Sausage companies share a common pride in their process and products
By Jennifer Kornegay
Alabama boasts quite a few homegrown food brands, and among those, one has become almost synonymous with the product it produces. Conecuh Sausage company in Evergreen is so well known, many don’t even bother finishing the phrase when referencing the flavorful, meaty treat. They simply say, “Let’s grill some Conecuh.” Or, “Add Conecuh to your grocery list, hon.”
There’s even a Conecuh Sausage fan page on Facebook, where more than 9,000 members swap smoked sausage photos and recipes ranging from the simple (a warmed piece wrapped in a single slice of white bread) to the sophisticated (how about a kale, mushroom and Conecuh sausage quiche?).
But while it’s probably the most famous, Conecuh is by no means the only smoked sausage maker in the state. Such companies as Zeigler Meats, Snowden’s, Monroe, Hall’s, Royal Foods and Kelly Foods turn out smoked sausage, as do some other small producers and even some local butcher stores.
We talked to three of them. Each has its own story, but they have a common link: a deep pride in their process and their products.
Conecuh Sausage Company
When the wind is right, and you remember to roll your windows down, a trip past the Evergreen exit on Interstate 65 is an aromatherapy experience. Your nose knows you’re near the small city before you see the familiar white water tower bearing the town’s name. From the moment it relocated its processing plant from downtown to right above the interstate in 1986, the scent of seasoned pork being bathed in smoke emanating from Conecuh Sausage has been revving up appetites, whether passers-by are anywhere near actual hunger or not.
The company was started in 1947 as a meat locker, a place that allowed locals to rent freezer space for putting up meat as well as veggies. Not long after, the owners began making smoked meats, including sausage, ham and bacon. “We’re now on the third generation of the founding Sessions family owning the business and working here,” says Kathy Cope, Conecuh’s customer service manager. “We still make bacon and hams, but today, our smoked sausage is the best-seller by far, and we make six varieties.” (Bacon is a distant second.)
Since its humble beginnings, the popularity of the sausage has grown, leading the company to expand with a large addition in 2014. “We had to have more space to keep up with demand,” Cope says.
“We are known as a premium pork sausage using the finest cuts from all American hogs, and we don’t use any liquid smoke,” she says. The smokey flavor is authentic, emanating from hickory and soaking into the meat at the company’s smokehouse in Evergreen. Cope won’t divulge how much sausage Conecuh makes each year but quips, “It’s a lot, and we always want to make more.”
Last year, they had to. Pre-pandemic, the product’s reputation was on a steady incline, but Cope notes that demand boomed in 2020. “The rise was tremendous over the last year and a half,” she says. “We attribute that to people staying home and cooking more during the shutdown, and to people sharing their love of Conecuh with friends, specifically friends and family in other regions.”
Conecuh has recently been getting daily calls from other areas of the country pining for its products. “We’re primarily in the Southeast and Texas with a few markets in Michigan and Ohio, even a few places in New York, but more and more people from more and more places want our sausage,” Cope says. The U.S. military knows a good thing when it tastes it and stocks Conecuh sausage in its commissary stores in about two-thirds of the country as well as some areas of Europe.
While she’s been working for Conecuh for 16 years and eating its products for many more, Cope has never tired of enjoying the sausage. “My favorite way to prepare it is on the grill, just simple, so you taste it all,” she says. “But my favorite thing about the sausage is sharing it. I love watching the reaction of someone who has never had it before when they take a bite. They just love it and want to know where they can get more.”
Monroe Sausage’s story is a classic comeback tale, complete with a bit of mystery as well as hurdles eventually surmounted. It begins in the early 1940s when a now-unknown family started Monroe Meats and Cold Storage, which offered freezer space and venison processing.
In 1952, it was sold to Jimmy McMillian and Bill Causey, and a bit later, they added smoked sausage, sold under the name Monroe Sausage, to the company’s offerings. Because McMillian was the one out and about hawking the company’s product, most in the area just called it “Jimmy’s sausage.”
When the duo retired in the 1980s, a loyal employee name Jeff Kircharr bought the company and kept the sausage-making going. But in 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed the facility, and when his insurance didn’t cover all the damage, Kircharr had to close. “So, the sausage was just gone,” current managing partner David Steele says, “and it wasn’t long before those of us who’d grown up on it started missing it.”
Steele and his family have been Monroe County residents since the 1800s and are in timberland management. One morning, while having coffee in the family business’ office, Steele’s dad voiced what many in the area felt. “‘Where’s that Jimmy’s sausage?’ he asked me,’” says Steele. “I told him I didn’t know, so he said we needed to call Jeff and see what was going on, and if he was opening again.”
Steele did as his father instructed and learned that Kircharr was done but that he’d be willing to help someone else bring the sausage back. “So, me, my brother and cousin got some investors, built a new facility and got Jeff to run it,” he says. “That was late 2005, and in 2007, we made our first sausage. We were in the meat business.”
Initially, Steele and his family thought sausage making would be like a hobby, one with some delicious benefits, but it didn’t work out like that. “The business came with a lot of challenges, and at times, we weren’t sure we were going to keep going, but we persevered,” Steele says. Then, Kircharr retired. That was a blow, until another employee stepped up. “We got a young guy we’d hired to work in the venison processing side to help on the sausage side, and man, he just had a knack for things,” Steele says.
Within 90 days, he’d implemented multiple improvements that made the company more efficient, and its prospects turned a corner. “He paved a path for us to be really successful, and three years later, we’re doing pretty well.” From 2018 to 2019, sales tripled. Then, in 2020, the company doubled what it had done in 2019. The first quarter of 2021 was up about 25 percent compared to the same period in 2020.
Yet, there are still obstacles, some related to Monroe’s size. “We use higher-end pork, so we already have higher costs, and since we’re smaller, we don’t have the volume buying power that some do,” Steele says.
But he believes in the product and its ability to hook repeat customers. “Once people find us, they like us,” he says. Part of Monroe sausage’s appeal comes via a carefully controlled smoking process. “We get the temperature right to make sure the sausage really absorbs the hickory smoke,” Steele says. Another key is Monroe’s leaner cuts of meat, which Steele says have substantially less fat while retaining full flavor. “We also do a courser grind on our meat, so it has a different texture,” he says. “That’s what really sets us apart.
“We look at what we do as an opportunity to talk to people about things that matter in life,” he says. “We use it as a witness, a way to spread a good word. If we can do that, the sausage selling takes care of itself.”
Snowden’s first made and sold its sausage in the early 1930s, and it’s been in the same family ever since. Today, Snowden Sausage president Randy Snowden has taken the reins from his dad and uncle and runs the company with his business partner, Neil Campbell.
He officially acquired the family business in 2008, but he’s been in it his entire life. And long before he was born, his grandad cooked up a secret recipe and committed to a classic method, aspects Snowden hasn’t messed with. “We still make sausage the old-fashioned way, and as far as I know, ours is the only one in this area and maybe one of a few in the country that doesn’t have any water added,” he says.
“We’ve not changed anything in my lifetime and don’t think it has really ever changed.” It has added to its offerings through the years and now features sausage in regular, mild, hot and Cajun flavors, as well as its Baby Link, a smaller sausage that’s become the best seller.
While the company has been doing things the same way for nearly a century, last year threw it a couple curve balls. “We were doing really well in the beginning of 2020, and then our supplier shut down due to COVID,” Snowden says. Then, when that problem was solved, climbing meat prices wiped out the company’s early gains.
Despite these struggles, Snowden knows he’s lucky and feels blessed to be moving back toward normal. “It was tough, but we survived it, and a lot of companies didn’t,” he says, “so I’m thankful for that.”
Like the other two companies, Snowden doesn’t give out the particulars of its sausage seasonings or mix, but he’s happy to share his thoughts on how to eat it. “I like to grill it and tell people that’s a great way to do it,” he says.