Employees: about 40
Seventh-generation sausage maker Eric Gutknecht finds inspiration and new markets in racing as Continental speeds to regional growth.
Eric Gutknecht has sausage in his blood. Not literally -- that would make it difficult for him to compete as an elite Ironman athlete.
His family has been in the sausage business since 1809 in Zurich, making him a seventh-generation sausage maker.
Continental Sausage has been the Gutknecht family business for two of those generations. His parents bought the business, founded by Ted Jaeggi in 1969, in the early 1980s. Gutknecht and his wife, Jessica, took over in 2003.
That's when Gutknecht steered the company in an entirely new direction by balancing centuries-old culinary traditions with forward-thinking innovation. He saw an opportunity in Whole Foods and other upscale groceries for an all-natural sausage line. He also saw an opportunity to get creative with game meats, hot peppers, and other unexpected ingredients.
Today, a mere decade later, Continental Sausage is making bison pastrami, elk jalapeño cheddar bratwurst, and a wide range of offbeat sausages customized for NASCAR speedways and other pro sports venues. Continental VP of Sales and Marketing John Roelke calls it "a space race with flavors."
At Sonoma Raceway, for instance, there's sausage made with lamb and black pepper. Texas Motor Speedway's menu includes fajita-flavored links. Fans can order up a Cherry Coke bratwurst or a sausage made with wild boar with peaches at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and a brat made with fried chicken is in the works.
Before Roelke came on board in 2010, the company had never had a salesperson -- it was all word of mouth among its customer base of German, Swiss, and Austrian Americans, and not a dime was spent on marketing. There were few other domestic manufacturers of ethnic specialties like blood-and-tongue sausage, braunschweiger liverwurst, and headcheese.
"A lot of the recipes are unchanged," says Roelke. "When Germans and Austrians and Swiss people eat our stuff, they freak out."
Continental isn't turning its back on this legacy market, but it is looking to the unusual new recipes for growth. "We take a lot of pride in [the heritage], obviously," says Gutknecht, "but we've separated from that core Swiss-German market and we're now catering to foodies."
The pivot is paying off: The average annual sales growth has been 25 percent for four years running. In 2003, Continental had seven employees and shipped about 7,000 pounds of sausage in a week. Now it has about 40 employees and ships more than 40,000 pounds of product weekly. To meet demand, Continental is embarking on an expansion that will double capacity by mid-2015.
Along the way, Continental has won a trophy case of culinary and business awards and has emerged as an industry pacesetter for safety, cleanliness, and sustainability.
Roelke touts the quality of Continental's ingredients and a goal of sourcing everything from within 500 miles of Denver. Suppliers include Great Range Brand Bison, Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, and Ella Farms.
"The words 'all natural' get thrown around a lot," he says, noting that suppliers sign an affidavit affirming that their meat is steroid-, antibiotic-, or hormone-free. "Our ingredients are either all-natural or organic, with no fillers -- unless the classic recipe calls for it."
The company's plant in north Denver uses primarily German machinery, plus a few cutting-edge gadgets like a laser bacon cutter. Its Maurer friction smoker, one of a handful in the U.S., is "hyper-efficient," smoking meats in a fraction of the time using a wheel to turn wood into smoke without a single spark.
Gutknecht tempers his sausage-making career with endurance sports. He started competing in Ironman triathlons in 2008 and competed in the elite Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in 2012. "I was bored," he says. "I signed up for a race and learned how to swim -- I always was a runner and a biker. I was hooked."
Challenges: "Just meeting capacity and sustaining and managing growth," says Gutknecht. "We're putting in better infrastructure and better systems for processes in the back."
Opportunities: "We have a lot of opportunities on the natural side," says Gutknecht, highlighting Continental's game sausages. There is plenty of competition in the natural chicken and pork sausages, he notes, but there are very few companies are making natural buffalo and elk sausages.
To this end, Continental is expanding from Whole Foods' Rocky Mountain region into Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Illinois.
Needs: "We need more labor and capital for the expansion," says Gutknecht, anticipating as many as 10 new hires in 2015 after adding a similar number in 2014.
"And regulatory issues, we fight them constantly," he adds. "We have to turn off everything at 5:01 p.m." He says a little more flexibility on the part of regulatory agencies would improve efficiency.