Vollwerth's & Co.: The uncontested King of Meats is still going strong thanks to local loyalty

How can a company's past be the key to its future? Well, for Vollwerth's & Co. in Hancock, it's simple: Quality products for the past 95 years have made generations of Yoopers faithful consumers.

It's a brand unlike anything else the Upper Peninsula has to offer. From ring bologna to potato sausage to natural-casing wieners to blood sausage, Vollwerth's offers nearly 40 different products to satisfy just about any pallet.

And the secret to success? Well, it's not a hidden ingredient.

"It's just quality ingredients," says Jim Schaaf, the general manager of Vollwerth's. "We use the best ingredients to make the best products."

In a day and age of consumers looking to get the best deal, it's surprising that the price tags on Vollwerth products don't scare people away. Well, surprising, that is, until you take a bite. Vollwerth's wieners alone are enough to knock out the competition, and their summer sausage and ring bologna simply cannot be touched by cheap imitators. In all, Vollwerth's produces and sells over 2 million pounds of sausage each year.

"We're proud of our products," says Schaaf as he walks through the production facilities that are home to about 35 full-time employees. A worker nearby is hand-stuffing ring bologna while another worker mixes a custom order of venison sausage, of which the company does about 15,000 pounds of per year. "The one thing that has not changed, nor will change, are the recipes."

Those are the same as when Richard Vollwerth first opened up shop in his basement in 1915, during the copper boom on the Keweenaw Peninsula. In fact, nearly the entire process is the same, though on a much larger scale than back then. Once the meat is ground and mixed and stuffed into the natural casings, the sausages are carted over to smokers that infuse them with honest-to-goodness hardwood smoke -- there are no chemicals or liquid smoke to be found in these products. From there, the sausages are put in a hot-water shower to finish them off before being water cooled and moved into refrigeration. The final steps were introduced when Vollwerth's had grown significantly over the decades and began selling their products over state lines.

"That's when you have to be USDA approved," says Schaaf. "Before then, we were always approved by the State of Michigan, but to sell over state lines you have to be USDA approved."

Another aspect of the company that has not, and perhaps will not, change is the bloodline. Five members of the Vollwerth family are all co-owners of the company. Mary Ann Seel is a third-generation Vollwerth while twin brothers Adam and Jared Manderfield are fourth generation along with Richard Vollwerth, the great grandson of the founder. Don Hiltunen is an in-law, but a member of the Vollwerth family nonetheless.

"We are all directors in the company and make decisions equally," says Schaaf, who isn't a member of the family by blood, but is considered so thanks to the more than three decades he has worked for the company. He began there in production before moving up through the ranks and found himself in charge of sales. When it was time for the last generation of Vollwerth owners, Don and Butch, to turn over the reins, they asked him to step into a general manager role until the younger owners had more experience.

Times haven't changed too much, though there are new products being made and distributed by Vollwerth's. The most notable is the Baroni Co., formerly of Calumet. The ravioli, spaghetti and sauce company was purchased by Vollwerth's in fall 2008.

"We didn't change the name, the recipes, or the label," says Schaaf. "It was important to us not to change anything in the recipe, because people like the product. We wanted to keep it exactly the same."

The biggest advancement the company has made outside of their production capabilities is expanding to the Internet, though it hasn't provided a massive jump in sales due to the expense of shipping perishable foods overnight across the country. Around the holidays, Schaaf says, they do see an increase in sales, however.

"There are some people that just have to have it," he says.

In a world that claims that change is good in business, it's impressive the way Vollwerth's has maintained, and even grown, it's customer base despite holding tightly to their traditional past. Product is shipped to over 600 customers across the Upper Peninsula, into parts of Wisconsin and into northern Minnesota.

The key, says Schaaf, is quality products that have local customers asking for Vollwerth products at their local stores. Not only is the sausage company selling to the local mom-and-pop stores, but also to the big box stores such as Walmart.

"It's the local support of customers and merchants that keep us going," says Schaaf, who adds that business is very steady. "We couldn't do it without them."

For some customers, the simple truth of the matter is that Vollwerth's is what they've known their whole life.

"I remember eating Vollwerth's sausages when I was a kid," said Dean Maki as he snagged a pack of smoked bratwurst out of the cooler at Econo Foods. "I've tried other brands, but this is the best. It's my favorite and it's the favorite of my family."

There may be more people enjoying Vollwerth's soon. The company is in talks with a distributor from the lower peninsula that could find Vollwerth's sausages on shelves below the bridge.

At that point, who knows what could happen. One thing is for sure, Vollwerth's will be busy making even more generations of customers happy with their top-of-the-line sausages.

Like the company's regal, age-old slogan says: Vollwerth's remains the King of Meats.

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of the U.P. Second Wave and a full-time freelance writer. He was born and raised in the Upper Peninsula. He can be reached via email.
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