Sahlen Packing Company
Founded in 1869, Sahlen Packing Company has been producing fresh, quality meat products for almost 150 years. Located in the former stockyard district of Buffalo, New York, the business started off as a fresh meat provisioner, supplying pork products to westward-bound settlers.
Today the fifth generation, family-owned and -operated business distributes its hot dogs, sausages, ham, turkey, bologna and private-label deli meats to grocers in more than 22 states from its Buffalo headquarters.
“Our products are minimally processed and simply made,” says Mark Battistoni, vice president of sales and marketing at Sahlen. “We’re not one of these ‘all over the horizon’ plants, so we’re able to respond quickly to customer needs while keeping our business at the level of quality the family deems necessary to continue.”
Each year, Sahlen churns out some 15 million pounds of premium meat products from its modern 90,000-square-foot, Safe Quality Food (SQF)-certified facility. While the company’s modest size means it is specific in its new customer acquisitions, Sahlen’s measured approach to growth has allowed it to maintain a solid reputation with both customers and industry partners.
“We’re not the kind of company that a retailer would call for commodity-style hams; we concentrate on the premium end of the category with all our deli and meat offerings. We have found that a concentration on quality and consistency has been a winning strategy for us as well as our partners,” says Battistoni.
Selling the taste of summer
While Sahlen’s hot dogs have an 80 percent market share across the Western New York region, they’ve also had to contend with shifting public perception around processed meats, which coincidentally has not affected consumer demand in the premium hot dog category. “Hot dogs survive and will even with reported negative connotations,” says Battistoni. “Quality offerings will never go away; they will always be baseball food, always be summer food. We continue to manufacture at the upper end of the category and offer the alternative of premium for consumers.”
Sahlen’s has also had to deal with the influx of presliced and tub-pack deli meats at many grocery stores. While these products can be more convenient for a hurried consumer trying to make their way through the shopping list as quickly as possible, they are the antithesis of Sahlen’s premium deli meats.
“Those products are not of the same quality. We know what we manufacture; it’s a high-end, quality product. Typically we say our best salesman sits on the table, but the problem with that is that hams don’t talk,” jokes Battistoni.
As a 35-year veteran of the food industry, Battistoni came up in his own family’s meat processing company and has been helping the company develop new products geared toward the health-conscious consumer who still just can’t resist summer food staples like hot dogs. “We’re responsive to the health standards consumers are looking to, but you can’t make a hot dog that is salt-free — it doesn’t work,” says Battistoni. “You can take out the nitrate and nitrite as cures, so we’ve removed the nitrate, but the nitrite is still there for color and preservative value. We are however looking at things like celery salt and cherry powder, which offer solutions to cured product in the all-natural realm,” he says.
Sahlen makes a number of lower-sodium products, including the new Cajun turkey, which is flavored with 13 spices and no additional sodium. By positioning itself as the flavorful alternative to other heart-healthy processed meats, Battistoni says the company can cement its reputation as a premium processor well into the future. “We’re trying to hit both the current standard and what will become the standard,” he says.
The team at Sahlen is also busy pursuing the new holy grail of processed food products: no-cure meats. “They’re not new, they’ve been in the marketplace, but their flavor and texture in our eyes and palates need improvement; we’re exploring processes and ingredients to do it better than anyone,” Battistoni says.
Another link in the sausage chain
Sahlen’s geographic reach has been steadily growing over the last few years. The company recently made its entrée into the Phoenix, Arizona, and Charlotte, North Carolina, markets and is looking to expand into Florida and Texas in the near future.
The private-label side of Sahlen’s business has been growing as well. “It’s important to find your way to new avenues,” says Battistoni. The company is a member of the Private Label Manufactures Association and has been able to leverage its reputation within the industry into new business on that side, but the Sahlen brand will always be the core focus. “In order for a family company to continue for the next 100 years, they have to develop the brand side of things,” he says.
To accommodate that growth, Sahlen is constantly upgrading its facility, where Battistoni estimates that none of the equipment is more than seven to 10 years old. The company is currently undertaking a project that will add 100 pallets of capacity to its freezer — just one effort in a larger attempt to meet the needs of the food service industry. “We just changed all our equipment in order to have it frozen and in bulk packs for food service,” says Battistoni. “Frozen it can maintain full quality for six months in the freezer and 30 days after it’s thawed.”
While it can be tempting to meet the needs of every customer in every circumstance, Battistoni says that a good company knows how to maintain its core at all times. “In order to stay competitive you can’t be a jack-of-all-trades, you have to be really finite with what you’re offering. You have to make things that fit into your production scheduling and cycling — as well as profitability levels — without slowing down your business,” he says. “If you’re offering something that is difficult to make, then you affect all your current products with that decision. These things are very much considered in our decision-making process going forward.”
The same commitment to quality and innovation that has kept Sahlen Packing Company running for the last 147 years will continue to serve the company well into the future, ensuring that Sahlen’s products will be found on grills and in sandwiches across the country for many summers to come.