More than 80 years ago, Canino’s Sausage Co. Inc. was founded by a husband and wife determined to provide the new Italian immigrants of Denver, Colo., with a taste of home. Joseph and Lena Canino ran a grocery store on Navajo and 35th, now a city landmark. Just as it was back then, when Lena made the sausage (and gave away a good portion to people who were down on their luck), the company is still providing its customers with old-fashioned Italian sausage, made from the original recipe. However, it has expanded to include a variety of tastes and diets.

President Diana Payne notes that the company’s sausage products are now available throughout Colorado, as well as areas like Wyoming, New Mexico and South Dakota. The mild Italian and hot Italian sausages are the company’s best sellers, but she adds that the company’s bratwursts are popular items, particularly in the summer grilling season.

“I’ve had many people tell me our brats are the best they’ve ever eaten,” she adds, pointing out that they once won an award sponsored by a restaurant in the resort town of Dillon.

Thanks to the company’s longevity, many Coloradans have grown up eating Canino’s sausage products.

“We have a high-quality, good-tasting product. People have grown up tasting our sausage and liking it, and they pass it on to family members,” says Payne, who has been a part of the company for nearly 40 years. Shortly before Lena Canino died, her son-in-law, Anthony, and grandson, Joseph, took over the business. Joseph eventually invited Payne and her husband, Michael, into the business. Starting in 1970s, the Paynes acquired a piece of the business at a time, until they were sole owners by 1988.

“My husband was going to school, and he had all his student loans, so we decided it might be something to try,” Payne says. “His friend [Joseph, the Canino’s grandson] was good at making sausage, but he didn’t know the finances or that part of the business, and my husband knew finances.”

Michael Payne died in 1989 after just a year of full ownership, and his wife became the sole owner. During her tenure, Canino’s has been recognized as one of Colorado’s top 250 private businesses (in ColoradoBiz magazine), as well as one of the top 100 woman-owned businesses.

Prior to inheriting the business, Payne was not active in the day-to-day operations of Canino’s.

“For one year before, I was a store merchandiser,” she explains. “I went into stores and checked with the meat managers, seeing how their product was holding up and how well it was doing.” At the time, she had three brothers-in-law who worked at the company, and they helped her learn the business. “That was in itself a big obstacle, not knowing that part of the business and being thrown into it.”

Payne also had to deal with being a woman in a male-dominated business and proving that she could succeed in this business. She has done so, with 2008 being her 20th year as president of the company, and she has kept it a family-oriented business in the process. Her daughter-in-law, Michelle, works with Payne, as do two of Michelle’s siblings.

Payne does belong to several groups, including AAMP, to stay connected and network with other business owners. One such group, The Alternative Board, meets on a monthly basis.

“We talk over all our challenges and good things, everything that’s happening in our business, and the other owners suggest things that might help out. That’s one way I do get some good input,” she says.

New technology

When it comes to products, Canino’s is conscientious about preserving its heritage while moving forward.

“We always look for new ways to make our product better, as far as using sea salt or a little lower-fat meat,” Payne says. “Not a big difference, but something that will make a difference, though it’s still the same recipe.”

Payne has expanded the company’s repertoire since taking over the business, which now includes the chorizo sausage, German-style, Polish and Cajun-style sausage, as well as a breakfast sausage. Product development, she says, can come from anyone in the company; which is currently perfecting the spice blend for a new sausage variety that Payne discovered while vacationing in Florida.

The products are made without any nitrates or preservatives. They also were approved by the Celiac Sprue Association as being gluten-free after the company went through a thorough review. Canino’s has been permitted to include the CSA logo on its packaging, which is being updated to include the list of ingredients that it does not include.

“I’m gluten intolerant, so I understand how hard it is when you’re trying to go to the grocery store and read everything, trying to figure out if you can eat it,” Payne explains. “This will be helpful to customers, who can look at [the packaging] and know that they can eat our product.”

Canino’s Sausage employs 16 people in its facility on Jason Street in Denver. It has been located in this building for more than 30 years, with production located on the first floor and the offices on the second floor. The company’s sales average about $3 million annually, thanks to its employees and its acceptance of new technology. Several years ago, the company purchased a machine to cut the links automatically, eliminating that repetitive task from being done by hand. The newest piece of equipment, to be installed later this year, is a new gas-flush packaging machine that should improve the product’s current shelf life. The new packaging may also allow the company to expand its retail presence.

Along with being a longtime staple in Colorado’s grocery stores and restaurants, Canino’s continues Lena Canino’s tradition of giving back to the community as well. The company donates food baskets to different charities and silent auctions, and it sponsors some of the local schools.

“A lot of the schools in this area need the help. They don’t have a lot of money,” Payne says. “We try to help the community out with donations.”