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A peek inside Uncle John's Pride, where local artisanal sausage is made

TAMPA

You're at a University of South Florida football game, or maybe attending the Kumquat Festival in Dade City, and you smell it, the come-hither waft of smoked country sausage. Possibly you're at a Lightning game tucking into a fat bratwurst or even one of the crazy 24-inch hot dogs sold during playoff games. Do you wonder about these wieners? Who made them and how?

In the last gasping days before this interminable election cycle comes to a close, it is easy to nod along with what John Godfrey Saxe purportedly wrote in the Daily Cleveland Herald in 1869: "Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made."

But after you've donned a hair net, a heavy set of coveralls and rubber boots, then spent an afternoon at Uncle John's Pride sausage factory near Brandon, respect doesn't shrivel one iota. A vast warren of rooms filled with gleaming stainless steel vats and industrial mechanical "flakers," everything is spotless and nothing smells funny. Even the ingredients — boneless frozen meat blocks, spices, water — don't inspire a moment's queasiness.

A drop in the bucket when compared to the mega-links of Hillshire Farms, this local company manufactures nearly 8 million pounds of sausage a year.

"We're more like craft sausage — regional, like beer," owner Scott McBride explains. "We're pretty much everywhere in Central Florida and moving into Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. We want to go national, but not tomorrow."

With 72 employees and more than 100 different products, Uncle John's is a conundrum. It's high-tech but nostalgic. It's ambitiously growing at the same time it celebrates old-timey family values. Uncle John's products are everywhere, carried in Winn-Dixie, Publix and Walmart. And yet you may never have heard its name.

• • •

Uncle John's makes sausage the old-fashioned way, coarsely ground and naturally hickory smoked, no "mechanically separated chicken" or mystery meat. Johnny Pellegrini has worked at Uncle John's for 22 years, his dad Myron did too until he died. Chris Tyler has been here 36 years, and all five of his brothers and his dad Jack worked here. Chief operating officer Rick Bernaldo got here in 1989, and the two Marys (Graves and Vansolkema) are tied at 24 years each. Add the top 20 employees' tenures together and they've spent 386 years working at Uncle John's.

Noble Crofton started the company in 1972, moving to the current location in 1975, and the plant has expanded five times since then. A company that started with five employees grew to become a full-line distributor of boxed beef, pork, sausages and deli meats, eventually selling to independent grocery stores in Florida. It grew to $30 million, went through bankruptcy in 1989 and refocused its efforts to sell solely manufactured product.

Times change.

Uncle John's no longer manufactures smoked offal or neck bones; they used to sell 100,000 pounds of neck bones a week, back when folks used them to flavor soups an add a little savor to stewed greens. They no longer make souse meat (that's hogshead cheese with vinegar). They've gone away from MSG; their sausages are gluten-free. They've stepped away from sodium nitrate and developed all-natural products.

The way they've grown — and the reason you may not have heard of them — is through strategic acquisition. First there was Bean Brothers Sausage with its old Tennessee recipe handed down for generations since 1922, then Peppino's, a fresh Italian sausage company in St. Petersburg (this gained them access to food service companies like Sysco and U.S. Foods and got their foot in the door at Walmart). In 2013, Garcia Smoked Sausage in Miami had a fire and came looking for a temporary manufacturer. They're made by Uncle John's now, as is Real Tree Foods, which they bought from Jordan Outdoors, a national brand for outdoorsmen known for its high-end camo.

• • •

Each day at Uncle John's, it's about the recipe. Today it's Bean Brothers sausage? That's a little spicier with more sage. Making Garcia next? That's got other ingredients like beef heart and tongue with a finer grind, more like a hot dog bite.

A batch of link sausage starts as 2,000 pounds of meat, mostly boneless pork picnics from mega-companies like Smithfield or JBS (they go through 50,000 pounds of picnic per week). It is flaked and ground, creating six stainless tubs of ground meat that cures for 24 hours before it is stuffed.

There are three stuffers on at a time, automatically making links at intervals, then hangers loop the sausage swiftly over "trees," a rack on wheels with 50 arms. Watch Hector: He loops the emerging sausage like disobedient snakes, aiming for 15 to 19 loops on each arm of the tree.

Laden with 750 pounds of sausage, a tree is wheeled into the smokehouse for anywhere from three to four hours. Computer-driven smokers are like giant walk-in ovens that are gas fired with a convection system that controls the humidity and amount of smoke. There are thermometers inside the ovens and inside the sausages themselves. Hickory sawdust goes through smoke generators, is shoveled up high and feeds the coils to produce smoke.

"It's all computer programmed," says Bernaldo, "but you still need to have a smoke guy who knows what he's doing by eye."

From there, the sausage goes through a brine chiller that takes the sausages from 100 degrees to 40 degrees, as per USDA mandate. Then it's into the room of vacuum-pack machines. Sanitation is heavy duty in here — lots of foot baths, handwashing and gloves. There's a fresh sausage room where meat is ground, bagged, boxed, taped and run through a metal detector; a huge freezer for finished goods and raw materials; plus a loading dock, conference rooms and break rooms. And through it all, a crew aimed at maximizing efficiency.

"We measure efficiency as pounds per man hour," says Bernaldo at the end of the tour. "We were running in the 40s, and now we're in the 70s."

Forget the sage and hickory smoke. It seems like the most important ingredient at Uncle John's is its employees. Maybe that's the most salient thing about how the sausage is made.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.

A peek inside Uncle John's Pride, where local artisanal sausage is made 10/24/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 24, 2016 3:48pm]
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