Led by Buddig family, Old Wisconsin Sausage celebrates 75 years, grows with protein snacks

·6 min read
Bob Buddig is CEO of Carl Buddig Meats, but he points out that it's a family business and other family members are involved in leadership.
Bob Buddig is CEO of Carl Buddig Meats, but he points out that it's a family business and other family members are involved in leadership.

Bob Buddig may be the CEO and spokesperson for a family business that began with chipped beef, but he’s "not a one-man band." There are five Buddig siblings, and they have all had various roles within the family business. In fact, Buddig’s earliest role was taking out the garbage.

Back in 1981, they bought Old Wisconsin Sausage company, which began as Thielmann's sausage shop in Sheboygan. Three facilities now operate in Sheboygan. Under the Buddig portfolio, the brand has seen considerable growth, particularly in the past five years.

Sales of sausage and snack sticks are popular with busy consumers, and the convenience of shelf-stable products means they aren’t seeing things slow down. One month of sales today is more than an entire year four decades ago at Old Wisconsin, which marks 75 years in business this year.

Buddig, now 65, lives in the Chicago area, where the Buddig facilities are located, but spent a lot of time in Sheboygan at Old Wisconsin over the years. Staffing there has doubled as production has grown. Still, the sausage recipes stay true to their Old Wisconsin roots while convenience and options continue to grow. The most recent additions include cheese and sausage snack packs plus hot and spicy sausage snacks.

Buddig talked with us about the family business, which has grown from Carl Buddig Meats to include Old Wisconsin Sausage and Kingsford barbecue products.

Question: This family business, which started with chipped beef, has grown over the generations. What is the driving force behind your company and the foods it makes?

Answer: I’m part of a sibling team, even though I’m the CEO. This is a family business, I’m not better than anybody else. I’m a third-generation family member. … It is our goal to pass this on to the next generation.

We have about 2,600 associates at Carl Buddig. There are no entitlements. We don’t take anything for granted. We don’t have any company cars. Our office isn’t very fancy. I just attended a retirement for a person who worked here for 38 years. The week before there was a person who had been here for 50 years. It is not uncommon for multiple generations and family members to work for the company.

Q: What was your first job within the company? 

A. I started off as a "vice president of garbalogy" … I was a garbage guy. In the family business, we all started working the summers in the plant.

Q: Did you ever want to do anything else?

A. Really, no. Even in high school I worked at grocery stores, but I always wanted to do this. When I did projects in college, I made mini (model) smokehouses. I always had a passion for this.

Q: When it comes to technology versus tradition, what has changed and what remains the same for Old Wisconsin?

A: We still use hardwood smoke, and gas fired smoke as well, up in Sheboygan.

Q: What’s your go-to favorite of your products? Is there one thing you always bring home for your family?

A. I work out of an office building, so my wife buys Buddig at the store. It’s funny, people think Mrs. Buddig can’t you get this for free? I usually have a turkey bite, a sausage, for a snack. … We’re definitely meat eaters in our family, yes. We’re always looking at competitive products too. I spend a lot of time taste testing.

Old Wisconsin, from Sheboygan, is one of the brands of Carl Buddig meats.
Old Wisconsin, from Sheboygan, is one of the brands of Carl Buddig meats.

Q: What makes a quality meat product or sausage in your view?

A: A lot of our (Old Wisconsin) products are shelf stable. Some similar products can get cheap tasting, mealy mouth feel, mushy. There’s a lot of garbage out there, and you can tell by biting into it.

Most of the guys in Wisconsin know how to make a good product. It is important to make a product consistently day in and day out. That is a hard thing to do. I have a lot of respect for our competitors in Wisconsin.

Q: How many pounds of cheese are you using per year? 

A: The cheeses in the snack pack do come from Wisconsin. I believe it is in the millions now.

Q: When others have closed their facilities, like Oscar Mayer in Madison and Butterball in Illinois,  your company has added. What sets you on a different path?

A: It is not just my family, it is the company and the business. We have families that have worked multiple generations. When we bought the (Old Wisconsin) sausage company, we didn’t change anything. We just invested back into the business. We bought it and gave it things it didn’t have, like national distribution.

We focused on certain products, and converted most of the business to snacking company versus old school heritage. I know Fritz at Usinger. He’s an old school guy, great product, but premium snacking has been our focus.

In Sheboygan, it is all Sheboygan people. We learned from them. We didn’t say we’re going to bring our Chicago guys and change it. … Each year it has grown, and it became fun. We don’t have that big corporate culture. That’s a really important thing for what we’ve done.

We’ve weathered the storm. Klement’s was sold out. Cher Make sold out. Some of the smaller guys in Chicago sold out. We’ve continued to grow.…

We invested in the community in Sheboygan and the area, which has outstanding food companies, like Johnsonville, Kohler and Sargento. There are great food companies there, and they are all family owned. … There are not too many places in the whole country like that.

Snacks are a big focus for Old Wisconsin and Buddig Meats.
Snacks are a big focus for Old Wisconsin and Buddig Meats.

Q: Sausage sticks and protein snacks have grown in popularity. Where do you see that as a trend?

A: Protein snacking is on trend. We’ve positioned ourselves, as our number one is our turkey sticks. We don’t make jerky, we leave that to Jack Link and the rest of the guys. Protein snacking is on trend, and partly because they’re shelf stable they’re available in so many different places.

Q: Do you have a memorable failure or flop? What have you learned? 

A: We’re launching a new hot and spicy, which we hope will be a success. We did have a habanero that was actually too hot. That was a failure. It was hard to make, because we had to wear masks to make it.

Q: How have you seen consumer appetites change over the years?

A: We’ve shifted to more poultry based items, leaner products. Convenience plays a key role. People like things sliced. People still like good value. I think it is important that we provide a lot of that.

Q: What else do you want people to know?

A: We’d be nothing without the people up in Sheboygan. They make us look good.

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Table Chat features interviews with Wisconsinites, or Wisconsin natives, who work in restaurants or support the restaurant industry; or visiting chefs. To suggest individuals to profile, email psullivan@gannett.com.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Old Wisconsin Sausage led by Buddig Meats celebrates 75 years