Ben Jackson of Kowicki Kielbasa

How do I know Ben? Back in 1997, I responded to his Craigslist ad. But not THAT kind of Craigslist ad! C’mon man. Ben was selling floral foam left over from his wedding, and I needed floral foam for my wedding. We met up and rode the El together to retrieve said floral foam, and we’ve been in touch ever since.

Ben was also a client of Alexis at Kitchen Chicago, and when he commented on my last interview, I asked if he’d chat about his entrepreneurial adventure in sausage.

Ben Jackson of Kowicki Kielbasa

Could you give me a little over view of your sausage company and your product?
I tried to start a company that did sausage, not to sell directly to people eating it but, to restaurants and bars and other eating establishments. I never wanted to be a restaurateur. I didn’t want to have to deal with the public but, I thought I could deal with business owners.

Did you have experience in sausage that led you to sausage? Or were you just like, “Eh people like sausage?”
We had friends who were bar owners in Chicago, two of ‘em. They were always feeding us when we went in, so we’d though we’d feed them for a change. We brought in our sausage, and both of them said, “Oh this is really great. I’d like to have this on my menu, that would be fantastic.” So my thinking was, gee these are actual customers, right, these are people who say, “Yes I can sell this. Yes I would buy it.” Which is what they always tell you when you start a business, “You should have customers, that’s the most important thing.” 

I spent most of 2004/2005 thinking it through and going through the steps. I did a SCORE “Going into Business” workshop, researched how to start a food business in the City of Chicago, and looked up the rules. That’s when I found out you can’t have a home-based food business in Chicago, so I looked for places to produce. I found Kitchen Chicago, which at least at the time was right off the Brown line. Did the food safety course, got certified, and at the beginning of 2006, finally booked time at Kitchen Chicago.

Did you have a goal or a level that you were shooting for? Was it, “Eh this is kind of interesting I like learning about starting a food business. Let’s give it a try and see how it goes”? Or were you thinking, “You know I really see this as a full time job.”
To become Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago. But seriously, I didn’t tell anybody at first. I didn’t even tell my wife at first. I didn’t want to be one of those people who sort of talked a big game and never actually did anything. I know lots of people who say, “I should start a business” or “You should do something with this” and it never really happens.

The way I thought this would happen is I would start by doing proof of concept. I’d make the sausage, I’d get a bunch of people who weren’t my friends to buy it, get up to a certain level and then I would go out and I would have some data to do sales projections and those kinds of things. Then I would go out and ask for some money and try and make it bigger.

Okay, so what happened? You got your kitchen time …
Kitchen time, started grinding sausage, taking it around to various bars and restaurants to say, hey would you guys be interested in adding this to your menu? Then I spent a lot of time looking at people’s menus online. Did they have a sausage sandwich? Did they need one? I went around to a bunch of places and schlepped a bunch of sausage around the City.

I was doing this while I was working full-time so I would go in early in the morning or late at night to grind. I was up there one morning, on the Northwest side … we had just ground and stuffed 50 pounds of sausage and I was going to be way late for work. I called my boss and I said, “Oh I’m going to be late because I’ve been making sausage this morning,” and he got all interested in that and forgot about me being late.

Anyway, the idea was let’s crawl before we walk, and walk before we run, and run before we fly.

So you just walked into bars and restaurants saying “I’m the sausage guy”? Is that what you did, and was it terrifying?
Well yeah, that is what I did. I’d find restaurants that seemed good, based on the menus and what I could find out about them online. I’d try to go in when it was quiet. I would say, “Hey is there a manager around?” I’d explain what I wanted to do and say, “Let me bring you in a pound of sausage, cook it up, eat it, see if you think you could put it on your menu.” Some people would say yes and some people would say no.

It was kind of terrifying and weird to walk in and go, “Hey you want to buy my sausage?” (and all of the attendant jokes that go along with it). It was never an easy process. You go in when it was quiet, and maybe the manager was there or maybe they weren’t, so it became, “Oh can you come back?” or “Can you call this person?”

I came up with kind of a sales sheet that said, “Look if you buy this sausage at this price and then you turn around and put it on your menu at the prices that are on your menu today, here’s how much money you’re going to make off of this pound of sausage.” People like that when I showed that to them. I think it made sense to them.

The other thing was the expenses. I’m buying containers to hold all this stuff. I bought a cooler to transport sausage. I’m buying thermometers and all kinds of things to sort of keep records.

It was taking a long time and it wasn’t really taking off right away. I mean I got a couple of people, and I got one guy who wasn’t my friend who was my first sale. A guy who had never seen me tried the sausage said, “I’ll take 10 pounds” or whatever it was.

Pricing, I spent a long, long time trying to understand pricing. You’re factoring in your time, the labor, the materials, the kitchen time. One of the things I learned was you can’t just do cost plus pricing right? It’s not just oh, you know, a pound of sausage cost this much to make, and then I want to have this much profit, so the price is X. Because all the numbers would change if I bought two pounds of meat that was one price and 50 pounds of meat that was another.

Mmm ... sausage
Mmm … sausage

Before you started did you do any kind of business plan?
I tried. It’s just, you know, well, like I said I went to a SCORE workshop, and I did all of that and I looked at business plans online. I tried to write one.

But there wasn’t data, right? I would go into the grocery store and I would price out the sausage. What are they selling it for? This one’s gourmet so it’s this much a pound. I would try to gather information everywhere that I could. Part of the plan was to get more data by doing it on a very small scale. Then try to figure it out.

The lack of data when putting together a business plan — this is a common refrain. Back to your story. What happened? Did you decide, “I’m spending too much time and I’m not making enough money”?
So here’s what happened. I brought in some sausage to one of the friends who originally said I could sell it. She looked at it and she said, “Okay. Where’s your USDA stamp?” And I said, “My what?” She said, “Your USDA stamp. Because it’s meat you got to have the stamp.” I was like, “Um, let me look into that and get back to you …”

I had not seen that this was a thing but, thanks to Upton Sinclair, all meat processing  needs to happen in either a USDA or Department of Agriculture-approved facility. If you’re not selling across state lines it can be the State Department of Ag. I looked at this and I thought that can’t be right. I’m just a guy, I’m just making some sausage right? I mean, what … ?

I started researching and stopped trying to sell anything. What I found out was you need to be operating in an approved facility. It doesn’t matter if you are if you’re just grinding 50 pounds of sausage or you’re slaughtering animals and converting them into sausage, the facility requirements are essentially the same. There are standards for drainage, doors, access to the outside, and everything else. Kitchen Chicago was not set up to do that. There was no way that I could rent a facility that would do this.

On top of that, you must have an inspector on sight the entire time you’re processing meat. Regulators, from the USDA or the Department of Ag. Guess who gets to pay that person’s salary while they’re there? It’s you right? It was like, “Oh my god, I can’t make this work. There’s no way. I don’t have that kind of money.”

Here’s the other kicker, which is if I had a sausage shop or I was selling it, making it in the back and selling out the front, those rules don’t apply because I would be a restaurant not a meat processor.

The Jungle is my least favorite book.

Wow, that’s crazy.
Yeah. It was really sad. I didn’t want to own a restaurant. I wanted to be the supplier. When I looked into all of this, I decided, “Well, I don’t have the resources to become Abe Froman anymore.” We had done a lot of late nights and we had done a lot of early mornings. So that was what led to the failure.

What’d you call the sausage?
We used my mother’s maiden name because it came from that side of the family and it was Polish so it was Kowicki, we called it Kowicki Kielbasa.

In retrospect would you do it again?  Do you feel “Well I learned a lot and I’m glad I gave it a shot?” Or, “No that was a waste of time, I was exhausted it was crazy”?
It was a lot of long hours and it was a lot of work. But I’m glad I did it. I think I learned a lot. My friends all call me Captain Food Safety now. I still am very meticulous about like, okay this food can’t be by that food and we got to have everything at this temperature. It annoys my wife sometimes, how I get fussy about the way things are arranged in the refrigerator.

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