During the last 50 or so years, Jacksonville, Fla., has grown from a small town to Florida’s largest city and become an important business, trade and tourist center. Through all the growth and development, Azar Sausage Co. has been there to witness it. Three generations of family management, several expansions and relocations, and steady growth have helped make Jacksonville’s only local sausage company into a city institution.

For the third generation — brothers John and Phil Azar — keeping the business strong and successful is a point of pride, particularly when the deck seems to be stacked against smaller operators.

“There are not a lot of third-generation businesses left, and there are a lot of big companies coming in [as competition],” says John, president of sales & marketing. “It’s trying times for the local guys.”

Those disadvantages haven’t slowed down Azar Sausage, as the company has been gaining new customers and steadily expanding its market range.

The Azar family came to the United States from Lebanon in 1924. John Azar, the grandfather of the current Azar leadership team, had a dream — and a really good sausage recipe. He opened a grocery store in Jacksonville and started making sausages to sell and give to his friends and neighbors. The sausages proved so popular that in 1954, he turned the grocery into a state-inspected meat-processing facility.

His son, Raymond, came aboard as a teenager, and the two worked together for 40 years. It was Raymond who helped take the business to the next level, as Azar Sausage expanded its product offerings, became federally inspected, and began sending product to the Caribbean and throughout the country through national distributors. John Azar lived to be 95 years old and got to see his grandsons enter into the business before he died in 2003.

Raymond Azar is now semi-retired, though he still works with some of the same salespeople he’s known for the last 50 years. John handles sales and public relations, while Philip oversees the production aspect of the business.

John acknowledges the occasional difficulties that come with working in a family business. However, it has had definite benefits as well.

“We’re a very close, tight-knit family. A lot of people can’t say that,” he says.

Family legacy

Azar Sausage still makes the original mild smoked sausage that started the business nearly 60 years ago. The company’s product line has grown to include a hot smoked sausage, knockwurst, bratwurst and Polish sausage, as well as breakfast links and patties. Along with the original mild and hot smoked sausages, Azar’s Andouille sausage also is gaining popularity, and the company offers beef sausage as well. At the retail level, the sausages are sold at local grocery stores, as well as larger chains like Winn-Dixie.

Along with its processing business, the company also sells products wholesale. The company’s facility gets considerable walk-in traffic, and it sells practically anything needed to host a large gathering or dinner party. Along with selling bulk orders of chicken, pork, beef and lamb cuts, employees also can cut steaks and other meat items to order.

Azar counts many area restaurants as customers, and the foodservice side of the business has benefited from the growing interest in locally produced food.

“We work with a lot of chefs, and they love and appreciate local companies,” John says. “[They know] the product is fresh, and they’re keeping money in their city.”

Although the company’s original sausage products rank among its more popular sellers, there is always an interest in new products among Azar’s customers. Product development at the company is done traditionally; they make batches of a new item until they feel they’ve perfected it, and then they market it.

“People know our name and know we don’t cut corners, and they keep coming back and wanting to try new products,” John explains. “We always look to keep up with the trends — we’re developing a chicken sausage — and keeping up with what customers want.”

That reputation has been steadily built over the company’s existence. Aside from using fresh pork and the best seasonings and ingredients, Azar still relies on the proven concept of “A+” customer service. The company gives away hundreds of pounds yearly for supermarket sampling. John often does them himself to show that the Azars are fully involved in all
aspects of the business and not just buried in the office. Indeed, he says that when he meets prospective customers, he is selling himself as an involved, engaged owner who will provide whatever support is needed as much as he sells the product.

“We’ve always been involved since we were teenagers, and we’ve done any job there is to do,” John says. “We still do it. I still suit up and pack sausage or drive the truck if someone is out.”

The formula has worked well, as the company had one of its best years ever in 2011 and is primed to keep growing. It is in the process of adding a new smokehouse to the facility, which will expand the company’s capacity and enable it to pursue larger, national accounts.

John says the company continues to attract new customers in Jacksonville, adding that Orlando and Tampa are growing markets for the company as well.


An emotional connection

Azar Sausage employs about 15 people and produces various types of smoked product daily. The company’s current building, located about a block away from its original facility, has been the company’s home for three years.

Like the company that occupies it, the building itself has an interesting background, serving as a furniture store, a florist and a nightclub, among other things, during its 100-year history. The company bought the building as it was looking to expand, and the Azars were able to avoid many of the headaches involved with old buildings by remodeling the interior to suit the production needs before they moved in.

The Azar family got out of the business for a time in the 1980s, having sold the company to another party. However, jokes Raymond, he couldn’t find anything else that interested him, so it wasn’t long before he got back into the business.

“When I met old customers, they said it didn’t taste the same,” he explains. “They’d ask me when I was going to go back to making Azar Sausage.”

Given his pride in the family name, Raymond brought the business back in 1996. He restarted it as a meat market, and soon reverted the company into a sausage-processing facility. John and Phil joined the company at this time as well.

At that time, John was in California pursuing an acting career, and Phil was involved in the construction industry, but both jumped at the chance to join the resurrected family business.

“I think it’s awesome to continue this legacy. I’m proud of what my grandfather did and how my father took it to the next level,” John says. “This gives me a sense of accomplishment, to see it cut, mixed, stuffed and packaged, and to see someone buying it for their family. It’s a greater accomplishment than becoming an actor or a contractor.”

Through longevity and sustained popularity, Azar Sausage has developed a strong connection with its consumers. The company added an online store to its website to accommodate former Jacksonville residents who have moved elsewhere and miss the taste of the sausages. Even though shipping product from Florida to California is cost-prohibitive for the company, orders still come in from the West Coast.

Another customer, who happened to be a host of a popular food radio show in New York City, was visiting a hotel in the Caribbean and was overwhelmed by the sausages. She found out from the hotel’s chef that they were Azar sausages, and she ended up recommending the sausage on her show when she got back to New York. The company generated new sales from New York because of it.

As much as the local community has supported Azar Sausage, the company has given back, donating products to churches and fundraisers, and performing other charity work. The company also invites schools to bring students through the facility for a tour, so that they can see how the food makes it to their plates.

“We’ve had teachers tell us that they’ve been to zoos and all over, but the one trip the kids will always bring up is when they went to Azar,” John notes.

John notes the progression that has taken place within the company since its start. His grandfather had the sausage recipes in his head and got the business off the ground. His father branched the company out to explore new opportunities. With the additional equipment and distribution, he and Phil want to see Azar Sausage become a national brand, something that could be passed on to the next generation.

“It’s important to keep something going that started so long ago,” John says. “America was founded on ideas and courage to build the future for the country, and that’s what we need.”  IP