H.C. Wenzel & Sons' experience and expertise has enabled the small beef and pork processor to grow via an expanding private label business.
For us, quality beats price,” states Russ Wenzel when asked about how the products his company makes, which tend to cost a bit more, are faring during these tougher economic times. This focus on quality has been present throughout the 60-year existence of H.C. Wenzel & Sons, and an attribute that appears to have set the company up for greater things to come.
The Wenzel's Farm brand name can be found on summer sausage, hot dogs, beef sticks and over 40 other beef and pork products made at the small, 28-person Marshfield, WI facility. From there, they can be purchased at grocery and convenience stores throughout the Midwest. Wenzel estimates that the company ships 35,000 - 50,000 pounds of product a week, depending on the time of year, with new sales opportunities popping up in areas across the country.
Russ is the fourth generation of Wenzels to work in the family business, with his first exposure coming as a young boy applying packaging labels. Ironically, it would be his push to invest in automated packaging equipment some years later that would help the company stay competitive and handle the variety of styles and configurations demanded by their diverse customer base.
“My great grandpa William arrived from Germany when he was 16 with the smile on his face and the lint in his pocket,” offers Wenzel, in describing the roots of the company. Initially the business revolved around the meat markets William Wenzel owned, but they soon began to buy their own cattle for processing and sale, including veal. Shortly after World War II the company transitioned to the wholesale business it is today, and eventually got away from any cattle purchasing or slaughtering functions.
“Through the years we've been able to thrive and stay competitive because we've never been afraid to change,” states Wenzel. “For example, sausage making was really an art form when we first started the wholesale sausage business. We had some of the best German-trained sausage makers in the country working here, and while they were extremely talented, they worked off of smell, touch and feel, and used formulas based on handfuls of this and pinches of that.
“In the transition from art to science, one of the most dramatic changes, and remember this is the early 1950s, was that my father started requiring the sausage makers to use weights and scales. We integrated recipes that could be re-produced as similarly as possible from batch to batch. This wasn't because the quality was off, but because the market had changed. Consumers began to want a more uniform taste.
“Initially, we were operating within a 75-mile radius because every little town had its own grocery store. Eventually, there were fewer stores, but each one that stayed open grew bigger. This made the need for more replicable product tastes extremely important in growing our own brand. So it kept us ahead of the game and viable when competing against the big guys.” This willingness to change and adapt to consumer demands is a tradition that continues today.
“We make other people's products?”
“If my grandpa Harry could come back for one day to see our current operation, the first thing he'd be amazed by is the speed of everything, and our level of automation,” states Wenzel. “The next thing he'd say is 'We make other people's products?'”
Currently accounting for a significant percentage of the company's business, and growing, is the private label work Wenzel does for several local and national companies. Not unlike many other areas of the country with heritage-based food preferences, the German traditions of those who settled the Badger State are still alive and well in the abundance of small beer, cheese and sausage companies throughout the area. It's an opportunity from which Wenzel & Sons has seen significant benefits.
“The private label business has been great for us,” states Mark Vieth, the company's treasurer. “Over the last 10 years it has allowed us to expand our facility and add some newer processing and infrastructure technology.” A number of these enhancements have focused on meeting third party audits for expanded security equipment. This ensures a higher level of protection for those proprietary recipes with which H.C. Wenzel & Sons has been entrusted.
“There have also been some key operational benefits from the private label work,” continues Vieth. “The one I appreciate the most is that everything is done on a just-in-time production model - meaning there's no inventory to store. We get the order, process the products and send them out. The biggest challenge, now that we have all the logistics and agreements in place, is the packaging. In addition to the labels obviously being different, each vendor has a different box size, as well as differing quantities per box, and those are all different for each type of product. So in addition to keeping the recipes separate, we also need to stay on top of each unique packaging approach.”
One aspect of the production process that helps in meeting these demands is that their offerings are on the higher end of the price spectrum. This translates to less focus on quantity and more attention being given to quality. It's a dynamic that years of experience, proper internal investment and family tradition have embraced very well. “We're never the cheapest,” cites Wenzel. “We deliver a niche product that has always focused on quality. Our own recipes, as well as those of private label customers, do take longer. However, the end product is always worth the price tag it carries.”
This can be seen in the care given to what many would describe as a commodity item - hot dogs. At Wenzel & Sons, they slow-cook their skinless wieners to an internal temperature of about 150 degrees in the hickory sawdust-fueled smokers. This might not be the most efficient method of preparation, but the end result is worth it to those buying the Wenzel's Farm brand, as well as those products belonging to their private label partners.
A matter of trust
The most significant element of the private label business is obviously the trust that must exist between the processor and their customers. As Wenzel explains, this comes in many forms.
“We're in a position where we can offer some unique feedback and perspective when taking on a private label customer,” he states. “First, we can offer some advice on how to improve the recipes, whether it's for taste or to help them meet certain requirements for leanness, shelf life or in avoiding the need to refrigerate the product in question. Having done this for 60 years, we have that type of experience to offer, and in some very unique product categories. “In other instances, a smaller company might have a great recipe, but lack the understanding or basic resources of producing larger quantities. At the end of the day, we work with them as much as possible in whatever way is needed. We want them all to be as successful as possible.”
Another benefit to the private labeling initiatives, as well as other profitable activities, is that while H.C. Wenzel & Sons has the capacity and resources to handle varying projects, they're small enough to move quickly on new concepts. An example can be found at the genesis of their beef stick offerings.
While others were trying to figure out an economical way of getting the casings to match the processing equipment of the day, Wenzel worked side-by-side with a casing manufacturer in getting the process right. This put them ahead of others in the market, and helped launch a new product category that has been a huge success for the Wenzel's Farm brand, as well as many of their private label customers.
The company's size might lead some to challenge the facility's capabilities and level of compliance. “Cleanliness is a point of pride for us,” offers Vieth. “So we have daily USDA inspections and are able to stay on top of all compliance issues. We take our responsibility to protect the consumer very seriously.” The company's size also allows them to tap into regional preferences, like processing venison sausage during the heart of Wisconsin's deer hunting season.
In looking back at his nearly 50 years in the meat processing industry, Russ Wenzel offers some interesting perspective on the changes he's seen, and what he feels will continue to allow businesses like his to remain successful. “The bottom line is that you either change with the times or you go away,” he states. “Consolidation and mergers, or outright acquisitions, means there are fewer companies like ours. In order to survive the business has become just as much about sales organization as it is making product. The trick is to maintain quality levels, or you won't be able to sell very much.
“I think you also have to keep looking for that next thing. We've seen very health growth in some unfamiliar areas. Some of these types of products we now put our name on, but keeping an open mind to things has really fed our private label business. We're open to a person's ideas and then we can lend our knowledge of how to best produce it. I think that will be key for us, as well as the entire marketplace going forward.