Links to Glory
By Barbara Young, Editor-In-Chief
Photo by Vito Palmisano
VA-based Specialty Foods Group’s Chicago facility is the processing headquarters for Nathan’s hog dogs, which rank third in the nation.
Spending an entire career in the same place doing the same thing in these modern times of professional mobility is highly unlikely. Meat-industry veterans are among those who defy such a notion. Kenneth A. Schissler, Horst “Ozzie” Oswald, and others stationed at VA-based Specialty Foods Group Inc.’s (SFG) Chicago production facility rank among them. The 79-year-old plant known as Scott Petersen — their production home — stands out as a meat-industry anomaly in the following areas:
The SFG business unit retains the name of its founding family.
Workforce tenure exceeds more than 20 years for several employees.
The operation resides in the heart of a Chicago neighborhood in a landlocked setting.
The plant is home to Scott Petersen, one of the few remaining sausage brands made in Chicago.
Product formulation derives from proven Old World recipes.
The plant is production home to Nathan’s, the nation’s No. 3 retail packaged beef franks and the country’s fastest growing beef brand.
“This is a link plant, and link products represent ninety-five percent of our total production,” emphasizes Schissler, who has walked through the doors of the facility for 36 years, beginning under previous owners.
The three-shift plant, including one for sanitation performed by an outside service, produces the bulk of hot-dog production on behalf of SFG, a seven-year-old business dedicated to producing and marketing processed meat products. The plant’s production population totals 240 members. Total weekly rate of 1.3 million pounds comprises production in Chicago and Williamston, NC — SFG’s second hot-dog and sausage facility.
“That’s about ten million individual hot dogs,” Schissler notes.
As vice president and general manager, he presides over the manufacture of various products — mainly Nathan’s and Scott Petersen branded hot dogs, but also Polish, smoked, and dinner sausages.
The 79-year-old plant operation paved the way for SFG’s overall hot dog marketing strides under the guidance of Schissler and Oswald, plant manager. Together the pair has nearly 80 years combined tenure at Scott Petersen on Chicago’s West Side near Midway Airport. They not only work there, but they also personally contributed to the execution of expansion and upgrade projects for the building, notably a continuous wiener line installed on the facility’s third and fourth floors.
Operating in the heart of a Chicago neighborhood means the plant is landlocked, restricting expansion options. Square-footage gains came from adding upper levels. What Oswald recalls most about the early days at the plant is the lack of technology that is currently available.
“It used to take ten people on the manual linking process what three people can now handle on a machine,” Oswald recounts. The most telling advancement is illustrated by increased production potential which, as Oswald points out, went from 250,000 pounds of hot dogs per week at Scott Petersen to 1.3-million pounds currently.
At age 15, Oswald began working at Saratoga Company, a Scott Petersen competitor on Chicago’s South Side where his father was also employed. “Both were family-owned and family-run companies,” Oswald recalls. “Scott Petersen supplied customers on the North Side and Saratoga took care of the South Side. These were Old World sausages with ethnic appeal. Then things changed and sausage fell into the commodity category. Now all types of ethnic products are coming back.”
John Morrell & Company, then a wholly owned subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, eventually acquired both businesses.
Scott Petersen never abandoned recipes established in 1927, sealing sausage made at the plant with a stamp of quality. Now, the plant produces the majority of Nathan’s hot dogs, metropolitan New York City’s number-one selling brand in the frankfurter category. SFG operates with an exclusive licensing arrangement with Nathan’s Famous Restaurants Inc. to produce and sell franks and other Nathan’s products to grocery stores while also supplying the restaurants.
Production for Nathan’s hot dogs increased more than 26 percent so far this year.
“Years ago hot dogs were not considered a premium product by the retail arena,” notes Schissler. “Now it’s all about better, high-quality hot dogs that can deliver profits for retailers.”
Sticking to a quality hot dog production philosophy of all-meat and no fillers as other manufacturers pursued low-fat and no-fat business proved a wise move for the Scott Petersen product line.
Schissler explains. “Others used extenders for savings, but we have used the same recipe for years. Now consumers have come back looking for a good-tasting hot dog.”
If consumers want a certain taste profile in their hot dogs, retailers want them to have it. To that end, Safeway recruited the SFG team to produce hot dogs for their customers.
“They came to us and said that hot dogs used to be good and they wanted that back,” Schissler reports. “They wanted a great hot dog like the Nathan’s brand. We explained they couldn’t use the Nathan’s recipe but that we could deliver a high quality, great tasting hot dog.”
Schissler says the company expects to produce about 10 million pounds of premium hot dogs for Safeway this year in the first summer of production. Meanwhile, Safeway also ordered sliced bologna and salami in both cotto and beef versions.
“They know we can make a great hot dog with no additives, small amounts of soy protein, and exceed strict food-safety guidelines,” concludes Schissler, noting that a veteran production team backs the Scott Petersen operation.
Among them is Jesse Estrada, kitchen supervisor, who joined the plant’s production force in 1979 and worked his way up from his initial assignment as a direct store delivery crewman to a management position. He came to this country at age 14, and worked in a hospital maintenance department for two years after high school.
“I left because I got married and needed more money,” explains Estrada, the father of three daughters.
Estrada’s rise in rank began when he requested an “inside” job to enable him to stop driving a truck. He spent nine years mixing spices and even remembers the formula for cotto salami down to ingredient measurements.
“Everything was done by hand back then,” he recalls.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Andreyev, who came from the Ukraine, is a spice-blending specialist and has held the same position for nine years. His experience did not begin in Chicago, however. He brought nine years experience from the Ukraine and his job in a meat plant there.
“It was the same size as this one,” he notes.
Since the beginning, quality meat and other ingredients have represented the cornerstone of the recipe for hot dogs — developed from beef, pork, poultry, and seasonings — manufactured at the Scott Petersen plant.
Acknowledging the challenge in producing several different products at the same time, Paul Siefert, director of quality assurance and HACCP [hazard analysis and critical control points], says separation is critical.
“We have tracing and accountability procedures for everything,” reports Siefert, with eight years of tenure. He joined the company as a quality assurance technician after a stint as an environmental consultant at a private company. He created the plant’s HACCP program and then guided its implementation.
“Over the years we have reduced the number of critical control points to eliminate redundancies,” he says.
Moreover, each production line is set up like an island with its own equipment, people, apparel, and even a separate tool chest.
“This not only eliminates cross-contamination issues, but also allows us to trace back to the production source when situations come up that need attention,” Siefert concludes. NP