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Photo: B.A. Nilsson

Resausaging for the New Century

Cohoes-based Bilinski’s reinvents its traditional meat products with healthy, all-natural ingredients

By B.A. Nilsson

One thing that’s sure about an 80-year-old sausage recipe: You can expect it to be delicious. And not very good for you. Sausage is tasty because of its fat content, among other rambunctious ingredients, and when Steve and Cathie Schonwetter bought Joseph Bilinski’s eponymous business in 1983, this was the product—in its many varieties—that they continued to make at the Cohoes-based manufacturing plant.

A quarter-century later, our eating habits have evolved to something more conscientious, so the Bilinski’s has taken the risky move of rethinking their operation—redefining their product line to emphasize healthy ingredients,

Steve Schonwetter grew up in the deli business—his father owned a company that was the largest Boar’s Head distributor in the area—so he knows how these products should taste. Founded at the outset of the Great Depression, Bilinski’s was known for its kielbasa, bologna, kishkes, hot dogs and other traditional, ethnic sausages.

“A few years after we bought the business,” says Schonwetter, “my father was hospitalized after a heart attack. He was given a pamphlet describing what he was allowed to eat, and it included nothing that we manufactured. That’s when we first began to realize that something would have to change.”

That’s when he began his first experiments with chicken sausage, initially flavoring it with spinach and garlic. Chicken sausage? According to the USDA, there was no such thing. “We had to fight to get them to recognize it.” It’s made with no salt, no nitrites, no skin, “a lot of breast, a little thigh.”

The chicken meat, sourced mostly from Amish farms in Pennsylvania, comes from free-range birds that are fed no meat or antibiotics. “We visit the chicken farms periodically to inspect their procedures and see what the animals are being fed,” says Schonwetter’s daughter, Stacey Waters. “And we inspect the meat that we get very carefully to be sure that there’s no tissue, bone, or cartilage. It’s a complete by-hand procedure.”

Waters joined the company four years ago and energized the rebranding effort. “Our family has always been a group of really healthy eaters,” she says. “We didn’t want to give up the kielbasa and bologna, but we wanted to stay true to what we believe in. So we want to make products that still taste good but are healthy.”

“It’s difficult to do,” says Schonwetter. “For years, we’ve been producing things like the pickled smoked sausage you find in gallon jars, so in many ways we’re now cultivating a new audience.”

Some of the old audience won’t let go. When Bilinski’s announced it was pulling its old line of hot dogs off the shelf, “we got a call from Lebanon Valley Speedway,” says Steve. “They said, ‘This is not acceptable. What do we have to do to get hot dogs from you?’ We set up a minimum batch size for them to custom order from us.”

In the meantime, Bilinski’s has reformulated the hot dogs. “Like our chicken sausage, they’re made with meat from free-range animals that are vegetable-fed and antibiotic-free.”

As new products have been introduced, including a variety of new chicken sausage flavors, the whole brand image has been revamped. You’ll see new packaging, new products, even a new logo (a bright yellow bee). And you’ll revisit some of the old products in new, healthier guises, like the smoked ham. “It’s been a favorite of many companies to give as a holiday gift to employees. Now it’s all natural.” There’s also a new champagne ham, getting its flavor from a sparkling wine from Finger Lakes-based Glenora Winery.

Of course, without nitrites, “you lose lots and lots of shelf life,” as Schonwetter explains. But this also means that what you find in the supermarket is going to be fresh—fresh enough to bring home and freeze, if you’re stockpiling the stuff as I do. In fact, I missed out on a recent buy-one-get-one-free special on the hot dogs at Price Chopper because the shelf was empty. “Sold out this morning,” an employee told me. “We’re hoping to get some more in tomorrow.”

The Bilinski plant is on a Cohoes back street. The building looks like an old- fashioned small factory, but some discreet additions have allowed them to streamline and increase the manufacturing.

Inside, you step from old into new, with some of the older sections still bearing evidence of old processing techniques.

Recipes are developed by the extended Schonwetter family, who make many meals out of the products-to-be before arriving at flavors they like. The approved recipes are then translated into the large quantities the operation requires, and mixed at the factory with industrial quantities of seasonings that also come from reliable sources.

The meat is hand fed into a grinder, inspected as it goes. (“Ugh!” said my daughter. “Reminds me too much of Sweeney Todd.”) The forcemeat is injected into the transparent cellulose wrappers that give them their sausage shape, and cooked. The wrappers are then whisked away by fancy machines, and the finished product is packaged and labeled.

It’s not just Bilinski-branded product that’s made here. Sausage sold under the Premio brand is made in Cohoes, which I enjoyed at Yankee Stadium not long after touring the Bilinski factory. Like the Cajun hot dogs at Stewart’s? They come from Bilinski’s. Target stores get their Archer Farms sausage products from the Cohoes factory, too.

Schonwetter finds proof of an enduring Bilinski’s appeal every time he travels. “The company had a jingle years ago that you heard everywhere. So now, if I’m someplace like the airport with Bilinski stickers on my luggage, there always will be at least one person who comes up to me and starts singing, ‘We’re happy, so happy . . . ’ ”

Although Bilinski’s is still feeling its way through what’s been a drastic change, the response so far is encouraging them to continue to explore more possibilities within the healthy-product realm. As Schonwetter concludes, “If you don’t know what’s on the label, why would you eat it?”

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

The Cohoes Farmers’ Market hosts its first Farm to City Fest from 1 to 8 PM tomorrow (Friday, June 27) on Remsen Street in downtown Cohoes. Look for horse-drawn wagon rides, farm animals, cooking demonstrations, sheep shearing, refreshments, music and more. A path of carrots on the streets leads you to the free festival. Executive Chef Noah Sheetz of the Governor’s Mansion in Albany will give a 2 PM cooking demonstration using ingredients from the market. At 4 PM, the Shaker Heritage Society of Colonie offers a Shaker cooking demonstration. And the street will be a canvas from 1:30 to 2:30 PM, as students create original chalk designs. Music by Carmine Dio & The Goodfellas will begin at 4 PM. More info at cohoesfarmersmarket.com. . . . Honest Weight Food Co-op is holding a grilling demonstration from 11 AM to 2 PM on Saturday (June 28), using the Big Green Egg, a ceramic komodo-style grill. The event takes place at 1760 Central Avenue, just down the street from the Co-op. The highlight will be local, sustainably and humanely raised meats, plus other delicious bites. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.



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