for the New Century
Bilinski’s reinvents its traditional meat products with healthy,
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.
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,
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.”
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
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
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?”
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
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.