In today’s food climate, we tend to think about food in dichotomies: big or little, national or local, industrial or artisanal. But what about the folks who occupy the space in the middle? Uncle Charley’s Sausage, a regional sausage company based in Vandergrift, is finding success by straddling both worlds.
When Uncle Charley’s president Chas Armitage died in a plane crash in 2011, the future looked uncertain. His father, Charles Armitage, did not want to return to running the business, which he founded back in 1988, and began to search for a buyer. Employees and customers worried that the small, family company would get gobbled up and shipped out.
Nearly four years later, Uncle Charley’s is still right where it started. Len Caric and Jim Rudolph, two entrepreneurs from Western Pennsylvania, purchased it in 2014 and immediately began to make changes. Their first move, however, wasn’t a massive layoff or a search for production space in another state. Instead, they gave everyone a raise.
That was just the beginning. Uncle Charley’s quickly earned its SQF certification, a third party program that ensures rigorous food safety and quality standards. They rebranded, updating labels and marketing materials to give Uncle Charley’s a fresh new look. And they launched a food truck in partnership with Square Café, sampling and selling sausage at events around town.
One thing Caric and Rudolph haven’t changed? The sausage. The recipes, which include fresh kolbossi and hot Italian, are the same ones Charles Armitage perfected over 25 years earlier. The meat comes from farms in Ohio and is never frozen—in fact, the sausages go from farm to shelf in about three days. They are also remarkably lean, with a fat ratio about 10 to 30 percent lower than other brands.
Though Uncle Charley’s makes classic flavors, they are hardly stuck in the past. “We don’t want to be like Buick,” jokes Caric, who is finding ways to appeal to millennials and markets beyond Pittsburgh. As a mid-sized company—they make about 65,000 pounds of sausage each week—Uncle Charley’s takes pages from a range of playbooks. They are able to borrow the hyper-efficient, safety-conscious tactics of huge multinationals while still showcasing the flexibility, freshness and personality that their smaller size allows.
In a food system that seems to favor a “get big or get out” mentality, Uncle Charley’s Sausage is taking a different tack. Though they are growing (sales are up about 10 percent since the new owners took over), Uncle Charley’s is still very much a local company. “Some people don’t even realize we’re made locally,” explains Caric. “We want people to know that this is the sausage you buy if you live in Western Pennsylvania.”
In other news…
This Friday and Saturday, Picklesburgh comes to Downtown Pittsburgh. The festival celebrates the iconic food with vendors, music, contests and more.
Speaking of Friday and Saturday, the 3rd annual Pittsburgh Summer Beerfest returns to Stage AE this weekend. Tickets are available here.
On July 19th, Pinot’s Palette, a “paint and sip” studio, will open at 3451 Butler Street in Lawrenceville.
This Friday, Maggie’s Farm is holding an Office Space-themed party to celebrate the release of their new aged rum. Maggie’s Farm also recently received a second still, allowing them to significantly increase production of their award winning rums.