The Early Years, Findlay Market.
Part 2 Success is the sum of small efforts—repeated day in and day out. Robert Collier
Elmer loves to tell stories of the early formative years, growing up in Cincinnati’s West End. This was the early 1930s and Cincinnati, like the rest of the country was reeling from the crippling effects of the Great Depression.
Elmer and younger brother Art were out exploring the West End at an early age, trying to earn money. Elmer was 7, Art was 6 and the West End’ Findlay Market was “the” place for young entrepreneurs. Elmer recalls buying paper shopping bags for 2 cents and selling them for a nickel to busy Findlay shoppers. This was real money to the boys and opened the doors to other odd jobs in the Market. Pop bottles, when found, were worth 2 cents. Young life was good!
“I always knew as a boy that if I wanted anything in life, I would have to work for it.” Elmer states. Being one of nine kids in the challenging times of the depression, Elmer did not have to think long and hard about this. It was quite evident. The bustling Findlay Market proved to be the foundation and instilled a great work ethic in Elmer. He was able to see at this early age the direct relationship between hard work and pay.
1930s Cincinnati Part One
“I knew at an early age that if I wanted anything in life, I would have to go and work for it!” Elmer J. Hensler
Elmer J. Hensler was born May 29th, 1930 in Cincinnati’s West End. He is one of 9 children and was fortunate in one way in that his father worked for the railroad, so his dad’s modest income was at least steady.
Cincinnati was in the midst of the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover was president and he argued that the economy would work itself out and the worst had passed. However, the worst was just beginning. One out of four people were out of work.
Elmer often speaks about being a child growing up in the 1930s. One of his favorite stories is when he was about 7 years old. Elmer and younger brother Art were sneaking a smoke from their dad’s cigarettes. They decided to hide in the closet, next to a clothes hamper. They had to hurry and put out the cigarettes, and without thinking about the consequences, they attempted to extinguish the smokes in the hamper, causing a smoldering fire. Fortunately the smoke was quickly discovered by their mom. A good whipping resulted when their father came home that night.
The other story Elmer tells is having to leave the house through the second story window during the 1937 flood. Elmer tells of how they were transported to safety in a row boat. He also speaks about the river rising way up covering Spring Grove Avenue and the water catching fire due to all of the fuel leaking out from the storage tanks down by the river.
These were tough times but Elmer never complains when reflecting. He only speaks about finding ways to work and earn money. That was always his focus and that’s how it remains today.
Most back yard grillers can be classified into two groups. The “Hurry and Let’s Eat” griller and the “Slow--It Will be Ready When it’s Ready” aficionado. Both strategies have merit. For the time starved and hungry, the home grill can be fast and easy. For the passionate-chef inspired, the grill is an opportunity to create. What if you can have the best of both; speed, incredibly delicious food and inspired family gathering experiences?
Great sausage grilling begins with simple basics and time honored techniques. This is not complicated yet it does require some planning and perhaps a slight shift in your thinking. The shift I am talking about is your attitude towards grilling and the bounty you will produce from your grill. What if rather than just cooking on a grill you make the grill the centerpiece of the gathering. Create the right conditions over and over so when guests come to your home, they know and anticipate the meal because you are known for your grill mastery. Grill mastery can be as simple as this;
7 Steps to Sausage Grilling Mastery
- The sausages you select matter. Quality varies greatly. Reputation matters. Queen City Sausage is the leader in Cincinnati. Best ingredients. Small batch production. Real hickory wood smoke. Hand mixed spices. Craft sausage makers specializing in mettwurst and bratwurst.
- Serious grillers use natural casing sausages. The natural casings hold in the flavor and juiciness of each sausage.
- Make the grill the center of attention. Let your guest know upon arrival what is on the menu and what sausages they can look forward to.
- Toppings: Toppings simply make grilling more exciting. Onions, peppers, sauerkraut, and coarse ground mustard are my favorites. These key toppings naturally compliment the grilled sausages flavor.
- Build anticipation. My secret? I start cooking the onions and pepper topping first. I don’t just heat them up, I use a small pan and sauté them with my favorite Italian dressing and Worcestershire sauce. This sends an aroma throughout the party and out into the neighborhood. This smoky, onion infused aroma is a signal that a wonderful meal will soon be served.
- Get the Queen City sausages ready. The trick? Parboil with your favorite full bodied beer. Simmer the links for about 5 minutes. The links will swell and heat evenly from the beer.
- Don’t spoil the party! Slow down. Now add the sausages to the medium heated grill. Use tongs. Forks pierce the sausages and cause flare-ups which result in dry-burnt sausages. Turn often. Natural casing sausages burst open when at their grilled perfection. Remove from the grill, platter up and serve.
These are my grill tips. I have an advantage. I work for the Queen City Sausage Company. I know and see great sausages being made daily. I see the knowledge, passion, recipes and best ingredients that go into every sausage.
One more tip; The Cincinnati region is well known for brats or bratwurst. No, Cincinnati brats are not the raw sausages you find outside the area. Instead Cincinnati brats are slow cooked (steamed) pork and are whitish in color and fully cooked. Simply grill and serve. The taste? Wow! Want some? Visit www.queencitysausage.com and click on BUY. Here you will find our best selling sausages. Additionally Queen City Sausages are available in the Greater Cincinnati area at Kroger, Meijer, Remke/biggs, Findley Market , independents and the Cincinnati Reds.
Press Release November 21, 2014 Cincinnati, Ohio
“I wanted to take a moment to let you know that we have reached a very difficult decision. We have decided not to go forward with our treasured Queen City Sausage Festival.” This quote is from Mark Balasa, Director of Marketing at Cincinnati’s Queen City Sausage Company. The festival has been a huge success and has far exceeded expectations. In just 4 short years the festival achieved over 65,000 visitors for the 3 day weekend and delighted festival goers with delicious Queen City sausages in over 27 different dishes! The selection and creativity was incredible! While the festival was a big asset, it was a huge time and financial commitment on the part of a small company. Queen City Sausage is fortunate to have many “irons” in the fire such as sponsorships with the Reds and Bengals to name just a few. Additionally the company is expanding and adding a new addition to their production facility. “So, after much thought, Queen City management decided to end the festival while it was on top and wildly successful. We are proud of the festival’s success and community acceptance.” According founder and President, Elmer J. Hensler. Queen City Sausage wishes to thank all who have helped make the festival great!!! This includes customers, food vendors, musicians, the City of Newport, Christian Moerlein and so many others who helped build the Queen City Sausage Festival. The friendship and support is greatly appreciated.
Mark Balasa Director of Marketing
As one of Cincinnati’s last remaining meat companies, Queen City Sausage excels at giving back to the community.
By Sam Gazdziak, Editor in Chief
In 1965, Queen City Sausage was a fledgling sausage company in Cincinnati, a city full of established, well-known processors. The founder of Queen City was a 35-year-old Cincinnati native who had spent the majority of his life to that point in the city’s slaughterhouses. Almost 50 years later, Queen City Sausage has become one of the most iconic local brands in a city that takes its local foods very seriously. Its founder Elmer Hensler can still be found in the office every day, making sure the company is adhering to his strict quality standards.
“I believe in making a quality product, I believe in using quality meat, I don’t deviate, I don’t use any mechanically separated chicken or turkey like some of the other fellas do,” he says. “I believe in giving quality and keeping the quality up. That’s why I think I’m still here for 49 years, going on 50. If you give the public quality product, they’ll buy it and be grateful that you have it.”
Even as Queen City Sausage has grown and expanded its operations into new products and new processes, the basic tenants that Hensler set down at the very beginning are still in use. Along with using only the best ingredients, the spices are hand-mixed — by Hensler’s younger brother, Art — and real hickory wood is used in all the smokehouses.
There is no denying that Queen City Sausage, and its founder, is one of the industry’s great success stories. Even today, the company’s most popular products are time-tested favorites like brats, metts and smoked sausages. However, it would be a mistake to write the company off as a museum piece. Queen City Sausage is an important part of Cincinnati’s present-day community. Not only can its products be found in supermarkets and restaurants throughout the city, but the company is a mainstay at public events, from charity runs to baseball games. It also hosts its own Queen City Sausage Festival each July. With a storied past and a bright future, Queen City Sausage is the most deserving recipient of Independent Processor’s first-ever Processor of the Year Award.
From the bottom to the top
In the 19th century, Cincinnati’s thriving meatpacking business had given the city the nickname of “Porkopolis”. While the packing and processing business in Cincinnati had diminished by the 1940s, there were still plenty of opportunities for a kid from the West End of town to find his future career.
“When I was about 11 years old, I started hanging around the slaughterhouse,” Hensler recalls. “The next thing you know, I’m in the slaughterhouse, because I was fascinated by the way the cattle were killed, and the calves and the lambs. So before I went to school, I would go to work and help put out the orders.”
Hensler spent his days getting up at 4:00 in the morning, working at the slaughterhouse for a couple of hours before going to school, and returning to the slaughterhouse after school. Mark Balasa, Queen City’s director of marketing, points out that he wasn’t getting paid at first.
“He was showing them that he wanted to work, and it took them a while before they finally said, ‘We’ve got to give this kid something.’” Balasa points out.
Hensler turned to the meat industry full-time when he was 15 years old after an experience in his ninth-grade woodworking class.
“I was making a bowling pin lamp out of a piece of wood on a wood lathe,” he says. “The window was open, and three girls from across the street called me over. I went over to the window, and the woodworking teacher came up behind me with a paddle, hit me on the rear end. I went out the window, and I didn’t go back!”
Once he settled into the meat industry, Hensler rose up through the ranks quickly. He started slaughtering cattle, and progressed to gutting the carcasses, then shrouding them, then working in the cooler, and then finally driving the meat truck and selling the product. Eventually, he went to work for a local businessman who owned several meat companies in the area. Hensler, by now a married man in his 30’s with almost two decades of experience under his belt, started managing one of the man’s sausage companies.
“For about three-and-a-half years, I was getting up at 3 in the morning, be there by 4 and work there until I was done,” he says. “Then one day, I figured that if I could do it for him, I could do it for me.”
Hensler gathered a couple of partners and started Queen City Sausage with $13,000 — with the idea that if the business didn’t work, he could always go back to work for another company. The company initially made only wieners and bologna, and Hensler delivered them to a customer in Toledo to avoid the competition in Cincinnati. That arrangement lasted until the trailer holding the wieners had a tire blow out, and Hensler narrowly missed a collision with a school bus on the interstate. From that point forward, he was determined to stay right in his home town.
In the 49 years since Queen City Sausage was founded, much has changed, both with the company and the city. Hensler bought out his partners to become sole owner of the company. Queen City has greatly expanded its product range, including a range of deli meats and loaves, sausages and goetta, a regional favorite made with pork, beef and steel-cut oats. While the company is still in its original location, the building has gone through 11 expansions to its current size of 45,000 square feet.
Queen City’s products are now found in retailers all over the city, from larger stores like Kroger and Walmart to the small independent grocers that are still left.
“We try to take care of the mom and pops, because they’re the ones that made me when I started,” Hensler says. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here today.”
One of the biggest changes, though, is in the local competition, or lack thereof. Where Queen City once had to sell its products in Toledo to avoid the competition, it is now one of the last remaining meat processors in the city. Hensler has a list of 40 Cincinnati meat processors that have gone out of business since Queen City Sausage’s start in 1965. Of those companies, many closed after trying to cheapen the product to cut costs. One in particular was a customer of Hensler when he was a meat salesman. The formerly successful sausage company changed its formulation for its products, and sales quickly went downhill.
“That was a lesson for me,” he says. “If you cheapen it, it isn’t going to work. That’s why I don’t use anything other than pork and beef in the product, and we use the best spices. We don’t deviate one ounce, and we will not as long as I’m around.”
Cincinnati is fortunate enough to have a wealth of local food companies that have become mainstays, including Queen City Sausage, Graeter’s Ice Cream, LaRosa’s Pizzaria and Moerlein Brewing Co. Many of those company leaders visit Queen City Sausage for organized lunches, where advice and experience is freely given to benefit attendees.
One of Queen City’s recent product releases came about as a collaboration between two Cincinnati favorites. Its bierwurst sausage features Moerlein Amber Ale and has been very popular among its retailer customers.
“Anytime we do a new product, we always have them in mind,” Balasa says. “Their shelf space is very competitive, more than it’s ever been, so a new product has to show a lot of innovation. We’re a little slower in releasing things, but when we do bring something to the table, it’s very important to be well thought-out.”
Queen City Sausage’s visibility in Cincinnati has never been greater in the company’s long history. It makes the official bratwurst of the Cincinnati Reds and the Cincinnati Bengals, and its products can be found throughout those stadiums. Queen City also deploys a Sample Squad to various charitable events, like fundraising runs. Balasa estimates that the company gives away over 35,000 full-sized sausages and goetta through the course of the year.
“Some of these events get phone calls from runners asking [ahead of time] if Queen City Sausage is going to be there,” he adds. “It’s a lot of work, but it really connects with people, and you wouldn’t believe the thank-yous, because they know we’re supporting a charity.”
Balasa also organizes the annual Queen City Sausage Festival, held every summer at Newport’s Riverfront Levee in Newport, Ky where local food vendors are the prominent attractions. The vendors, selected by Queen City, prepare dishes made with the company’s sausages and goetta. There is no duplication allowed, so the food booths have to show some creativity in their offerings. This year’s festival, held in July, included a reuben pizza and goetta nachos, along with the standard brats, metts and hot dogs.
The Festival also features games, rides, face painting and two stages for local musicians. This year’s event also had several vintage Greyhound buses, as the company is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Over the three days of the event, tens of thousands of visitors stop in for the food and fun.
“It’s unusual for a company to not only market its product through a festival but also manage every aspect of it and not put it somebody else’s hands,” Balasa explains, adding that the “no duplication” food rule keeps visitors coming back year after year.
Queen City Sausage employs 34 people, and Hensler believes in taking care of his employees. He provides benefits and a profit sharing plan, and as a result, turnover is extremely low. Openings, when they occur, are most frequently filled by getting recommendations from employees.
Hensler is also quick to give credit to his management team, including Balasa and Patrick Miller, the general manager who oversees the day-to-day operations of the business. Today, he says, the company is doing better than ever. Sales for the company have grown steadily every year, the company is debt-free, and an expansion that is in the planning stages will double the size of its headquarters and streamline production.
“You’re only as good as the people around you,” he says. “It’s unbelievable, to do what I’ve done and to have the people that I’ve had on my team. We have a bunch of good guys who know their jobs, and I don’t have to worry about anything.”
Throughout his career, Hensler has benefited from strong relationships. His founding partners were Alois Stadler, known as Cincinnati’s best “spice man,” and George Nagel, a master sausagemaker. Together, they helped develop the traditional German recipes that put Queen City Sausage on the map.
Hensler also fell under the guidance of a local legend at an early age. Just as he was getting Queen City Sausage started, he was introduced to Milton Schloss by a mutual friend. Schloss was president of Kahn’s, a top Cincinnati processor that was later acquired by Consolidated Foods (later known as Sara Lee) and today is part of the Hillshire Brands family.
Hensler bought his meat from Kahn’s, as well as several key pieces of equipment.
“I got a stuffer and tie linker from him in the beginning,” he recalls. “They were going from piston-type stuffers to pump stuffers. They had a couple of piston-types in the back, so I got that, and that’s how I started with wieners and bologna here at Queen City. If I needed a motor for a peeling machine, they would have it on the back dock, waiting for me when I got there.
“Milt knew the meat business and taught me a lot,” Hensler says. “I could go just about anywhere in their plant, and I would learn how they did things, and I would come back and do it on a smaller scale here at our company.”
Hensler celebrated his 84th birthday not long ago, but retirement isn’t in his future plans. He loves his job and can’t see staying home all day watching television, he says.
“I don’t even stay at home on the weekends. I tell my wife, ‘We’ve got to get out of here, I can’t stay in this house,’” he adds.
While Hensler doesn’t have any interest in slowing down, he is nevertheless appreciative of how far he’s come. He takes pride not only in the company and its success, but in the people who make the company successful. As he walks through the plant to give a tour, he stops and talks to every employee he passes. He points out the parts of the operation that have benefited from technology investments (his latest acquisition, made this summer, is a state-of-the-art packaging machine). He is proud of the fact that his plant manager’s son, who recently joined the production team, is catching on quickly.
“Here I am, a 9-grade dropout, and I ended up with a company that’s unbelievable,” he says.
Independent Processor wishes to thank the judges, who had the difficult task of choosing a winner from among our strong panel of finalists. For information on nominating a company for the 2015 Independent Processor of the Year Award, please contact Sam Gazdziak at (770) 777-0058 or email@example.com.