Eight decades of sausage making requires adaptation
COHOES The Bilinski Sausage Manufacturing Co. will celebrate its 80th birthday this year in the same modest brick building where it started, at the end of a residential back street in this small city, on a woodsy hilltop overlooking the Hudson Valley.
But the company has grown and changed radically in the past quarter century, and its president, Steven Schonwetter, sees that progress continuing no matter what happens to the national economy.
It was founded by Joseph Bilinski, an immigrant from the Ukraine, and stayed in his family until 1983. Steven Schonwetter was then working in a food distribution business with his father, but wanted to get into manufacturing and so bought the company.
Bilinski Sausage had 12 employees then, Schonwetter said, six of them drivers. Now Bilinski uses outside trucking companies to distribute its products, but employment has still grown substantially at the Cohoes plant, which has also been expanded and rebuilt. It’s on 10.5 acres, Schonwetter said, so there is room for future expansion, too.
There are 35 employees now, he said, most of them in manufacturing but three in sales. They show their sausages at national trade shows for natural products, and Schonwetter helps out with selling. Stacie Waters, his daughter, is vice president of the company.
Bilinski has grown 30 percent in each of the last two years, and while that pace may not continue, Schonwetter said its customers will continue to be willing to spend a little more for a high-quality, heart-healthy product. Feed prices have gone up, he said, in part because of corn being used now for fuel, but the decline (after a steep rise) in gas prices has helped.
The company has a long relationship with Key Bank, Schonwetter said, and had no difficulty getting credit during the recent national financial crunch. But “we’re holding off on any further major purchases or expansion” until they see where the economy is headed. Meanwhile, they’re paying down debt.
Looking back, forward
The original Bilinski made traditional kielbasa and the like, and it still makes those products. But most of its business now — about 85 percent — comes from a product Joseph Bilinski probably never considered: chicken sausage.
And not just any chicken sausage. Bilinski’s are made from boneless, skinless leg, thigh and breast meat, whole muscle that is ground up, spiced and flavored with garlic, vegetables and fruit. Schonwetter said he developed chicken sausage after his father had a heart attack in 1989, and needed to start eating healthier.
“Our goal is a very heart-healthy product,” he said. The brands are not certified by the American Heart Association, he said, only because that would cost $5,000 per type of sausage.
Bilinski’s chicken sausages have between 2 and 4.5 grams of fat, Schonwetter said. He said other chicken sausage makers have three times as much fat per link.
Unlike other sausage makers, he said, Bilinski uses no skins or scraps, and its sausages are all natural, and in some cases organic. In fact, he said, most Bilinski customers aren’t traditional sausage eaters.
So why call them sausages at all? Well, Schonwetter said, they did give some thought to that when the chicken line was introduced, but “We also wanted to attract people who don’t have bad feelings about sausages.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture was skeptical, he said, at first reluctant to call a product chicken sausage, “because there was no such thing.”
“We believe we were the first company in the country to make chicken sausage,” he said.
And they keep introducing new flavors. There are now 23 types of chicken sausage made by the company, including a new Asian lineup of tandoori, tikka masala and Thai-style red curry. The “chicken little” line is also fairly new, with six flavors: apple chardonnay, apricot & rosemary, Buffalo wing style, jalapeno cheddar, teriyaki and blueberry maple.
The organic lineup — from chickens with a diet untainted by pesticides or herbicides — is spinach & feta, sweet Italian, Italian herb with porcini mushroom, and sweet apple. The “all natural” line is not organic, but like the organic links they are made from vegetable-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free chickens. Organic meat costs Bilinski $2.65 per pound, and the natural chicken meat is $1.65 per pound, Schonwetter said. Chicken skin, which Bilinski doesn’t use, costs only 10 cents a pound, he said.
Most of its chickens are raised by Amish farmers near Lancaster, Pa., Waters said, and are slaughtered in one of several facilities in that area. Bilinski inspects the farms and slaughterhouses it uses, she and Schonwetter said, and confirms that the animals are treated humanely. They also monitor records of auditing companies, and Bilinski itself is audited by Cook & Thurber for food safety and quality.
The Bilinski Web site says: “Our products are nitrite- and preservative-free, and are made from meats that are raised in clean, comfortable conditions with integrity — with no antibiotics, no animal by-products in their feed, and no hormones.”
Bilinski sells all over the United States, but all of its products are seldom available at one store. In this area, Price Chopper sells most of them, Schonwetter said. Other stores sell them with store labels, including Hannaford, which sells three under the Nature’s Place store brand name. You can also buy name-brand Bilinski’s at the factory or online at the Web site. They’ll ship it to you cold, via UPS. The Home Shopping Network also sells Bilinski’s, and TV’s Food Network filmed a show at the factory recently.
It’s not just chicken. Bilinski also sells hams, which are big at the holidays, frankfurters, bacon, kielbasa, bologna and liverwurst. While much of this is all-natural, too, the Lebanon Valley Speedway insists on getting its Bilinski hot dogs the way they have always been made, Schonwetter said.
Bilinski blends all the seasonings in-house, and Waters said one of their secrets is fresh garlic cloves. A vat of them were in evidence in the kitchen during a recent visit to the factory, waiting to be ground up and mixed into the meat. The garlic, too, comes from Pennsylvania, and Bilinski buys it at the Menands Market north of Albany.
Nearby in the kitchen, a mound of spinach and garlic sausage, fresh out of the mixer and grinder, was fed into the stuffer to be wrapped in plastic lining. Some of the lengths came out wrong, and workers unstuffed them by hand to be put back into the machine.
The sausage is cooked in the plastic lining, which Waters said is a non-porous material that does not transfer to the meat. All Bilinski products except bacon are precooked.
Then, in the packaging room, another machine peels off the plastic and workers lay the shaped sausage meat on another machine. Going into the peeler, the sausages were a dark bluish color, and they came out light brown. All the chicken sausages and most of the others made by Bilinski do not have any casing.
Then they go through a metal detector and a labeling machine, while another machine churns out cardboard boxes, and a worker hand packs the sausage packets into the boxes.
Sausages are stacked hanging around in various stages of processing, mostly at cold temperatures.
Elsewhere in the factory, workers were hand-trimming Champagne hams, removing all the fat and gristle, Schonwetter said.
It was a Tuesday, when Bilinski was in the middle of its manufacturing, which is largely done on the first three days of the week. On Thursday and especially Friday, they ship the product out to stores.
High taxes in New York are a problem, Schonwetter said, although he credited the town of Colonie for recently lifting an unfair tax burden on businesses. The company’s relations with Cohoes City Hall are good, he said, and school groups often come in for tours.
And he likes the factory’s proximity to major markets such as New York City. Bilinski is also breaking into Boston, he said.
Schonwetter, who grew up in Schenectady and raised his family in Niskayuna, now lives in Lake George. Waters lives in Clifton Park.