The decades-long tradition of meat processing at the E.E. Mucke & Sons plant in Hartford isn’t ending with the sale of the company.
The Main Street facility has been purchased by a local food distribution company that is expanding what was once a sideline: the production of Portuguese chourico pork sausage.
Jason and Ines Jorge, co-owners of L.W. Foods, told me today they first got a look at the building in the fall after reading in the newspaper that the plant was closing.
“I came here to look at buying some of the equipment, and I ended up buying the building,” Jason Jorge said.
The Jorges first had intended to expand their leased distribution facility on Park Street in Hartford to accommodate their growing sausage making business. The sausage operations now are located in Ludlow, Mass., where the couple once owned a fish market.
The 17,000-square foot facility and equipment, which the couple bought for about $200,000, will provide ample space for consolidating all operations in one space.
The 93-year-old Mucke’s was acquired by Rachael’s Food Corp. of Chicopee, Mass. last fall. Rachael’s also bought Grote & Weigel, another longtime, area meat processor, last year.
Both Jason and Ines Jorge are of Portuguese descent and Jason Jorge has deep roots in Hartford’s Portuguese community: his father has run the Solmar Fish Market on Park Street for three decades.
Jason and Ines Jorge got into the sausage-making business two years ago as an offshoot of their food distribution business. Their distribution customers were mostly Portuguese stores and restaurants in Bridgeport, Danbury and Hartford.
When the couple lost their supplier of Portuguese sausage, they decided to develop a line of sausage themselves with chourico as the centerpiece.
“We used to make this at my father’s fish market,” Jason Jorge said. “It’s basically my father and mother’s recipe.”
Sales have soared since, rising six-fold from 26,000 pounds the first year to 156,000 pounds today, according to Jason Jorge. And he sees annual production in the next six months rising to 260,000 pounds, based on demand that it hasn’t been able to meet in its smaller facility.
L.W. Foods does have competitors; but Jason Jorge said the company distinguishes itself in the market by using a traditional, home-style recipe with no additives.
The giant grinding machine, slicer and hanging racks at the 2326 Main St. plant are idle right now, as the couple waits for federal agriculture department sign-off on the facility. The Jorges hope production will be in full swing by the end of the month.
The company now employs four, including the Jorges. They have applied for loans and grants from both the city and the state’s Small Business Express program. They say that aid will be critical to making the hires and bulking up on meat and other ingredients.
L.W. Foods sausage also can be found right now in one Shop Rite, in Hartford, and the Jorges hope more Shop Rites will carry their product in the future. They also see potential in working with locally-based restaurant chains.
“I’m optimistic that we can grow to the point where Mucke’s was, say, in five years,” Jason Jorge told me. “We’ve got the capability to do it.”
According to city records, the 12,000-square foot plant where hot dogs, kielbasa and delicatessen meats were produced for decades, sold for $200,000.
There’s not much left to close up at the plant because all production has already moved to the Grote & Weigel plant in Bloomfield, another local meat processor bought by Rachael’s this year.
Sales operations are all that remain in Hartford and those, too, are now being consolidated in Bloomfield, Adam Kramer, division president for Mucke’s and Grote & Weigel, said Thursday.
Consolidation made sense, Kramer said, because there was plenty of unused space at the Granby Street plant, and there still remains “a lot of room to grow.”
Kramer said Rachael’s now plans to sell the Mucke’s building.
Despite the consolidation, the Mucke’s and Grote & Weigel names will remain as will the taste of their products, Kramer said.
“We are committed to keeping both brands and formulas exactly the same,” Kramer said.
Kramer declined to say how much Rachael’s paid for Mucke’s or how much it has invested in the Bloomfield plant.
As independent companies, Grote & Weigel and Mucke’s struggled in the weak economy, with some customers opting to buy lower-priced meats.
All 15 Mucke employees kept their jobs. Ernest Mucke III has joined the company as vice president of operations for Grote & Weigel, Kramer said.
The former owner of Grote & Weigel has left the company, Kramer said. Michael Greiner had agreed to stay on for as much as a year to smooth the transition, but that has now been completed, Kramer said.