, we are indeed grateful for this honor."
In the 1993 OAMP Cured Meats Contest, The Sausage Shoppe’s fresh Kielbasi earned a blue ribbon.
The Heinle’s frequently enter products into competitions at both the state and national level. Even when the product does not win, there are lessons to be learned from the comments on the scorecards. Considering the judges are known industry-wide, a few words can have a large impact.
"Our children are now four of The Sausage Shoppe’s biggest critics," Norm explains. Our oldest son, Al, is a volunteer with many youth organizations. He is able to offer insights into youth eating habits and preferences.
Russ, our middle son, is currently an MBA student at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western University. He is able to observe the corporate community in Cleveland and pass on what other businesses are doing."
"Renee, our daughter, gave us three years of her life. She took our office with its pencil and replaced it with three computers! The millennium will come, and we will embrace it because of Renee. She will soon have an MBA from John Carroll University's Boler School of Business. She has been valuable in documenting operations and lends her knowledge to The Sausage Shoppe’s marketing strategies as we begin the fifth decade of this family business."
Norm Heinle says sausage making is important.
"The original owner knew it all and could do all in his head. Now you must not only make it but market yourself and your product."
"You must embrace the consumer and make what they will eat."
"We are in the meat business but it does not stop there. We are in business to survive. That’s why we belong to The Greater Cleveland Growth Association, Ohio Grocers Association, Old Brooklyn Community Association, NAWBO, and many other groups."
"Just as OAMP & AAMP have helped keep us in the meat business, so these organizations have kept us in business."
Norm and Carol Heinle stress their gratitude to their employees and the many, many people from the meat industry, media, customers and family who have helped keep The Sausage Shoppe vital.
"Without them, we would cease to exist. It has been a team effort by one and all. Thank you, one and all," Norm & Carol say.
Reprinted from Meat Business Magazine, February 1999