Smokin’ success

Nueske's takes the 'low and slow' path to building a top bacon brand

Posted on Nov 30, 2017 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

From breakfast to bourbon cocktails, from gooey cheeseburger ads to Instagram memes, it’s an understatement to say that bacon is everywhere. For bacon aficionados, there’s no question among the top brands, hands down, is Nueske’s. Menus at many of the country’s best restaurants, from Manny’s Steakhouse in Minneapolis to the American Club in Kohler, boast Nueske’s by name on their menus.

“So really, what’s there not to like?” says Tanya Nueske,

CEO and third generation of the family to own and operate the Wittenberg-based company.

Never underestimate the power of bacon. Glenn Gazzolo most certainly never will. For the Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats president and chief operating officer, a poignant reminder came during a trip to Atlanta to catch a Braves game.

He stopped at First & Third Hot Dog & Sausage Shack at SunTrust Park — which just happens to carry Nueske’s products, including the company’s new bacon-cheddarjalepeno- infused brat. When Gazzolo handed the manager his business card, he got a whole new ballpark experience.

“It was like we we1217_Cover_story_2re royalty,” he says. “The kitchen staff came out to personally thank us. We even got free beer. I’ve never had free beer at a ballpark before.”

And that is the power of bacon. Or, as Gazzolo would say, the power of the brand.

“We’ve created an expectation of quality, and we will not trade volume growth for quality,” Gazzolo says. “The (Nueske) family has created a great story. We will get bigger, but we will not change who we are.”

Nearly 85 years of evidence says they won’t have to. AUthEntIcity rules Low and slow is a common phrase heard around Nueske’s recently expanded smokehouses in Wittenberg.

In most cases, it references how the company creates its smoked meats, including applewood-smoked bacon, love of which has fueled the company’s growth in recent years. In that context, it means the meat is exposed to smoke and low heat generated by real logs, slowly browning over the course of at least 24 hours.

But it could easily be the moniker for the company’s business strategy as well. It’s a company that has preferred to build relationships face to face, one chef, one community at a time. It may deploy one of the longest running guerilla marketing campaigns ever conducted.

The results have certainly been just as delicious.1217_Cover_story_3

From its origins as a small smokehouse founded in 1933, to its current network of web operations, five regional sales offices and more than 60 distributors across the nation, Nueske’s has enjoyed the benefits of a national bacon craze.

An article in The New York Times in 2000 called Nueske’s the “beluga of bacon, the Rolls-Royce of rashers.”

The catalog Hammacher Schlemmer described it as “the world’s finest, most succulent smoked bacon.”

“Food is one of those things that brings people and families together, and I think bacon is one of those foods that people associate with that,” Nueske says, offering her best explanation for its popularity. “Besides, it tastes good.”

People certainly agree.

Annual sales of pork, particularly bacon, have been ascending nationwide for more than a decade, and by the end of 2018, production — again, led by bacon — is expected to surpass beef production. Pork sales, driven primarily by bacon, are up 20 percent since 2011, with bacon alone topping more than $4 billion a year.

There were 908 million pounds of bacon sold in the United States in 2017, 3 pounds for every American. In an age of health consciousness, it’s an irony not lost on Nueske.

“Moderation is key to anything. I wouldn’t recommend eating a pound a day,” she says.

1217_Cover_4While it’s not the only product Nueske’s makes, there is no denying that national obsession with bacon helped fuel the company’s recent growth, including a 110,000-square-foot expansion in 2016 — which followed expansions in 2006 and 2008 — that more than doubled the company’s production facilities. It also grew the workforce to more than 200 employees, not counting those hired seasonally.

Nueske says the latest expansion includes room to grow, so the company can continue to ride the wave of consumer demand for bacon, yet also focus on its other smoked meat products.

“It’s never been our intent to be the biggest, but we wanted to make sure we overbuilt a little bit because I don’t like to build and it’s nice to have some space we can grow into, over time, with intent,” Nueske says. “When we are building, then I’m not concentrating on the product.”

But the growth has brought challenges as well. The workforce at Nueske’s has traditionally been a tightly knit group — essentially, an extended family, Nueske says. In fact, there are multiple generations of families working at the Wittenberg plant. But as the company has grown, it’s not as easy to develop and maintain those close bonds.

“We work hard to maintain those ties. This is more than just a workplace, they really are family — just a bit more extended,” she says. While bacon has been the star in recent years, Nueske’s carries an array of smoked meats, including turkey, chicken, duck and sausages — all prepared using the same low-and-slow technique of 24-hour smoking using apple or cherry wood.

“We are pretty old-school,” Nueske says.

And she’s not just talking about the smokehouse. simplIcity seLlS Nueske’s was founded by Tanya’s grandfather, Bob, known as R.C., who moved off the family farm and founded a small smokehouse in Wittenberg using recipes his father Wilhelm brought from Germany. From there, he worked in northern Wisconsin, particularly the resorts, traveling with a solitary truck, to one town at a time.

It was a simple approach for a simple product. It also worked. Even as the business grew, the approach stayed simple. The focus was on the product, which until 1980 was produced in a smokehouse attached to the family home Tanya grew up in. A 1980 fire resulted in building a new smokehouse away from the family home. Marketing and sales were done face to face, business by business.

“We still see ourselves as that old smokehouse guy that every small town across the region used to have,” Nueske says. “It’s craft. It’s handmade. It’s a very Midwestern approach.”

It’s one that she was once certain she did not want to be a part of.

She worked in the family business growing up and over the summers while in college, then moved to the Milwaukee area to pursue other career options. In 1991, she felt the urge to return home. She eventually found a spot working in packaging — with a woman who had worked for her grandfather — and slowly began climbing her way up to the executive team.

She was serving as the company’s executive vice president when her father, then-president Robert D. Nueske, died unexpectedly at age 67 from complications following knee surgery in January 2015. Tanya Nueske took on the role of CEO.

Even with its growing national reach, the person-toperson approach of her father and grandfather is still a key part of the business. There are no massive media buys. The sales and marketing teams — including Nueske herself — fan out across Wisconsin and the country, visiting food festivals while the other sales reps visit grocers and restaurateurs.

Employees often tell stories of introducing friends and family to the product, who in turn get hooked and buy slabs of it in bulk through the company’s online store if they can’t find it in a local supermarket.

It’s a success formula the company is dedicated to.

“We go out and we thank our customers and we stay true to our product,” Gazzolo says. “We can never afford to sacrifice our long-term commitment for a short-term gain. People use our product because they know its quality and they know how it will perform every single time.”

That’s one of the reasons Green Gecko owner and head chef Bob Wall has been 1217_Cover_5using Nueske’s products for more than 15 years. He features them in the culinary dishes he creates and sells packaged Nueske’s meats from the Gecko’s grocery case in Appleton.

“There are a lot of products out there that are just inconsistent. With Nueske’s, the consistency is always there,” Wall says. “They are the best smokehouse in the country, for sure in the top five.”

To Wall, it’s no secret why Nueske’s is the best — it’s the way they prepare meat.

“It’s truly Old World smoking,” Wall says. “They do it with whole logs and smoke for 24 hours. There are a lot of other folks out there using sawdust and five hours. It’s just not the same thing.”

That quality and consistency means recipes taste how they are supposed to taste when first created. As for the consumer love affair with bacon, Wall says that’s a pretty easy one to figure as well: “It’s an almost perfect ratio of lean and fat.” something old, SOMETHING new Just don’t confuse simple with antiquated.

1217_Cover_6Nueske’s may take an Old World approach to smoking meat, but that process takes place in a modern and efficient production plant. The internal smokehouses and production areas maintain a nearly pharmaceutical grade of sterilization.

A modern and automated packaging area makes quick work of turning smoked pork bellies and shoulders into packages of sliced bacon and hams.

The grounds may look pastoral — the original smokehouse and cords of apple and cherry wood are a nice touch — and the process may be Old World authentic, but Nueske’s has adopted plenty of the modern technologies that make its business run better.

Words like disruption and rapid scale may be uncommon in the lexicon of smokehouses, but that does not mean Nueske’s lacks innovation.

Careful to stay true to its core product, the company is always looking for new combinations that fit its product family. In the past few years, it has introduced cherrywood smoked uncured bacon and the previously mentioned jalapeño bacon cheddar bratwurst.

“We just picked up an award for the brat from the Specialty Food Association,” Nueske says, referring to the Sofi award for best new product in the Meat, Poultry, Charcuterie category.

Rather than constantly rolling out new products to see if they will sell, Gazzolo says the company prefers to perfect its existing products and look for unique opportunities in keeping with the company’s traditional approach.

Mindful that its core business is food service, the company has nimbly grown its retail operations to all 50 states and has robust corporate gift and online sales operations.

“A lot of our innovation is in our equipment and facilities,” he says. “There is plenty of innovation that goes on inside these four walls. We just want to make sure it’s the best of the best. That’s the power of this brand.”