The item you’re most likely to find in our freezer is sausage from the Corridor Sausage Co. We’ve been buying them for years and they are literally one of my favorite food items (I recommend Apple, Sage & Pork). Since I’m such a fan, I was happy Corridor Sausage Co.’s owner, Will Branch, agreed to an interview. Will and his business partner, Zachary Klein, founded the company in 2009 and sell their products online, at retail locations and farmers markets (including Eastern Market).
How did you get into the meat business?
I went to Michigan State. I had an English degree and worked odd jobs for about five years, then I was at a point that I was ready for a change. I went to culinary school and worked my way through kitchens around here and in New York. One restaurant I was in I met my business partner. We liked working together. We both independently had these ideas of wanting to do sausage, wanting to work with meat, charcuterie -something a lot of cooks talk about at 2:30 a.m. after a shift. We took it and thought: How do you actually do this? Where do you find kitchen space? How do you get a license? Who can you sell to? We starting running with it.
What made you pick Detroit? You guys have been here a long time – before it became what it is today.
We were here when things were starting to bloom. Everything still has a way to go but I grew up around here. I had a lot of ties. I wanted to do something in the city. There were definitely times where it seemed like it would be easier to take it out to Ann Arbor or somewhere with industrial space or a restaurant or something like that but we wanted to keep it around here. People at Avalon and Slows and people in restaurants had their doors open to talk with me. We were really supported by the community.
Where do you produce the sausages?
Eastern Market – corner of Division and Orleans. We took over the building about two years ago. It’s a fully licensed federal building. That means we have federal inspection everyday. Our hours are mandated to us but we can wholesale across state lines. Meat has an incredibly high floor and ceiling – that’s the best way to put it. The cost of entry and bureaucracy involved of just getting started is ridiculous. Jam, soap or granola you can do it pretty easily but meat you’re going federal. It’s a crazy 1-2 year plan review process. It’s one of the things that has kept sausage out of the marketplace. People are scared of dealing with it. We thought we knew what we were getting into when we started but really had no idea but we didn’t want to give up.
Where do you source ingredients?
We are really selective with the farms we use, they are all national farm systems. Prairie Grove for pork, Mountain State for lamb, Timber Valley for turkey. We hold ourselves to an ethical standard. No antibiotics ever. We really want to use the highest quality. We do specials with state farmers and we’re always trying to do a little bit more. With Michigan, it’s hard to do 100% in-state because there is a breakdown in the supply chain. There aren’t a lot of middlemen to get it from the farm to the end user, which makes the supply hard. We’re not a butcher shop, we make sausage. We don’t have the time or resources to butcher everything ourselves so we need to get everything in when we need it and the cuts and quality we want. So as we grow, we are always looking to add more Michigan sources.
You have amazing flavor combinations. How do you come up with them?
A lot of it is rooted in tradition. The Vietnamese chicken is our best seller and that’s a take on a fairly traditional Vietnamese recipe. We try to keep things authentic. We stick with flavor profiles that are traditional. One thing we realized when we started doing this is how much the art of sausage making has changed. It’s all been converted to a commercial process and pre-made bag mixes. No one is really using fresh garlic in their shops so one of the first things we did was everything has to be fresh, everything has to be weighed by hand, and no one touches our recipes but us. It gives us a unique flavor and a quality you don’t see from anyone else – on top of the unique variety of our sausages.
What’s your favorite?
The lamb Merguez. It’s a traditional North African sausage, it’s really hard to find. When we first started doing this we said we need to find a good version of this. We tried a lot of different tweaks and twists on the recipes. It’s still my favorite, five years later.
I believe you work/worked with different local start-up organizations. What business organizations have you worked with?
FoodLab is the biggest group we worked with. They’re really geared toward Phase 0/Phase 1 businesses and helping them with regulation. Helping them to operate above ground. They’ve had great success from Detroit Vegan Soul, Chez Chloe, Beau Bien Foods. They’re a really amazing group. I’m proud to be a charter member.
How has the small business community evolved since you started?
It’s definitely more dense. The people that were there to coach us have just gotten bigger. McClure’s is national. Slows is spinning off and just amazing. There are more people supporting each other. With groups like Food Lab and Kitchen Connect they’re really helping to bridge that gap between a home product and a commercial product. One of the biggest barriers for any start-up is: How do you do it? Where do you go to find this information? When we first started it was basically you do everything until you get caught. When you get caught you ask them, ‘What am I actually supposed to do?’ Now everyone from the City of Detroit to the state have been working to streamline their websites and their portals to try to get the information to their users. Farmers markets have made the information more readily available too. The network to incubate an idea has really blossomed.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs looking towards Detroit?
Use your network. Talk to every person you can. Be realistic about what your goals are. Get used to never sleeping. If you’re sleeping well at night you’re probably doing it wrong. I think a lot of people get caught up in the idea of ‘I want to do a food business’ or ‘I’d love to do something in Detroit’ and I think people slip on the fact that it’s still ridiculously hard to do. It’s going to be a 70 hour a week job. It’s not going to pay well for 3-4 years. I think people look at companies and say ‘They were an overnight success’. No. They had four years of demoing recipes or working farmers markets or making pizza dough every night for 10 years so you get really good at it. People have to remember it’s really hard work. You have to understand numbers. You really have to stand behind your product.
You sell at Eastern Market and retail locations. Can you tell me your long term plan for the business?
Right now we’ve expanded across the state to grocery stores as far as Traverse City and Grand Rapids. We’re trying to push Midwest distribution. A little bit of this year is dedicated to market penetration in Cleveland and Chicago. We have fun things in the works. We’re opening our second stand at Ford Field this year. We’re slated to open a concession stand at Detroit Metro Airport in 2015. So there is a lot of real cool spin-offs that are in the works.