As the old saying goes, those who love sausage and the law should never see either being made. But that's not really the case when we arrive at the production facilities of Corridor Sausage Co. In the little space tucked away on a side street behind Eastern Market, the thirtysomething team of Will Branch and Zachary Klein are hard at work churning out links of the company's popular Vietnamese chicken sausage from a mechanized stuffer. Our old friend Katherine Montalto is on hand, cutting the links on a stainless steel surface and helping arrange them in trays. Seeing sausage being made is a surprisingly serene experience, even savory, as the air is filled with the aroma of fruits, spices, and herbs, including lemongrass, lime, garlic, shallot, ginger, and cilantro. The only thing that evokes so much as a twinge of revulsion is the tray of soaking pig intestines, which look as white and pure as surgical dressing.
Branch is our guide today, and he explains the operation's ethos. "We do everything pretty much by hand, considering that we're a commercial sausage maker. It's all fresh ingredients. We're not using any dry or bag mixes or a spice rack — it's all coming from a single source through a local purveyor which uses high-quality ingredients in everything, and all-natural, antibiotic-free meats in everything, too."
These days, people are willing to put a premium on such things, but we hadn't put much thought into "craft sausage" and what that means. Branch tells us it's growing by the year, saying, "It's really caught on the last five years or so. More people are looking at salamis and sort of the charcuterie end. Our focus has been more on the fresh sausage — grillables. It's fantastic that it catches on, but it's also the most regulated industry in the country. A restaurant will have a health department inspection once a year or maybe twice a year, but we have someone in here every single day. So there are a lot of costs; a lot of time goes into setup and operation, sort of. I think there could be more people trying to make artisan meat products, but it's just so hard to get into."
When it comes to Corridor's equipment, the operation is mechanized, but it's not huge and high-tech, although an upgrade is planned. "We basically have the three pieces of equipment," Branch says. "That's our grinder, our mixer, our stuffer. Zach and I worked out of a rental kitchen for a little over two years out in Howell, and when we were done we bought the equipment we could afford. It got us where we are, but now we need things that run three or four times faster. Plus, these things need constant maintenance, so I think Zach probably knows more about electrical engineering right now than he did six months ago or 18 months ago. We've definitely rebuilt this thing a few times with some help."
Some of that help comes from other craft producers in metro Detroit's growing craft food scene. In fact, similar to the region's craft beer producers, the local food movement is populated with people who want to help their fellow upstart food artisan.
Branch says, "We come from a restaurant background, and Michigan's craft food scene doesn't have the cattiness that restaurants can. It's a really supportive community. Everyone will take a phone call whether or not it's someone that wants to talk about making pickles or a doing a food truck. Everyone's really supportive and just wants to get more brick-and-mortars established. You have groups like Food Lab Detroit that are focused on helping to legalize businesses that are working under cottage food laws or with no licensing out of their own kitchens — try to get them started up. You always have a wealth of resources. I feel like when Zach and I first started doing this, we sort of operated under 'do-things-until-you-get-caught.' Now, there's better data streams, there are better portals for really understanding what you need to do. It's really grown quickly in this area."
But that doesn't mean the powers that be are adapting very well to the craft food movement. As one craft food producer once told us, "If there's any handholding going on, it's the small producers walking the officials through the process." That has changed a bit (Corridor Sausage has almost daily visits from a USDA inspector, for instance), but room for improvement remains.
Branch says, "A lot of strides have been made; it's not quite there. You look at a lot of the restaurants opening, and things are hopefully happening more efficiently. The USDA, they helped us out a ton. They were very supportive of us — really wanted to see more business come in. We're the first new USDA business established down here in over 10 years, so they were extremely helpful and did about a year of plan review with us to get us to where we are."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Branch and Klein are pursuing flavor profiles that are unusual, to say the least. Branch says, "We've sort of really been known for these unique flavors like the Vietnamese chicken sausage. It's flavors that you see in the area but you don't really see them in sausage form. So, we want to bring big flavor. We want to bring things you're not going to think of when you typically think of a sausage coming out of the Detroit area, whether it's the Vietnamese chicken sausage, Moroccan lamb and fig, we'll push those unique things. We're gonna get as much flavor into that as we can."
By pursuing offbeat flavors and consistently tasting and testing their product, Branch and Klein have won a following not just at better grocery stores, but with such restaurants as the Emory, Brooklyn Street Local, Detroit Institute of Bagels, Atomic Dog in Berkley, as well as more venturesome restaurants in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Traverse City. Corridor even has a stand at Ford Field, thanks to the stadium's executive chef, Joe Nader, whose praises Branch is eager to sing.
"Nader is awesome," Branch says "He helped us get a really small cart in the lounge next to Slows last year, and they built this gorgeous stand for us this year. We did the preseason, and we just did that Monday Night game that we're still recovering from a little bit." — mt