San Antonio, Texas
For nearly 75 years, Kiolbassa Smoked Meats has been among the most preeminent sausage makers in all of South Texas. Created out of a desire to share their love for finely prepared smoked meats, Rufus and Juanita Kiolbassa launched their business in San Antonio at the end of the 1940s. With the reins passing from one generation to the next -- and now helmed by Rufus and Juanita’s grandson, Michael -- Kiolbassa Smoked Meats has developed into a successful family heirloom.
Since day one, the company has slowly smoked its product in small batches with natural hardwoods -- a recipe that has largely remained untouched. "We make our sausage the exact same way my grandfather and father made it when they ran the business," says Michael. "We use fresh ingredients, and we use fresh, whole-muscle meat. We've upgraded the smokehouse over the years, but we use the same wood chips and the same smoke that my grandfather and my dad used. The process hasn't changed."
In the late 1980s, Michael came aboard as a salesman and emphasized connecting with local grocers as a way to grow the company's reach. "When I got here in 1987, you could really only find our product in mom-and-pop meat shops and grocery stores in San Antonio," he says. "I really wanted to build our sausage brand. Our sausage has always been made in a very authentic way, very European, with no shortcuts or fillers or junk in it. I wanted to reintroduce people to smoked sausage the way it was made 100 years ago."
To boost sales and brand visibility, he networked with local supermarket chain H-E-B, eventually striking a deal to be featured in their stores throughout the city. Flash forward to 2003: As CEO, Michael outdid himself again -- this time by agreeing to a deal with the national wholesale retailer Costco -- and thus elevating Kiolbassa into an entirely new stratosphere of popularity moving forward.
For the first 65 years of business, Kiolbassa Smoked Meats operated out of a 26,000-square-foot plant the company owned in San Antonio. By 2016, with multiple renovations to the legacy factory, Kiolbassa expanded to include an 88,000-square-foot owned-and-operated warehouse just a quarter mile down the street. Suffice it to say the new space delivers: Kiolbassa produces about half a million pounds of sausage per week between both locations.
Measured out by 150 pounds at a time, meat is fed into a large grinder; once the shape, consistency, and texture are rounded into form, as well as the proper spice mixture established, the team cooks each sausage for four hours over hardwood in the smokehouse -- just like they did back in '49.
To maintain optimal quality and consistency, Kiolbassa's tried-and-true list of suppliers has also largely remained the same in its history. "Part of the quality equation is making sure you're sourcing from people and companies you know and trust," says Michael. "We have maintained a quality-first mindset. Whether it's on the protein side, or the ingredients side, or the packaging side, it's quality-first. I believe strongly in the value of relationships, so a lot of these companies we work with we go back a long way with."
Challenges: With Kiolbassa's decision to maintain the same cooking and manufacturing processes in conjunction with its growth over time, its price point remains higher than most competitors. As a result, simply getting customers to take a chance on a more costly option can prove to be a significant hurdle for sales.
"Sausage companies in the 1960s started cheapening the product to hit specific price points," Michael explains. "As a result, many people quit eating smoked sausage because they couldn't find authentic smoked sausage the way it used to be made. We compete with a lot of brands that are a lot cheaper than we are. People have to be willing to pay for the quality. We find that once people try our product, they're hooked. But it can be a challenge getting them to try it at our price point."
Opportunities: Looking ahead, Michael sees sustained growth in the company's future. But to get there, he cites two areas of focus: continuing to expand the Kiolbassa brand reach on a national scale and finding ways to connect with new communities.
"We've got a lot of opportunities to continue to grow our brand and reintroduce people to authentic smoked sausage," he says. "We're in about 30 percent of all retail locations in the country, and we'd like to get that to 60 percent. It'll take a lot of work, but every time I hear from a customer that we truly are enriching lives with our product, it energizes me to continue moving forward."
Michael says he's also looking forward to becoming a bigger part of the communities the company serves. "We have to ask ourselves, 'How do we continue to make a positive impact with our business?'" he continues. "We're in this for much more than just growing for our own sake."
Needs: As a creative workaround to its price point deficit, Kiolbassa has pursued -- and will need to continue doing so -- free product sampling opportunities at grocery stores whenever possible.
"I used to personally hand out samples at grocery stores in the late 80s and early 90s," Michael recalls. "People would come up to me and say, 'This is the best sausage I've ever eaten,' so I started advertising that if it's not the best sausage someone has ever eaten, I'll give them their money back."