Tradition is part of the business plan at F. Wardynski & Sons, the Peckham Street sausage maker.
Its customers’ devotion to Wardynski’s Polish kielbasa and natural casing hot dogs helped the company survive as regional competitors went under, unable to compete in a marketplace dominated by billion-dollar brands like Johnsonville and Hillshire Farms.
In their spare time, though, Raymond “Skip” Wardynski and his partners were working on a secret sausage. One aimed straight at the American heartland.
What does your average American love to eat? Meat and potatoes.
Meet Duetts, the precooked pork sausage with chunks of real potato, available at Tops Markets in six flavors from Parmesan garlic to spicy Cajun.
With potatoes in the mix, the sausage delivers 40 percent less fat than leading brands of precooked pork sausage. It debuted on Memorial Day weekend, a minor part of Wardynski’s output with the potential to make it to the sausage big leagues.
“This is the first item ever that has given us national attention in a big way,” Wardynski said. “We’re dealing with 20 different companies that are thinking about slotting this item. We’ve never had that.”
The dream is that Duetts could do for Wardynski’s what its kielbasa never could. “It gives us a chance at a national presence,” the sausage maker said. “It gives us a chance.”
Polish sausage alone isn’t enough to keep his 45 employees working. Wardynski’s makes about 150 different meat products, from jalapeno cheese dogs to liverwurst. It also makes custom sausages for other companies, like the venison and boar sausages it makes for a Canadian customer. His firm has become a distribution company too, Wardynski said, with half its business devoted to delivering products the company didn’t make.
Last year Americans bought about $3 billion in refrigerated dinner sausage, according to industry site www.meatpoultry.com. Skip Wardynski and his partners want a slice of that market. But the power of the Wardynski brand wanes with every mile a sausage travels from the Peckham Street factory.
Thus it was that Dean O’Brien, the Wardynski’s vice president in charge of product development, among other things, crossed the border and headed to Niagara-on-the-Lake in November 2011.
He was there to brainstorm sausages with Joseph Lopez, a product development consultant with experience in food processing.
Inventing a truly new sausage is harder than you would think. Since at least the time of ancient Greece, cooks have used arcane methods and spices to transform animals into single-serving meals. Adept sausage makers can use just about anything, and they have.
From his strolls about town, O’Brien noted that bangers and mash, the English sausage of finely ground pork and bread crumbs, served alongside mashed potatoes, seemed quite popular.
O’Brien recalled that Lopez said it was too bad they couldn’t figure out how to put the potatoes and the sausage together. Everybody likes meat and potatoes.
“I said, ‘Give me some time, I can figure it out,’ ” O’Brien said. “I can get potatoes in there.”
Research turned up a Swedish Christmas potato sausage called korv that includes shredded potatoes. O’Brien went to work, turning out 25-pound test batches: mashed potato, potato flakes, shredded potato.
“The potatoes disappeared,” O’Brien said. He wanted more potato character, chunks of potato. That was the vision.
He found that the pork wouldn’t bond with the potato pieces. That left voids, pockets that would fill with liquid fat as the sausage cooked, an unappetizing condition known, in industry lingo, as “greasing out.”
O’Brien countered by tinkering with his potatoes. “We froze the potato first, then thawed it down till there was still a thin coat of ice and it was firm, then we blended it with the meat. We found that there were no voids, it broke down to smaller chunks in the stuffing machine, and the sausage held together. Just fantastic.”
That’s the short version. O’Brien did week after week of test batches, 150 or more, their variables and outcomes tracked on his office whiteboard. The Duetts operation has invested about $40,000 in development costs before selling a single sausage, O’Brien said. “We’re taking a chance.”
Repeated tests were necessary to fine-tune the fat content, a critical “balancing act,” he added. “You want just enough fat for cooking, but not enough to feel ‘fatty.’ ”
After being cooked at the plant, then cooked at home, the sausage shrinks by 10 percent. “When you cook, you’re losing moisture and fat,” O’Brien said. “With the potato, it binds so well that it holds moisture and fat in there.”
Once he became familiar with potato as a sausage ingredient, O’Brien began to note other benefits. Its starch allowed him to leave out binders like soy protein, egg or milk products commonly used in competing sausages.
The sausages all tasted good, but that’s not the hard part. The true test of its national marketability would be its numbers, what the nutrition panel on the label would say.
After the USDA analyzed the Duetts recipe and sent back the federally approved numbers, Wardynski, O’Brien and Lopez, the Duetts partners, were thrilled. Duetts could state that it has 40 percent less fat than leading competitors.
Forty percent. That’s a sausage you can sell.
So Lopez went to work lining up potential customers. Duetts delivers pork sausage flavor for about the same amount of fat as the chicken sausages newly popular to health-conscious consumers, he said.
“You can have that same eating experience with more than a third less fat than anything that’s out there,” the marketer said. “That’s huge.”
Tops Markets was the first to say yes. So far Lopez has arranged official sampling evaluations with 14 more regional and national supermarket chains and distributors, with more to come. A “large retailer” is considering adding Duetts for tailgating season, Lopez said. “That could give us 150 to 200 more stores.”
If Duetts catches on, the partners will have to hire another plant to make it; Wardynski’s doesn’t have the room. “If our business fluctuates 10 or 20 percent, we have enough staff to handle that,” Wardynski said. “We might have to find a co-packer closer to source for transport that can follow our guidelines. Without expanding we can only make so much.”
Or they could decide to sell or license the sausage’s most attractive feature: its patented process.
“Whether we make it ourselves or someone takes it and makes it, we have a chance, and it’s our job to explore all those possibilities,” Wardynski said. “We got a chance because this is unique.”