BROOKSVILLE — La Bella Sausage touts its success as a maker of fresh, never-frozen products, adhering to the highest international certification for safe, quality food and selecting unusual flavors for its more than 30 processed meat products.
That's a mouthful, but La Bella, a local company founded by George Kurppe in 1992, has a history to back it up.
And today, the United Way of Hernando County will express its appreciation of the company's stability and performance during tough economic times by awarding it the United Way Strong Award.
The agency, which promotes employment and economic activity under its "Live United" banner, debuted the Strong Award earlier this year. Previous recipients have included LRE Ground Services, Alumi-Guard and Manzi Metals, said executive director Kathy Jones.
Not only has La Bella maintained its market share and employment numbers during the recession; it has invested in a new line of equipment that enabled it to hire 11 additional workers, bringing the workforce to roughly 80, said Kurppe's brother, Paul Kurppe.
Paul, who runs the operation on a day-to-day basis, credited George, saying, "I call him the trailblazer, a real risk taker — an astute risk taker."
La Bella, which turns out 10 million pounds of sausage annually, ranks as one of the largest fresh-market producers in the Southeast. That's quite significant, said Georgia Pianka, the firm's specialist in sales and strategy.
"There's a guy on every corner in this region making sausage," Pianka said.
The local company's sausages, marketed under the La Bella, La Dona and store-brand labels, are sold throughout Florida and in Georgia and the Carolinas. Contract confidentially clauses preclude the processor from divulging which stores, but they are big chains.
La Bella's 13 Hispanic sausage varieties enjoy particularly high demand in the Miami area and sell well in Colombia and Nicaragua. Of the ethnic line, Paul Kurppe noted, "Our pork patty, fritta Cubana, they fly off the shelf. Chorizo is very popular."
Mingled with the company's "Old World recipes," he said, are "recipes to fit current palates, moving toward more healthy eating." So, in the past 10 to 12 years, La Bella has added all-turkey and all-chicken sausages to its lines, now accounting for about 20 percent of its production.
Kurppe said the company is looking to expand its repertoire.
"We've been test marketing salmon and tilapia sausages, in link, and we're getting ready to test patties," he said.
How does processed fish stick together in a patty?
"Think crab cake," he suggested. Obviously, it contains a binder.
All of La Bella's products, recipes and seasonings are "oh, yes, secret," Kurppe declared.
Revealing that major spices include hot pepper, paprika, cinnamon, pepper, salt, parsley, cheese and garlic, he would only say, "We use spice houses that just sell wholesale. … Their origin is documented."
Pork shoulders and whole poultry are purchased from such national suppliers as Smithfield, Cargill and Pilgrim's Pride.
It's not just the products that make La Bella strong, but the employees as well, insist the Kurppe brothers, Pianka and human resources director Mary Harmon.
"(Worker) education and awareness on food safety are No. 1, and how employees contribute to that," said Paul Kurppe.
Employees are schooled to be vigilant in all their practices and to report risks, he said.
It's all part of the company's process, said Harmon said.
Employees have been key in La Bella's SQF 2000 certification for safe quality food, awarded by an international food industry institute based in Australia.
"Last year, there were only two in Florida," Harmon said.
La Bella has been so certified twice.
"It's higher than (U.S. Department of Agriculture) standards," Kurppe said. "It's an intensive, three-day inspection at the facility of employees, of safe quality food management, your standards to ensure and check every procedure in production. It is the USDA on steroids."
Schooling employees goes beyond job education. With a workforce that includes a large number of Hispanic people, La Bella provides workers with language tapes to brush up on their English and lends a hand if an employee wants to work toward a General Educational Development diploma.
What the Kurppes call a "culture of continuous improvement" leads not just to honors, but a family-like community of workers. Everyone addresses co-workers by their first names, and employees are loyal.
Billy Dispagno has worked on the loading dock for 14 years. Jason Kirby, La Bella's 27-year-old assistant facility manager, started mowing grass at the plant at age 12, and stayed on. Cheryl Corell has spent 13 years in quality control and packaging in the 42-degree line room.
The entire workforce, including founder George Kurppe, will take a break at 2 p.m. today and gather around a big tent in the plant parking lot, at the Airport Industrial Park, to receive the Strong Award.
"Everybody has a hand in it," Paul Kurppe said.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]