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Made in WNY: Sahlen's hot dogs

In Western New York, everyone knows Sahlen's hot dogs but the Buffalo company has big plans. "We're really positioned now to be a national company," said Mark S. Battistoni, Sahlen vice president of sales and marketing.

In Western New York, everyone knows Sahlen's hot dogs. They know them from the ballpark, from their tray at Ted's Hot Dogs and from the grills at many a cookout. People have been snapping into these hometown favorites since 1869.

Buffalo transplants gave Sahlen's a foothold in new markets. Now, the company faces winning over customers in 15 states who are new to the brand, and a major expansion at its East Side facility is helping do just that.

Catering to Buffalo transplants, Sahlen's expanded its hot dog distribution to Charlotte, N.C., in 2015 with a Harris Teeter grocery chain contract. In 2016, it entered Florida, partnering with supermarket chain Publix, which has 1,100 stores in several states.

But that only goes so far.

"The first couple of months, they clean everything off the shelves," said Mark S. Battistoni, vice president of sales and marketing at Sahlen Packing Co. "But after a while, they get used to having them."

To win over new customers, the company employs a mix of strategies. Just as Sahlen's is the official hot dog of the Buffalo Bisons and holds naming rights for the baseball team's playing field, the company sponsors local sports teams and serves its hot dogs in those teams' arenas. Some of those sponsorships include the minor league baseball team the Charlotte Knights and the NHL's Florida Panthers.

Workers load skinless hot dogs into a packaging line. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Sahlen's also visits stores to introduce the product to managers and employees, and to let customers taste the hot dogs for themselves. Food service sales, via hot dog carts and food trucks, help too.

To support its rapid growth, the company bought a vacant building at 17 Montgomery St. across from its 318 Howard St. headquarters and turned it into a multimillion-dollar, 36,000-square-foot, specialized packaging and food safety facility. Completed last year, it has the capacity to handle 2.5 million pounds of product.

Inside the new building is the key to shipping Sahlen's hot dogs far and wide: a Spanish-built, high-pressure processing machine. The 50-ton machine at Sahlen's blasts sealed packages of hot dogs with 83,000 pounds of pressure – five times more pressure per square inch than exists at the Mariana Trench.

The process triples the hot dogs' shelf life.

"This machine changes our world," Battistoni said.

Kathy Starr sets up the packaging on the hot dog packaging line. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A worker moves a rack of freshly smoked hams to the packaging line. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

High-pressure processing is a food safety treatment that protects products from bacteria, virus, yeasts, parasites and mold. It greatly increases a food's freshness and shelf life without altering its taste or texture, and doesn't require preservatives or other recipe changes. The cold process is often used to pasteurize cold-pressed juices, because it can be used without compromising a food's nutritional content the way a high-heat process would.

Sahlen's beef hot dogs represent another growth opportunity.

While Western New Yorkers grew up on hot dogs made with a mixture of beef and pork, all-beef hot dogs are much more popular nationally. As Sahlen's ramps up its beef hot dog production for new customers, Western New Yorkers are discovering them as well.

Now in its fifth generation, Sahlen Packing Co. is led by Joe Sahlen, its president and the founder's namesake. In addition to its flagship product, the company's 66 employees make branded and private label deli meats, as well as sausages and holiday hams.

"We're really positioned now to be a national company," Battistoni said. "When we get to that point, we're never going to have the same market share, but this company will finally fill its five-generation dream."

Smokehouse hot dogs are fed into the packaging line. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

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