YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — On occasion, Robert DiRusso enjoys working the long hours at his company’s trailers at fairs and festivals, if only to remember how his business began.
“That’s how I started out,” says the president of DiRusso’s Sausage Inc. in Youngstown. “I still like getting out on the midway once in a while so I can get out of the office.”
The business has come a long way from its origins as an Italian sausage concessions vendor. Since it was established in the early 1960s, DiRusso’s has grown into a manufacturer of Italian-seasoned meats that are distributed throughout the region.
Indeed, the family recipe for Italian sausage was created in his grandparents’ old grocery store in Lowellville, DiRusso says. There his grandmother took her special seasoning and made Italian sausage for customers. Then, in 1963, DiRusso’s uncle Augie seized the idea of buying several cooking trailers and taking the family’s sausage on the road – selling the specialty food at the many fairs and festivals throughout the Mahoning Valley.
It was a hit.
As demand grew, so did the need to expand and increase production, DiRusso says. In 1985, DiRusso’s Sausage moved to its home along West Rayen Avenue in the Riverbend district of Youngstown.
“We had to build a production plant to facilitate the trailers,” says Amanda Sciola, sales and marketing manager. “Then, we moved to Youngstown and started supplying restaurants, caterers and eventually retailers.”
The company has steadily increased its footprint throughout the region over the last five years. “For years, we sold within a three-hour [drive] radius and barely touched Columbus,” Sciola says. Now, DiRusso’s sausage can be found in grocery stores and restaurants in Cincinnati, Dayton, western Pennsylvania and southwestern New York.
“We manufacture about 20,000 pounds per day,” running three to four days a week, says Michael Testa, production manager at DiRusso’s. The majority of the product is pork used in the company’s sausage patties and links, but DiRusso’s also manufactures meatballs and turkey sausage links.
Testa, with the company 22 years, relates the company used to process the meat, grinding it by hand and using other labor-intensive methods. “
DiRusso’s production plant is about as modern and automated a building you’ll find for such a small, family-owned business, Testa adds.
“We’re constantly improving our equipment. All of our mixers and grinders are new,” he says. “Our three-set grinder is about two years old, and the mixer system is maybe a year old.”
DiRusso’s buys its pork from two farms in Illinois and Iowa, while the turkey comes from North Carolina, Testa says.
Operations on this day are processing pork sausage links and patties, and the meat is trucked in from a farm to DiRusso’s, where it is immediately placed in a holding cooler at 32 degrees.
Each batch to be processed contains 2,000 pounds of pork, Testa explains. The freshly butchered meat slides into a large three-step grinder – so named because it uses three different knives – that safely removes bone and other particles from the meat. Once this process is finished, the company’s special seasoning blend is added in a large mixer.
“All of the seasoning is now pre-mixed,” Testa says. “We used to do it all by hand, but today we have two companies that do it for us.”
Once the proper seasoning and ingredients are added, the product is transferred to a “stuffer,” a piece of equipment that turns the ground sausage into long coils that are fed into a linker. The linker is programmed to apportion the meat to a specified weight and length, processing either large or small-link sausage. Each link is then transported along a conveyer belt, where it moves to packaging. The sausages are placed into boxes, each package weighing five pounds.
“The whole process takes about 30 minutes,” Testa says. Once the product is packaged and placed on a pallet, the pallet is moved into a blast freezer where the temperature is 20 degrees below zero. “The sooner we freeze the product, the more shelf life we get out of it,” he says.
After 24 hours, the pallets are removed from the blast freezer and placed into a holding freezer at zero degrees until they are shipped to customers, Testa says.
Despite the production efficiencies, the market for the company’s products remains tough, DiRusso says. “Last year was historically high pricewise for our raw materials – pork, beef and turkey,” he says. “We made it through the year without raising our prices too much.”
The prices of pork and turkey have since come down, DiRusso says. Beef prices remain relatively high. “It’s a much better outlook this year than last year.”
Equally important, the company continues to reinvest in its local manufacturing operations to maintain quality and competitiveness.
“We’re highly regulated by the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] as are some of our major customers and we have the same requirements as $1 billion companies,” DiRusso says. “We compete against big companies such as Bob Evans, and we’ve held our own very well with Italian sausage.”
Although the company has long graduated from its concessions business, the odds are you’ll find a DiRusso’s trailer at all of the major festivals in the region.
“I’m working the Trumbull County Fair this year,” DiRusso says. “It’s not a growth part of our business, but it’s still part of our business.”
Pictured: DiRusso’s Sausage President Robert DiRusso says his grandmother created the recipe at the family’s grocery store in Lowellville in the early 1960s.
Copyright 2016 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.