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Thursday, May 31,2012

Watching (local) sausage being made

By Michael Callahan

When you get the family and friends together this summer to char up brats or make a pot of homemade spaghetti sauce with Italian sausage, there’s a good chance some of those links will have come from a local maker with ties to the area stretching back half a century.

 

For those who have a hard time remembering Boulder Sausage that far back, yet still get pangs of nostalgia when they bite into one, it’s because the company was at one time even more local than its name currently implies.

In 1962, Don Olk opened up a small delicatessen near the 1400 block of Pearl Street.

Having settled in Boulder by way of Sheboygan, Wis., the previous year, the son of German immigrants brought traditional sausage and side dish recipes with him. Soon, Don’s Cheese and Sausage became a staple for the county’s lunchtime crowd.

After Olk sold his share, the company expanded to about 10 different locations around the state before mismanagement sent Boulder Sausage into bankruptcy. The company was brought out of bankruptcy in 1989. Since then, it has been under the stewardship of President Tom Griffiths, who admits to early challenges after the only revenue-generating assets of the operation — the restaurants — were jettisoned to pay off back taxes and debt.

“They were famous in Boulder. People would come to Don’s Cheese and Sausage for a brat, some warm German potato salad and some baked beans, and at lunch, lines would be out the door,” Griffiths says of the restaurant concept he could no longer capitalize on. “So we focused on creating a natural, quality product. [The sausage] was already a little leaner, with no MSG or preservatives, so we just made that commitment to quality, put it on our label, said ‘These are the things we’re aren’t gonna do,’ and started producing it for stores.”

What they are now is the number one local sausage company in Colorado, based on AC Nielson numbers.

When it comes down to it, the process of making sausage is fairly simple. Or as Griffiths puts it, “We’re not doing brain surgery here.”

Meat comes in to their Louisville facility from suppliers in huge boxes, each weighing a ton. Boulder Sausage differs from some companies in that it no longer ascribes to the “whole animal” ethos of sausage making that goes back to the first time somebody ground up the trimmings of a hog, added some spices, and encased it in the animal’s own intestine. As such, its meat is all deboned pork shoulder — a hundred hogs’ worth in each crate.

Cold meat is dumped out of the box onto a huge stainless steel tray, feeding into the liquid nitrogen-cooled grinder. The grinding apparatus looks about the same as the one your grandmother screwed onto the countertop like a vise, but about 20 times bigger. In a flash, slabs of meat go from sinewy mass to coarsely ground paste, all the while being kept a sliver above freezing to ward off contamination — a constant threat in the food processing industry.

“Quality control is part of our culture, it’s everybody’s responsibility,” says Griffiths. “We need solid people. Food safety is very important. We’re screwing with peoples’ lives here. We do thirdparty audits for ourselves and for our customers. We embrace this sort of scrutiny. It only makes us better operators.”

From the grinder, the meat is seasoned with one of Don’s original recipes and fed into a computerized hopper that spits out precisely proportioned lengths of sausage. Knowing automatically how tight to pack each meat mixture, as well as twisting each the appropriate number of times to form each link, the machine cascades sausage links onto a sorting table like a mini-waterfall, where workers picking the appropriate number of links for each package.

Packages are then sent through a machine that seals each one in plastic wrap, and continue through a state-ofthe-art X-ray machine that can detect fragments unseen by human eyes and boot any defective packages to the garbage before they end up on a consumer’s plate. After each package is labeled for sale, the fresh sausages are ready for immediate delivery.

“We take orders on a daily basis. We take an order on Tuesday for production on Wednesday, and can have it delivered Thursday,” says Griffiths. “It’s virtually the same as has always been done in the kitchen. We haven’t deviated from the recipes or the way it’s made; it’s just on a different scale.”

The popularity of the sausage company has coincided with the rise of Boulder’s reputation as one of smart, individual decision-making.

“To me personally, Boulder has a reputation of healthy and natural lifestyle. I’ve lived here all my life. There’s no place I’d rather live,” says Griffiths. “As far as I can remember, it’s always been that way. This melting pot of different cultures and those combine to make it what it is today. I think the lifestyle’s always been here, it’s just that more people come here and they have talked about it.”

While the recent trend towards local-sourcing and “farm-to-table” initiatives make for an enticing incentive to those wishing to support area businesses, sometimes the reality of the situation can put a damper on the bestlaid plans. Going organic or sourcing locally sounds great, but unfortunately the reality is not as easy as some in the media have portrayed it to be.

“We try to be [local], but if you look around there isn’t anything — that’s the way it is. There might be hogs that are raised here, but they still get transferred back East for processing. There is no hog processing facility of enough magnitude to supply us here. And we’re really small in the eyes of that industry, so it makes it very difficult to do that [local-source],” says Griffiths. “The issue right now with going organic is the supply. If there are really good meat suppliers, other big meat companies come in and take over.”

There are problems inherent with becoming too big as well. Goals for growth must meet the realities of the food industry, especially when packaging a fresh product with a finite shelf life.

“Some of the large companies have sort of lost sight of that. There’s a lot more sugars, more preservatives, they’ve added water, BHA/BHT — and it’s actually a frozen product,” says Griffiths. “We’re all-fresh, all-natural, and we stand true to the way you had it growing up.”

Fifty years after Don Olk introduced his culinary heritage to Boulder residents, Boulder Sausage has found a comfortable niche of acceptance in the minds of conscientious Colorado consumers.

Yet operating with hindsight of bankruptcy and the constant threat of industry-crushing quality control mishaps makes for one diligent company — even if you are the delight of summer picnics throughout the region.

“If you stop trying to improve yourself, then you’re dying,” says Griffiths. “We’ve worked hard to build our brand, and hopefully Boulder Sausage means a good, quality product.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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