Hot Dog Hysteria
Meet the family behind one of Erie's most recognized and beloved institutions.
Food is family. At least, that's what it felt like in the Bieler household, as the five of us would gather at the dinner table, enough fare for 10 placed before us, our stomachs growling in anticipation.
Like those songs that remind you of times gone by, food acts as a trigger for your cranium, all of your senses calling back those little moments in your past. The smoky smell of the Labor Day cookout. The quiet cracking of the crème brulee on date night. The slippery feeling between your fingers from the butter on your movie night popcorn. The terrifying sight of ice cream dripping off of the cone in the new car.
And everyone has something to remind them of home, a certain dish or brand that elicits specific memories of being at the dinner table with family.
For many Erieites, that brand is Smith's.
Now, as a native Clevelander, I was unaware of the power Smith's Provision Company had over the men and women of Northwestern Pennsylvania. Say anything deemed as negative toward the local meat manufacturer and you'll have a large portion of the Erie population to answer to, especially if you malign Smith's hot dogs, the holy grail of tubed foods.
You see, when it comes to those food-based memories, Smith's is the name that helped feed many a family in The Flagship City, and people tend to really support something so idyllic from their childhood.
"It's cult-like, almost, although that's not uncommon in the meat business," says Smith's President Mike Weber, leaning back from the glass table in a conference room, which I silently dubbed the "meating room." "People have certain companies that they grow up with. It's hard to break that. We've had so many fans of ours say 'I was raised on Smith's hot dogs' or 'I was raised on Smith's bologna.'"
We're at the Smith's offices on Cranberry St. If you've driven on West 12th Street in the past few years, you've likely gone past it. It's here where I met Mike and his daughter Sara Kallner, the vice president of business operations. Mike is off to my left, decked out in khakis and a dark blue half-zip, the start of a full white beard gracing his face, a first-time follicle adventure according to the laid-back meat man. Sara sits across from him, sporting a black turtleneck while her hands are folded neatly in front of her as Mike talks.
Much like the Smith's loyalists from a few paragraphs ago, Mike and Sara, as well as the rest of the Weber clan, grew up dining on the company's hot dogs, hams, bologna, and every other encased meat the manufacturer provides. Unlike other Erieites, for Mike and Sara, Smith's was more than dinner – it was a way of life.
The Weber family has owned Smith's since 1949, so when people try not to bring work home to the dinner table, work has been on the Webers' dinner table for over six decades and four generations, starting with Mike and his brother John's grandfather down to Sara and her siblings. Over the years, they've been able to watch the business grow from a small retail meat market to the beloved brand it is today, but it all started with a trained butcher and sausage maker from German named Anton "Tony" Weber.
Tony immigrated to New York City in the '30s, where he started a butcher shop called Schaller & Weber with fellow German Ferdinand Schaller, whom he met in 1937. The company, which is still in existence today in New York City, specialized in authentic German products and charcuterie – a fancy word for prepared meats – but there was a certain member of the business that was having a problem with the land of opportunity.
"My grandfather's partner was pro-German to the point where he got thrown in jail during World War II," Weber says, tilting his head to the side as he recalled his family's history. "My grandfather was left without a partner, without a lot of help, and rationing gave him a tough time throughout the war. He resented it so much he could never really get this partnership going again."
Not surprisingly, Tony left Schaller & Weber and looked for other options. What was New York City's loss turned into Erie's gain, as Tony found a listing for a small retail butcher shop that was started in 1927 by a gentleman named William Smith. Needing some help with the new venture, Tony contacted his son Max – Mike's father – a trained chef serving in the German Mountain Troops, to come and help.
"They found this little place in Erie, Pennsylvania that happened to be for sale in some little meat industry magazine," Weber says. "My mom was pregnant with me when they flew over in 1949. I was actually born in New York City. Two weeks later, I was in Erie with my mom."
Eventually, Tony retired and Max became the sole proprietor of Smith's until Mike came in to help in 1971. Nine years later, his brother John joined the company, cementing the family's hold on the business, creating a tradition for not only the Weber's but also all the other meat-lovers in Erie; Pittsburgh; Buffalo, N.Y.; Youngstown, Ohio; and everywhere in between that served up ham for the holidays and Cheddarbests in the backyard.
Still, not all of the Weber clan is directly involved with Smith's. Of Mike's five daughters, only Sara, Emily, and Liz are currently with the company, although Sara's husband Ray is also part of the Smith's ranks. John has four boys, three in high school and one in college, so they still have a ways to go whether they choose to follow in the father's footsteps.
"The drill is, in high school during the summer, you usually start at 5 or 5:30 a.m., which is when production starts, work until the end of the day," Sara explains. "Then you go to college, get a degree, and go into another field. Sometimes there's just a natural progression back to the business. I'm the oldest of five girls, and there are three of us in the business now. It's healthy. You bring back a completely different perspective, and that's a good thing."
It's an unwritten rule that the Webers have been following for decades now. In a way, it's like the Amish Rumspringa, where those of age must leave their community and see what the outside world is like. For example, Sara was a financial adviser for Prudential Securities, which eventually became Wachovia Securities LLC, before coming back to Smith's in 2006. Not everybody returns, but those that do bring a new outlook into the group, which is especially important.
"Since we're family, we have similar views and outlooks," Mike says, glancing across the glass table to Sara. "You want to make sure you get enough outside input into this, so we're not just this closed circle of groupthink."
The strategy has worked so far, as the company has continued to grow over the 64 years since the Webers took over. Back in 1949, Smith's was just a small butcher shop that produced anywhere from 500 to 1,000 wieners a week. Now, the meat manufacturer has an output of upwards to 500,000 hot dogs each week.
But exactly when did Smith's became a household name in this town? Even more, when did it go from a valued product line to one that the denizens of this fair region obsess over to the point of frightening out-of-towners who just migrated to Erie? Like when my college roommate's former girlfriend interrogated me about knowing Smith's.
"That's a great question," Mike replies, nodding along to my inquiries. "I don't know if you can define it as a moment or even a short period of time, really."
Ah, well then. According to Mike and Sara, the reputation of the company grew gradually, even before Tony Weber became involved with Smith's. The family made sure to support local endeavors, helping to cement a reputation as the hometown hot dog. Smith's was always in demand at Erie Blades and Erie Panthers games, as well as other past teams. You could even find Smith's at games played at old Ainsworth Field back when minor league baseball teams played there.
Now, Smith's is a proud partner with current teams, like the Erie SeaWolves, and the fans couldn't be happier, chowing down up to 5,000 hot dogs in a single Buck Night. The wieners aren't the only product that Erieites love, as Smith's pumps out ham, bologna, salami, braunschweiger, kielbasa, sausage, bacon… well, you get the picture. Even more, the brand became known for the quality of all of its meats, which the Webers strive to maintain.
"Over the years, we've provided an incredibly consistent product," Sara says, leaning in toward the table, setting her pen down on the legal pad on which she was taking notes. "It's a premium product, and we've decided that that's who we are."
If anything really helped boost awareness during the earlier years, it was the emergence of these newfangled locations in the '50s where people started flocking to purchase their everyday necessities. The folks at Smith's decided to be one of the first local companies to embrace these "supermarkets," investing in a new machine to provide vacuum-packed goods instead of relying on selling bulk products.
Of course, there were other meat manufacturers here in town around that time. Armour and Company, Roessler's, and Swift & Company were all competitors in the same market, so something else had to set Smith's apart, other than their ability to adapt to the times. For the Webers, the key was sticking with tradition.
"[Tony and Max's] emphasis was always on quality – and thank goodness," Mike says. "That's our niche, having the quality we've kept all of these years, and we still use many of the same recipes. My dad added on some additional items, with the ham-side of the business, and we've all brought a little bit to the table."
And quite an impressive table it is, filled with enough premium proteins to sate the hungriest of meat eaters, a figurative cornucopia of carnivorous delight. Look through a list of their available products and you'll spot award-winning hams naturally smoked over sugar maple wood, over a dozen deli meats for sandwich lovers, and relatively recent additions in Ox Roast – thinly sliced roast beef marinated in its own juices – and thick-cut slab bacon.
Still, above them all sits one particular product: the hot dog.
Whether you prefer natural casing wieners or their skinless brethren, the tubular treat can be found all over city, especially at local sporting events. A mixture of high-quality beef and pork, the wiener is Smith's signature product, often being shipped out of state by out-of-state fans looking for a taste of home.
"It's the only hot dog I would eat," says Mark Kamppi, his voice raised higher than his normal deep tone. "Smith's is a good company. It's a good product. If you go to places down south or out west and try hot dogs from the store, there's no comparison."
While Mark grew up appreciating the home town hot dogs, he now helps bring the same joy to others, having driven over 1 million miles – accident-free, no less – in the tri-state area to keep Smith's in stock. Having worked at Smith's as a truck driver and salesman for over 25 years, Mark says that the products around the only premium quality about the company.
"The Webers are just down-to-earth people, that's for sure," (he says during over phone interview.) "It makes the employees feel secure, too. They're good people to work for. It makes life easier, going to work every day and enjoying your job."
While they may not have the Weber name, employees of Smith's feel like they are part of the family as well. Despite the enormity of the Smith's name in Erie, the company is actually fairly small for the impact it has on the community with just 47 full-time employees, ranging from equipment operator to department leader.
Mike and Sara pointed out that they've had people ask them why their workforce isn't bigger, they're in no rush to go out and add to their work-family. The Weber family is purposefully slow to hire new workers, carefully judging if an applicant is right for the job, as well as making sure that the company would be able to bring them on completely.
"We're making a commitment; we don't hire somebody with the thought in mind that in six months we could lay them off in a month," Mike says, leaning forward as if to emphasize his point. "It's kind of an old-fashioned viewpoint, but it works for us. I wouldn't like to lose a month of my salary, because everybody ends up planning their life around a certain level of compensation."
The strategy seems to be working, given that since the Weber family took over back in 1949, they've never laid off a full-time employee. In fact, they've never had a work stoppage in their history. There's a lot of trust between the workers, who often retire with the company, and the Webers, so much so that the former even decertified from their union in 2012.
The move wasn't prompted by the Weber family, instead it was a movement started by Donna Boyd, Smith's smokehouse operator for the past eight years after starting off as a temp and working on the natural casing line. According to Donna, the workers were unhappy with the union due to some issues with the employee's pensions. While some people had reservations with the move, ultimately their trust in the Weber family helped fuel the decision to decertify so that the union would no longer represent the workers.
"The Weber family isn't out to cut our throats; they're always going to be family," Donna says, staring me straight in the eyes. "If you want to pay somebody $8 an hour, you're going to get that out of their work. They respect us. I had some personal problems way back; my daughter was in a bad accident. I was more or less gone, in and out for almost three months and they backed me. Most places would be like: 'It's not our problem.'"
Instead, the Smith's employees are a big reason as to why the company keeps growing. With 15 years of experience at Smith's Donna still considers herself a "newbie," as many of her coworkers have been with the company even longer, experts in maintaining the company's reputation for quality.
Even more, the workers do this under strict standards from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as the organization requires the presence of an inspector in the Smith's plant for every day the company operates, whereas some non-meat or produce ventures won't see an inspector for a year or two. In fact, the Weber family holds Smith's to even stricter protocols than what are required by law, something made possible by their hardworking employees.
"They're the first ones to say that they are the last line of defense," Sara says proudly of how the workers prevent products from going out that are not up to company standards. "We trust them implicitly and they do a fabulous job for us. It's like a big family."
Like many families, however, the Smith's clan outgrew their old home.
After more than five decades at their plant on West 23rd Street near Pittsburgh Avenue, the Weber family found its company stuck in an outdated facility that limited their potential for growth.
"What we wound up with over the last six, seven years [in that location] was a plant that had kind of a mish-mash of add-on rooms," Mike says. "Food safety standards and food safety knowledge had changed so much over the years since 1968. We knew that if we wanted to continue to provide safe, high-quality foods, we had to make some big infrastructure changes that we were not able to make at that location. After a lot of false starts and a lot of soul searching, we decided to make a really big investment."
With the decision behind them, Smith's moved to their current location on West 20th Street in 2011. With the larger space and new technology in place, the company was able to ramp up production on newer products like their own take on Ox Roast, a popular local dish, and – arguably the most popular thing on the Internet other than cats – bacon.
Still, by making such a large investment in new facilities, Smith's needed to increase their sales to help justify the move. If there's one problem to having such a faithful fan base in Erie, it's that it's hard to gain new fans without trying to sell to a new market. So, the Webers did just that, setting their gaze upon Pittsburgh, a city with hungry mouths and lacking a go-to hot dog brand.
While Smith's already had a product that would please the masses, they first needed to get Pittsburghers to notice them. Fortunately, the University of Pittsburgh athletics programs were in need of a hot dog and a member of their sales team hailed from The Flagship City. Soon, Smith's became the official hot dog of Pitt athletics, opening doors to the kitchens of the Steel City.
And there was no bigger kitchen than that of Consol Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Eventually, Smith's contract with Pitt ran out, but then Mark Turley, an executive director for the perennial Stanley Cup-contending Penguins, reached out with a potential new offer.
"There's nothing glamorous about that part," Mark laughs over the phone about how he discovered Smith's. "It's simply that I heard their commercial on the Pitt radio broadcast. I wasn't really familiar with the brand, so I looked up the brand, made a call, and got connected to Ray Kallner [vice president of sales & marketing and Sara's husband]. We had a couple of meetings, went through some ideas, shook hands, and had a partnership."
Since then, it's been a fine romance – at least in a business sense – as Smith's helps build the overall brand of the Penguins by featuring their logo on packaging and taking out advertising where they can, while Smith's gains legitimacy in a new market for them. With the title of "the official hot dog of the Pittsburgh Penguins," the company has been able to set up a good working relationship with Giant Eagle. The response to Smith's wieners was so positive that they even won Pittsburgh Magazine's "Best of the 'Burgh" award for hot dogs without even being on the ballot, earning the most write-in votes the contest ever received.
"When it comes to Smith's, it's always been a positive response," Mark says in his deep, gravelly voice, slight flickers of static crackling between the words. "Honestly, it's a really, really good product and I think it's better than the national brands. When you run a sports team, people come in and they experience a hockey game and you want their overall experience to be the best it could possibly be. It's not like an Oscar Mayer hot dog; it's a great product."
Because of some cheaper national brands, the hot dog has gotten a bad rap in the culinary world. Luckily, Smith's isn't a mish-mosh of random meaty bits found in some dark freezer; the wieners comprise of a combination of high-quality beef and pork as well as secret seasonings, leading to a tasty – and natural – wiener. Even better for Mark, the Penguins get to provide fans with something that they can be proud to say was manufactured right in Pennsylvania.
"We view Erie as part of the neighborhood," Mark says. "If you look at our footprint of our fanbase, it would immediately cover Youngstown, Ohio down into portions of Parkersburg, W.V., up to Erie. Erie is part of our community, so we do view them as a local company and anytime we can do business with a local company, it's best for us. We want to showcase local companies."
Now, Pittsburgh is starting to join the Smith's bandwagon, filled with Erieites and fans from all over the country. However, even with the growth into a new city, you don't have to worry about Smith's moving away or changing what made the company successful in the first place. And that includes both the recipes and the idea of family.
"From a parent's point of view, the benefits are terrific," Mike says, a smile creeping across his slightly furry face. "I get to work with some of my kids and see them on a daily basis. What would those time intervals be, especially if they were working in other cities?"
Across the table in our meating room, Sara nods her head, agreeing with her father.
"My dad and I have always been very close, but I also have the pleasure of working with and seeing my uncle every day and knowing him in a way that I would never know him if it weren't for this business," she says, a lightness to her voice that lets you know she made the right choice to return to Smith's. "It can be bumpy at times. We have arguments that sometimes can get louder, but it ends up being very healthy and productive. I'm incredibly lucky to be able to work with my sisters every day. The downside is you tend to take work home with you. You have to be careful; it's a fine line to not bring problems at work to the Sunday dinner table with the extended family. Sometimes inevitably it happens."
Still, even if dinner is contentious, at least you're sharing a table with your loved ones. In a way, while Smith's manufactures all sorts of meaty goodness, perhaps their best products are the memories they help create. The sweet smell of the holiday ham at your grandparent's house. The loud snap of a natural-casing wiener at the first SeaWolves game you ever attend. And the sight of your family gathered together, a simple moment that will last long past the expiration date.
At Smith's, food is family, and we're all welcome at their dinner table.
Alex Bieler can be contacted at aBieler@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Catch20Q.