Top 50 Family-Owned Companies: Success in small batches

Photography by Jeff Nelson

Continental Sausage’s street cred is made most evident by its staying power, devout fan base and steady sales growth – about 5 percent a year since 2003.

That growth trajectory took a decided upturn three years ago when John Roelke came aboard as VP of sales. With the apparent mantra “tasting is believing,” he set about introducing Continental’s European-style and gourmet sausages to as many worthy restaurants, outlets and individual tasters as he could. Continental’s sales have surged an average of 22 percent annually since Roelke’s arrival.

A whirling dervish of energy and enthusiasm, Roelke became the company’s chief sales engine after first showing Continental’s owners his muster. “I first did the warehouse distribution sales for Continental and so was up and running as a broker,” Roelke says.

At that point, owner Eric Gutknecht found Roelke, who’s also a trained chef, hard to ignore. “I wanted white tablecloth restaurants like Elways, The Fort, The Brown Palace, The Broadmoor in the mix,” Roelke says. “Those chefs appreciate what we’re about. The quality moved the product. It’s so good, the company could just roll out of bed and grow 7 or 8 percent.

“So I begged Eric for a job,” he adds, “and it’s worked out for both of us. Once I came on board, we made a team. Together we were able to spread the message. The business then starts coming to you. We’re a good team.”

Gutknecht’s original team is his multiple-generational heritage of sausage makers. “My family has been making sausage since 1809,” he says. “We began in Switzerland; I think I am the seventh or eighth generation of sausage maker.” Continental has been producing sausages in Denver since 1969.

“I began working in the business when I was 8 years old and have worked all through my schooling, including high school and college,” says Gutknecht, an Ironman triathlete who graduated from Denver’s Manual High School and attended Colorado College where he earned an economics degree. “From 1998 until 2003 my wife, Jessica, and I ran the company and then purchased it from my parents in 2003. Now our kids, Alex and Ashley, ages 10 and 8, help out here too.”

Sales efforts aside, Roelke is quick to say that the company’s popularity lies in its product. Continental Sausage’s 8,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in North Denver employs 25 people who work to create customized, individual sausages, many of them proprietary and most devised by critical palates – those of chefs, restaurateurs, and a foodie-focused public that wants and needs tender victuals built more intimately and with greater care than most any sausage in the country. “We put out exceptional products with the understanding that it will be sustainable,” says Gutknecht. Our goal is to put out product and have everyone say, ‘Wow. That’s awesome.’

“We don’t skimp on ingredients,” he adds, “and we feel we’re the best there is. It’s all natural, no hormones or antibiotics. We’re almost organic.”

Swiss Bratwurst, Buffalo Jalapeno Cheddar and Smoked German Bratwurst are just a few of Continental’s custom creations – as are Sweet Wild Boar, Gourmet Pheasant and Elk Jalapeno Cheddar.

“There’s a big difference in us and the other sausage makers,” Roelke says. “Our batch size is 180 pounds. Some local companies have batch sizes that are in the thousands of pounds. Our batch size allows us to be flexible for our customers, and it also provides a much better level of quality. When a batch is that small, it’s much easier to home in on the ingredients and really nail the consistency every time. It also allows us to do proprietary flavors and specialty items for customers.”

The batch size and the devotion to local, all-natural ingredients, coupled with the company’s mission to conduct business with a keen social consciousness, keeps Continental Sausage separate from the pack, while endearing the company to a growing customer base.

“There are perhaps 10 to 12 sausage makers in Colorado,” says Gutknecht, “but I don’t think any of them really understand what ‘natural’ means. None of the sausage manufacturers that I know of produce truly all natural products, which means sourcing ingredients from animals that are not treated with antibiotics or hormones. Some may use the ‘USDA natural definition’ of ‘minimally processed,’ but that’s not producing with truly all-natural ingredients.

“We have a bit of a niche,” he adds. “We’re local and we’re doing it the right way. We’re sourcing local, everything is locally grown and produced. We’re also trying to do everything as natural as possible – no preservatives or chemicals. We don’t consider ourselves ‘a processor.’ This is hand-crafted with a lot of technique, and we don’t skimp on ingredients.

“Furthermore, I am not aware of any organic producers for sausage,” he adds, “though we plan to be, as soon as we find an organic supply of pork.”

Roelke’s zeal for his product is akin to a southern Baptist preacher’s best fire-and-brimstone sermon. “Once people eat it, they love it,” he says. “It’s the best they’ve ever eaten. We can put $7.99 or $8.99 into making that link and know that we are the best, that we have repeat customers and that we can make them all happy. Because we’re a small batch, we can be fluid. People can come here with specific item requests.”

In addition to the facility on 75th and Washington streets in North Denver, Continental Sausage operates the Continental Deli & Sausage in the Cherry Creek neighborhood in Denver and Arvada’s Black Forest Deli. “Our delis are typical German-style delis,” Gutknecht says. “If you walk off a train in Frankfurt, Germany, the shop you’d see there is much like ours.

“We also offer tours of our manufacturing facility two or three times a week for customers, chefs, and school groups,” he adds. “We want to show people how actual sausage is made and disprove any of the myths of sausage making. We let people see every box, every corner – we’re really proud of what we do.”

Producing at the rate of about half a million pounds of sausage a year, Continental Sausage manages to keep its product distributed across five states within multiple outlets.

“We sell to high-end markets like Marczyk’s, Tony’s, Spinelli’s and the like,” says Roelkne, “and we’re across five states with Whole Foods. “Recently, we’ve gone into Costco with products and once people get in it in their mouths, we have new customers. They always say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to have that.’ So now Costco says they want us to stock this product and that product.”

All of which adds up to continued, celebratory-sized company growth. The degree to which this spells larger or additional facilities remains to be seen.

“We’re looking to grow incrementally, a small chunk at a time,” says Gutknecht. “Growing rapidly and at 30 percent annually and beyond is not sustainable. We don’t want to jeopardize our productivity. But every year we keep adding to our building and we have a lot of space. “Maybe in five years or so, we’ll double production space and maybe add a retail outlet, maybe a simple retail-café outlet.

“But for now, our present growth rate is enough,” he says. “Our name is gaining steam nationally, and today chefs call us out of the blue – from Wyoming to California. A lot of the big chefs are figuring out who we are.

“We’re sending samples and fulfilling orders out of the country,” he adds, “and we’re also talking to NFL stadiums. It’s nice when people learn about us and then come to us. We feel like we work toward and are the best at what we do in the country.”