From Russia with a Love ... of sausage
Family that bought Bilinski’s nearly 30 years ago transformed local meat factory into organic pioneer
COHOES You can smell the Bilinski sausage factory before you’re actually inside the sprawling building off Lark Street in Cohoes.
And if you’ve never been inside a sausage factory, the whole experience can be a bit overwhelming to the senses. But if you really want to put your sense of smell into overdrive, just ask to see the smokehouse.
“All the way back,” said Stacie Waters, company president. “There’s sausage as far back as you can see.”
In this room, there are three smokehouses and two steam cabinets. The air is thick and the smell is pungent — and in no way is that a bad thing. Aromas of red pepper, garlic, onions, meats, salts and any number of other herbs and spices waft throughout the building, but here the heat and smoke intensifies each of them.
Bilinski’s has survived and thrived for more than 80 years now in this spot. Founded by Joseph Bilinski and his children in 1929, it would be more than five decades before a new family — the Schonwetters — took the helm. Since then, they have expanded the business from a small regional company selling Old World-style meats to a national brand known for its pioneering and all-natural, certified organic foods.
The family that snatched up Bilinski’s when the Bilinskis wanted to sell had several generations’ worth of food industry experience that began overseas in Russia. The Schonwetters transplanted a food store business to an old Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn during the 1920s, before growing tired of metropolitan life and moving to Schenectady.
“It was a thriving city, and so they opened a store — Orlev Import — like the one they had in the city,” said Bilinski’s CEO Steve Schonwetter, 58, of his grandfather’s venture.
Steve and his father, Abe, both grew up stacking the shelves and running a warehouse at Orlev.
Several years after the Schonwetters bought Bilinski’s in 1983, Abe Schonwetter had a heart attack that changed the way the family did business.
“He was in the hospital at St. Clare’s and he threw me a brochure that they gave him,” recalled Steve Schonwetter. “He said, ‘Read this, Steve. It’s going to put you right out of business.’”
The brochure advised heart attack patients to avoid red meats, stay away from bologna, liverwurst, hot dogs and kielbasas — practically all the foods the family had made a living on. The younger Schonwetter couldn’t believe it.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, dad, this is crazy,’ ” he recalled, noting that people weren’t as knowledgeable in 1990 about the link between red meat and heart disease.
From that point forward, the Schonwetters worked feverishly to come up with a product line that doctors weren’t telling people to avoid. They formed a committee that met once a week and talked about possible healthy options — lean beef, chicken, turkey, lamb, and so on. Sausage really just had to be some form of ground meat. Still, at one point they even contemplated producing entirely meatless products. They made prototypes, tested them, had their families try them.
The consensus? Everyone loved the chicken sausage.
“And we were the first,” said Steve Schonwetter.
Today, chicken sausage is Bilinski’s mainstay product. It was tasty, so it was easy to market. Nobody else was making chicken sausage, so it was easy to distribute. Eventually, it’s what launched the company from a regional operation to a national distributor.
The Schonwetters pride themselves on the health and quality of their products, which are free of antibiotics, nitrite, gluten and animal casings. Most food processors that label their food “all natural” abide by basic USDA standards.
“This means it’s minimally processed and there’s no preservatives,” said Waters, company president and Steve Schonwetter’s 36-year-old daughter. “The standard that we use for all our natural products is that the chicken has to be raised without the use of antibiotics and it has to be fed a 100 percent vegetarian diet. It’s a higher degree of ‘all natural’ because it means the meat you’re eating was also raised naturally, not just made naturally.”
Today, 95 percent of Bilinski products are natural and certified organic, with the bulk of their meat coming from the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., where chickens roam in open spaces and get natural sunlight.
The other side of the Bilinski’s success story is in the details. Literally.
Inside the “kitchen,” about a half-dozen Bilinski’s employees in white coats, hair caps, boots and gloves go about their usual routine. A batter of ground chicken, spinach and garlic are dumped from a steel pot into a machine called the “stuffer,” which stuffs the sausage through 31-millimeter holes and into artificial casing that will eventually be removed.
Bilinski’s makes about 20 different flavors of sausage — from the popular spinach and garlic to mild Italian to apple chardonnay to breakfast sausage. Workers hang up to 84-foot-long strands of sausage links on racks, which are rolled to the smokehouse and eventually chilled, packaged, labeled and delivered. But each time a batch is made inside the kitchen, every machine is rinsed, washed and sanitized.
The kitchen’s red brick floor is often covered in water, but it’s hardly a problem when the company has achieved Safe Quality Food 2000 certification, said Waters.
“We have the highest level of food safety certification there is,” she said. “It’s really hard to get and not a lot of people have it.”
Steve Schonwetter attributes the tight control and safety measures to his daughter, who has a rather unorthodox background.
Much like her dad, Waters grew up in the food processing business and worked weekends and summers in the family business. She worked for several years doing sales and marketing in the high-tech computer industry before pursuing a graduate degree in international relations and security studies. It was then that she moved to Washington, D.C., as a military consultant on countering weapons of mass destruction.
If the military teaches anything, it’s protocol. And Waters brought the experience back with her to the Capital Region in 2004.
“I joined again full time,” she said. “I had grown up in the business, which for me, has always been a multigenerational thing and it’s something I’ve come to love and always had an interest in.”
Her parents were also glad to have her back, as they were looking to plan for the future of the company.
Schonwetter and Waters declined to disclose annual revenue figures for the company, but said it’s grown 20 percent each year for the last four years.
Bilinski products are well-known around the Capital Region, in the grocery aisles at ShopRite and Price Chopper, the Niskayuna Co-Op and others. The company also distributes to clients across the nation, and is particularly popular in the South and Midwest.
The father-daughter team has set a new goal for the 25,000-square-foot plant in Cohoes.
“We’ve kind of been a smaller company for a while, but we have aggressive plans to at least double our size in the next couple of years,” said Schonwetter. “And we’re adding new product lines and people and structure to make that happen.”
Bilinski’s recently debuted two new product lines: Cathie’s Kitchen and Skinny Sizzlers. And the Schonwetters invested $200,000 six months ago on machinery to begin making a line of Bilinski gluten-free meatballs, which will hit the market in a few weeks.
“We don’t want to make and sell things that we don’t believe in ourselves,” said Waters. “And we didn’t really eat old European-style sausages at home. It’s so much more fulfilling to make something that you really believe in.”
Schonwetter said it’s not that hard to do in the food business.
“They’re just simple, everyday ingredients,” he said. “Our philosophy is if it’s not something you would every day use in your kitchen, you’ll never find it in one of our products.”