Fred Usinger Inc.
Fred Usinger Inc.
Incorporated: 1880 as Usinger’s Sausages
Sales: $15-$25 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 311612 Meat Processed from Carcasses
Fred Usinger Inc., also known as Usinger’s Famous Sausage, is a Milwaukee-based company known for producing premium sausages and meats. Usinger’s has been called the “Cadillac of sausage makers” and is consistently praised for its fine quality goods made from old German recipes. The company sells its 70-plus varieties of sausage principally to delicatessens and gourmet shops, and operates a landmark downtown Milwaukee retail store. It also runs a mail-order business and distributes to grocery chains. The company does comparatively little advertising, yet it has built a formidable reputation in the Midwest and beyond. Usinger’s was the official supplier of hot dogs to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The company is controlled by the Usinger family. The founder’s great-grandson currently heads Usinger’s.
Fred Usinger Inc. was founded by a German immigrant named Frederick Usinger who came to the United States at the age of 19 in the late 1870s. Usinger had learned the craft of sausage-making in Frankfurt, and he headed for Milwaukee, a thriving center of German culture, with savings of $400 and a cache of recipes committed to memory. Usinger settled near North Third Street, a prosperous and fashionable German-speaking neighborhood. He began working in the butcher shop of a widow, Mrs. Julia Gaertner. Within one or two years, Fred Usinger bought out Mrs. Gaertner’s business and married her niece, Louise Lorenz. The couple lived upstairs from the store, on the site of the current company headquarters, 1030 N. Third Street, and in 1880 changed the name of the business to Usinger’s Sausages. Mr. and Mrs. Usinger worked day and night making sausages. They sold their wares out of their shop, and Fred Usinger also took basketloads of sausage to sell to area grocers and saloons. Saloons became the key to the new company’s growth. In that era, saloons offered free lunch in order to attract noontime customers, and Usinger’s sausages became the staple of certain higher-end establishments. These places often attracted businessmen from out of town. From the very first, Usinger concentrated on quality, never cutting costs to compete with cheaper competitors. Apparently travelers were often delighted with the Usinger sausage they ate in Milwaukee, and they begged the sausage-maker to send his goods to their local grocers. So business expanded, both in Milwaukee and in nearby communities. The company served some accounts as far away as New York. Usinger himself often worked 14-hour days, seven days a week, alongside the growing number of workers in his plant. In the company’s early days, the lack of refrigeration meant most of the sausage had to be made in the winter. In the summer, Usinger shipped his workers out to his farm, where he kept them busy planting trees.
Around 1906 the company expanded, building a four-story addition next to the original plant. Two more stories were added to the building later, and it served as both production facility and business headquarters. Usinger’s had nationwide sales by the early 1900s, and it was one of the first sausage-makers in the country approved by federal inspectors. The company grew slowly but steadily, with most of its distribution centered in the Milwaukee area. Its retail store became a Milwaukee landmark, redesigned in 1906 with colorful murals depicting elves at work making sausage. Quality control was carried out by the entire staff, who sat down for a morning and noon sausage break each day to taste and critique the company’s products. Usinger’s made close to 100 different types of sausages in its early years, using heirloom recipes and meticulously fresh ingredients. Frederick Usinger died in 1930, a millionaire. Control of the company passed to his son, Frederick Usinger, Jr.
Adaptation and Modernization from World War II Through the 1970s
Frederick Usinger, Jr., continued in his father’s footsteps, clinging to the company’s established recipes and production methods for the most part. The plant’s workforce was unionized sometime during the 1930s. This did not alter some aspects of workforce relations—the factorywide morning and noon sausage break continued as a Usinger tradition at least through the early 1980s. The World War II years were some of the most difficult the company had faced. Meat was rationed, making it difficult for Usinger’s to acquire the ingredients it needed, and making its commodities very expensive for its customers, who had to save up ration coupons. Usinger, Jr., was adamant in not changing the family recipes in order to get by with cheaper ingredients. “We almost went under,” he told an interviewer from the Saturday Evening Post (May 6, 1961). But he admonished that other competitors had cheapened their product to make it through the rationing years, and they subsequently went out of business, while Usinger’s prevailed. Blood sausage, which made many customers squeamish, became more popular during World War II, as that was one variety of sausage that could be bought legally without ration coupons. Usinger, Jr., told the Saturday Evening Post of a Hollywood actress who had pooled ration coupons with West Coast friends so they could make a special purchase of Usinger’s sausage for a gourmet party. Loyal customers like these kept the company in business, and conditions improved after the war.
Usinger’s plant was once again working at capacity with the end of the war in 1945, and sales began a steady increase over the next decade. Frederick Usinger, Jr., stepped down from the presidency in 1953 and let his son, Frederick D. Usinger, take the top job. Frederick D. had been working at the Usinger plant since he was 16, and he quit college as a sophomore to work there full time. By the time he was 24, he had worked every job in the factory, and he was made plant superintendent. When he became president, Frederick D. began modernizing the plant and equipment. The company bought state-of-the-art stainless steel cookers, tubs, barrels, and work tables, and the production and packing lines were laid out according to modern efficiency standards. The plant increased its capacity by more than 25 percent in the ten years following the war, and sales jumped as much as 40 percent. The company curtailed its product offering somewhat, making more than 60 varieties of sausage instead of the close to 100 kinds it had made in its early years. About half of Usinger’s business in the 1950s was out of state, primarily with urban delicatessens. These customers received Usinger products by express rail service.
Sales expanded in the 1960s, although the company did little advertising. As many small groceries and delis folded and more people shopped at supermarkets (or “self-service” stores), Usinger adapted. In the mid-1960s the company began packaging some of its sausages in plastic. With new packaging, Usinger was able to distribute its products to self-service markets. The company initially made good sales at supermarket chains in Florida and California, and then moved into other states as well. Usinger continued to be known as a premium brand, and although some things changed about the company, the sausage recipes remained the same. The plant increased production through the 1970s, going from approximately five million pounds of sausage a year in the early 1960s to 7.8 million pounds annually by the late 1970s. By that time Usinger’s did about 65 percent of its business outside of Wisconsin, with particularly strong markets in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Denver. The company had many celebrity fans, from actors and baseball stars to First Lady Betty Ford. Sales grew steadily at about 6 percent a year, reaching more than $10 million by 1979.
Still a Family Business After 100 Years
Usinger’s celebrated its centennial in 1980. Although the plant had expanded and modernized in many ways, some things had hardly changed. Some of the production work, such as peeling onions, was still done by hand in 1980. Automatic equipment was approved only if it did not change the taste of the sausage. The company had experimented with an automatic smoker sometime in the 1970s, and returned the equipment when Mr. Usinger tasted the sausage and found both the flavor and texture changed. So the plant continued to smoke its summer sausage in a traditional wood pit smokehouse. During the centennial year, Frederick D. Usinger underwent open-heart surgery. Afterwards, he semi-retired, moving to Arizona, and his youngest son, Fritz, became the fourth generation to head Fred Usinger Inc. Fritz Usinger graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in meat and animal science and carried on in the family tradition, working long hours six days a week. Fritz, like his father, brought more modern methods and equipment into the plant when he took over. Under his leadership, the company spent $3 million on a 24,000-square-foot expansion in 1984. That year he also negotiated with Usinger’s workers for a pay reduction, which brought wages more in line with other companies in the meat industry. He became the official president of the company in 1988.
Usinger’s is a one of a kind, nationally recognized family business devoted to the craft of sausage making. Feinschmeckers (gourmets) will discover over 70 varieties of old world sausage. From a better bratwurst to an authentic beerwurst, superior German-style wurst doesn’t get any better than Usinger’s.
In 1990 the company faced an unusual problem when a militant group claimed it had tampered with Usinger products on store shelves. The controversy began with a plan to change the name of the street on which the company stood. What had been Third Street in 1880 was now Old World Third Street, but the city of Milwaukee entertained a plan to rename it Martin Luther King Drive. Usinger formally objected. According to Supermarket News (July 9, 1990), Usinger claimed the street name was “part of its marketing position as a 110-year-old business identified with the ’old world’ German community” in Milwaukee. On June 22, Milwaukee Alderman Michael McGee told the Milwaukee chief of police that he had received a call from a group calling itself the Militant African Underground, or MAU-MAU. The group had allegedly injected rat poison into Usinger products, in outrage over the company’s stance on the street renaming. Fritz Usinger did not hear the story until a reporter called for comments. The company quickly removed its products from store shelves, though the incident was widely regarded as a hoax. The firm worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test 80,000 pounds of recalled meat. Usinger lost approximately $114,000 in retail sales right before the crucial Fourth of July weekend, plus the associated costs of the extensive testing. Fritz Usinger was praised for his calm handling of the situation. “It’s just one of those bizarre things that happen. You take the necessary steps and go on from there,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (June 24, 1990).
The company reported sales figures of around $14 million in 1990 and claimed to be growing by a few percentage points a year. The company expanded into a nearby Milwaukee neighborhood for a new warehouse and distribution center in 1993. By the mid-1990s the company also had established a thriving mail-order business. In 1995 Usinger’s began using Certified Angus Beef for some of its products. In 2000, Certified Angus Beef was chosen as an official supplier of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games to be held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Usinger then sent its Certified Angus Beef hot dogs into competition to be the official Olympic wiener. The director of food services for the games declared he and his committee had searched to find the ’’best hotdog in the U.S.,” and that turned out to be the Usinger product. As a preview, Usinger sent 20,000 hot dogs to the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in 2000. For the 17-day Winter Games, Usinger’s sent 500,000 hot dogs. All the hot dogs were eaten in the first five days. Olympic spectators were maligned for their greed, and it seemed even the athletes had consumed more than their share of Usinger hot dogs. The company welcomed the publicity, and shipped out another 200,000 hot dogs within a week.
Klement Sausage Co.; Kraft Foods Inc.; Bob Evans Farms, Inc.
- Frederick Usinger buys out his landlady’s business to found his own company.
- The plant and offices undergo extensive remodeling.
- Frederick Usinger dies; the business passes to his son.
- Frederick Usinger, Jr., retires; the third generation runs the company.
- The company celebrates its centennial.
- Fritz Usinger, the founder’s great-grandson, becomes president.
- Usinger’s supplies hot dogs to the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
DeNitto, Emily, “Tampering Scare Impacts Milwaukee Stores,” Supermarket News, July 9, 1990, p. 4.
Hajewski, Doris, “Doggone,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 15, 2002, p. 1.
Krichen, Rich, “Following Tradition, Fritz Commits Usinger to Old World Ways,” Business Journal-Milwaukee, September 17, 1990, p. 10.
Lloyd, Janice, “A Hot Dog That Cuts the Mustard,” USA Today, August 3, 2000.
“75 Years of Proof That Quality Pays Off,” Meat, October 1955.
Skidmore, Dave, “Sausage King,” Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), September 8, 1984.
Stolt, Ken, “Lining Up Sausage-Maker, City Looks to Expand Urban Land Bank Menu,” Business Journal-Milwaukee, January 9, 1993, p. S12.
Sussman, Lawrence, “Usinger Takes Matter in Stride,” Milwaukee Journal, June 24, 1990.
“Usinger—Building a Quality Name,” Meat, December 1964.
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“A ’Wurst Case’ Scenario,” Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), February 15, 2002.
“Der Wurstmacher,” Pak-Facts, January-February 1964, pp. 1-2.