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Zweigle's expanding cautiously: Maker of meat products does not bite off more than it can chew

Rochester Business Journal
August 29, 2014

For Zweigle’s Inc., which ventured briefly into Pennsylvania and thought about China, there is no place like home.

“We are trying to grow outside the area, but it’s not going to be through branded product,” said Steven Vacanti, director of sales and marketing for the fifth-generation maker of hot dogs and other meat products.

“We can’t go into a new market and outspend an Oscar Mayer or a Ball Park or even whatever the regional brand is there.”

The company distributed its products through a retailer in Pennsylvania a while back, but that has ended. In 2005, a local distributor announced plans to sell Zweigle’s products in southwestern China. The partnership ended before it started.

Zweigle’s is comfortable with its market in Western and Central New York, despite competition from the likes of Sahlen Packing Co. Inc. in Buffalo and Hofmann Sausage Co. LLC in Syracuse.

“Hot dogs are a really strange category in that there are a lot of local and regional preferences,” Vacanti said. “You get outside of this area and it’s not quite that intense. But you have regional brands in New England. The Midwest is Vienna All Beef. Pennsylvania has a couple.

“It’s a tough category, which is why we’re trying to diversify our product offering outside of just hot dogs and into products that have more of a year-round appeal and don’t have regional preferences associated with them.” Work has begun on a 4,500-square-foot expansion of its facility on North Plymouth Avenue in Rochester. The new line will produce meatballs, pizza toppings, pork chops and chicken breasts to be sold by Zweigle’s and by private labels.

“This expansion will give us opportunities to be more efficient throughout the year,” said Julie Camardo-Steron, owner and president. “The intent is to keep the plant moving and keep product flowing in and out of the plant, but not necessarily to add any positions. We’re looking to maintain positions right now.”

The company’s 50 employees prepare for the summer season in March, slow some after the Fourth of July and scale back after Labor Day, Camardo-Steron said.

Zweigle’s does not disclose its finances, but Camardo-Steron said they have been consistent year over year.

“Some of it depends on weather, so it wasn’t quite as stellar a year this spring,” she said. “It was a little colder.”

Zweigle’s is no different from most small businesses, said Dennis Lohouse, a principal at Forte Capital LLC in Brighton.

“When you are a mouse in a room full of elephants—or even one elephant—you have to be very nimble to not get squashed,” he said. “The trend, particularly in retail, is for the big guys to buy the brands. You end up as one of many brands in a portfolio, like Bausch & Lomb.”

Camardo-Steron, 39, became the fifth-generation owner and president in 2009 after the death of her mother, Roberta.

“For me, I’ve made the decision to try to continue the business in my family’s name, to keep the company growing and to make an investment in the business,” she said. “That’s important to me.

“The Zweigle’s name means something in Rochester, but I believe we can be so much more. The opportunities are here, right in front of us, and we need to go after them.”

Zweigle’s roots were planted in 1880, when Wilhelm and Josephine Zweigle opened a butcher shop at the corner of Joseph Avenue and Kelly Street. Zweigle’s Inc. was incorporated in May 1955.

“Any family business that goes beyond the third generation is the exception to the rule,” Lohouse said. “That third generation and beyond, where the connection to the founder is less and less, the connection to the business is less and less. It becomes more difficult to go forward.”

Keeping Zweigle’s in the family for this long has required commitment, customer loyalty and business acumen, Lohouse said.

“The first is a family commitment to staying independent,” he said. “You can make the argument in this environment that you need to have a global partner. But the reality comes down to what’s happening in the family.

“The second part is what they’ve done has inspired a loyal following. They have brand loyalty, which is translated from their quality and consistency. The Zweigle’s white hot is a unique thing, and that’s one of the things that inspires this cult following that they have.

“The third is it has to be good business management and good brand management. The fact that they are still in business and are successful means they have done the basics very well.”

Camardo-Steron is the great-great-granddaughter of Wilhelm and Josephine on her mother’s side.

“I spent time here in high school,” she said. “I spent time here in college. I used to work downstairs in the packaging cooler. Then I was on the road, doing some sales in college.”

Camardo-Steron moved to Maryland in 1998 and returned in 2002 and did office and administrative work for the company. She took a job in sales within the next 24 months.

“I moved back to find out if this was something I wanted to do in order to keep the family business,” she said. “When I moved back, both my grandfather (Robert Berl) and my mother were still working in the business. But I needed to find out whether I liked the business, and how to carry on the business within the family.”

The answer came quickly.

“I always enjoyed working here,” Camardo-Steron said. “I thought there were great people here. I felt, in some way, an obligation to keep the business going within the family.

“Not every day is perfect,” she added. “There are challenges. But overall, it’s been a great decision, and I’m really happy that I decided to move back and I’ve decided to continue it.”

Retail makes up at least 80 percent of the business, Vacanti said. The rest is food services.

“Food service today is mostly independent operators and some institutional, like schools and hospitals,” he said. “Part of the expansion is intended to give us a broader audience for that mass feeding segment, which is nursing homes, hospitals, any type of health care facility, colleges and universities.

“Hopefully, that’ll bring the food service side up so we’re not so retail-lopsided. Part of our challenge as a consumer-focused company is grilling season. People look at us as link products on the grill from Memorial Day to Labor Day.”

Some 75 percent of the business is related to hot dogs, Vacanti said, but other segments are gaining steam.

“The prepared-food side for grocery stores is a rapidly growing segment,” he said. “We’ll be able to make a lot of products that fit that part of the grocery store.”

Zweigle’s packed nearly 400,000 pounds of chicken sausage in 2013, compared with 50,000 pounds in 2012, he said. Some 350,000 pounds were made for Weg-mans Food Markets Inc.

“We do Wegmans brand all-natural chicken sausage,” Vacanti said. “That really pushed that category, because when we do a private-label product, it goes into all their stores. That’s really where we’re investing and growing, packing under other folks’ brand.

“We’re not big enough to grow the Zweigle’s brand outside of this region, in terms of the marketing spending it would require. What we do very well is make quality products, and people recognize that. We have a lot of credibility when we go to the retailers, and they have credibility with their customers.”

The company last year packed 650,000 pounds of its most popular product, the Texas Pop Open Hot Dog. It made 150,000 pounds of Italian sausage and 150,000 pounds of Polish sausage.

Zweigle’s also makes bologna, braunschweiger, salami, olive loaf, cheese products and meat sauces.

“People don’t know we make more than hot dogs,” Camardo-Theron said.

Camardo-Steron’s father, Gerald Camardo, is vice president and a member of the company board but is not involved in daily operations. Kevin Salva is chief operating officer. Dominic Lippa is the comptroller.

The plant is on 1.74 acres of property assessed at $1.04 million, Monroe County records show.

“We don’t have a whole lot of room to grow here,” Camardo-Steron said. “The expansion is what it is, and I think it’ll carry us for a little bit longer. A 4,500-square-foot expansion is great for us, and we’re very excited about it because it opens up new opportunities for us.”

Production in the expanded portion can be tripled by swapping equipment, Vacanti said.

There is no long-term reason to find more space, Camardo-Steron said, and no reason to think about selling the business because of market challenges.

“It’s a lot more challenging for any smaller business, regardless of whether or not it’s a family business, to compete against a national brand,” she said. “You have to play to your strengths. It’s the quality products. It’s the people who’ve been here. It’s the knowledge you have. It’s the response time in getting back to the person.

“In the meat industry, it’s fairly common to have a hot dog or sausage maker in a family business just because a lot of people from Europe migrated to the U.S. and started making traditional hot dogs or sausages or deli products. I don’t know that that’s rare. Having a fifth generation might be a little rarer.”

8/29/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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