German chancellor Otto von Bismarck had a memorable culinary quote attributed to him: "People who enjoy sausage and respect the law should not watch either being made." Not long after Bismarck's death, one of his countrymen, Albert Koegel, flouted Bismarck's warning and entered the meat business as an apprentice sausage maker. In 1916, Koegel moved to Flint and established Koegel's Meats. Nearly a century later, it's run by his grandson, John. With 120 people in its Flint plant, Koegel's offers 62 products, described at koegelmeats.com.
Metro Times: Something tells me that you have been in this business your whole life.
John Koegel: I started here at age 10, mowing the lawn and pulling weeds. At 14, I went to work full time in our kitchen during the summer for three years. In 1985, after college, I started out in special projects UPC coding, different things like that. Then our sales manager gave us a year's notice about halfway through my first year. We looked at several people and interviewed a couple of them. One day I came into my dad's office. He said, "We can't find anybody. Why don't you take over sales?" So I had about a six-month training period with the sales manager that was leaving. That is the road that got me started, to start to expand the business, moving out. I was very motivated. In 1981, about the time I was leaving for college, Flint experienced its first auto recession. So I said, "We've got to take this and expand the base," and, indeed, that's what we did. We got to the point where we started outselling the plant. I had about 500 accounts. I asked my dad how we could grow sales if we couldn't keep up production. I kept saying that, and finally one day I came in and he said, "Why don't you become president?" So for about the last 10 years, that's what I've done: president. It took awhile to get out of the sales side of the business. We've spent a lot on the infrastructure, changed processes around, and now we're ready to grow again.
MT: Your Web site says most of your sales are in Michigan and Ohio. Any plans to expand?
Koegel: We're trying to expand, but the food business is very different than a lot of businesses because we're creatures of habit. My family has about the same 12 menu items. My wife shops by habit. She goes to grocery store and she doesn't necessarily look at brands. She can grab it by sight and size and the color of the package versus anything else. When somebody has hot dogs on their list, how are you going to get them to buy Koegel hot dogs? Another thing is that stores like Kroger and Meijer have minimum case movement. If you're not moving, say two cases per store per week within six months, you may not stay.
MT: I'm squeamish about what I eat. I don't eat organ meats. I noticed on your list of ingredients that you use beef hearts in one of your chili products.
Koegel: Yes. Beef hearts are in our Koegel Detroit-style chili. National and Leo's Coney Island and Kerby's Coney Island use beef-heart products, though not ours.
MT: I think that a lot of people wouldn't want to hear that.
Koegel: We struggle with that. That's one of those items; it's like a natural casing. Without it, hot dogs would never have been invented. We think it's a very positive thing because it gives the crunch and holds the moisture in. But do you explain it?
MT: It's an intestine, a chitterling.
Koegel: Right. When I grew up, we used to fight over the gizzards and hearts whenever we had chicken.
MT: Several years ago, there was an uproar about hot dogs containing lips and snoots. What are the standards?
Koegel: Michigan is under the USDA the United States Department of Agriculture. There are still a couple of states that have their own inspections. If you're going to put something in that's not muscular meat or skeletal meat, like liver or hearts, you have to claim it on your label.
MT: What is your most popular product?
Koegel: Our Viennas, which are hot dogs in natural casings. We make a beef and pork Vienna, a chicken Vienna and a Coney (wholesale only) which can be held on a grill for an extended period of time.
MT: Any new products in the works?
Koegel: We're working on a snack stick and a 1-pound package of Detroit-style chili.Jeff Broder does this twice-monthly food interview for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]