Scott Ball / Rivard Report
If kielbasa is Polish for sausage, then in San Antonio, Kiolbassa is sausage.
Founded by Rufus and Juanita Kiolbassa, the company of that name has been operating in San Antonio since 1949, producing first Polish sausage, and now an entire line of smoked meat products. In recent years, the third generation of the Kiolbassa family began running the show, and expansion this year called for a 70th anniversary celebration.
On Wednesday, the company blocked San Marcos Street near its newest plant on the West Side for a brief party where family, friends, and community leaders celebrated Kiolbassa’s milestone and christened new processing equipment that will more than double its capacity. Employees from the company’s original Brazos Street plant also attended the gathering, where Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller blessed the building and guests took tours of the temperature-controlled plant.
In an interview with the Rivard Report, President Michael Kiolbassa said the company which employs about 275 people made 20 million pounds of sausage last year. With the new equipment installed inside a nearby plant it began leasing in 2017, the company is on track to make up to 50 million pounds this year.
Kiolbassa will hire an additional 30 people to operate the equipment, which chops and grinds the meat, then stuffs and hangs the sausage. The links then go into a real-wood smokehouse before being packaged for sale.
“This is a big deal, opening up a new facility,” said Michael. “It’s a big deal for our family, it’s a big deal for our company. We knew we were going to do a 70th celebration at some point and just felt like it was the right thing to do to combine the two.”
Michael, Rufus’ grandson, joined his father Robert at Kiolbassa in 1987 as a product manager – one of only 25 employees – after several years working in banking right out of college. Following a leadership transition in 2018, he now heads up Kiolbassa with the help of a cousin and sister, who are on the board of directors, and his cousin Wendy Stiles, who is director of community enrichment, the company’s liaison with the San Antonio Food Bank and other charities.
“She works with them to basically give sausage away,” he said, in keeping with the company’s core value of giving back to the community. Kiolbassa’s two-for-one program allows fundraising organizations and efforts to get a free pound for every two pounds of sausage purchased, and every year, the company donates “hundreds of thousands” of pounds, Michael said, through that program.
“I never saw my dad turn anyone down for a donation,” Michael said. “It really became part of our DNA as a company. As we started to grow throughout Texas and the United States, we really wanted a way to continue that spirit of giving back in communities we’re now a big part of, not just San Antonio.”
Kiolbassa uses fresh ingredients and a small-batch process that includes natural-wood smoke, not liquid or artificial smoke. “Even as we grew, we never wavered from that,” Michael said. “That makes us one of the most inefficient sausage-makers out there.”
But their commitment to handcrafted quality is one of the keys to Kiolbassa’s success, he said.
Though there was a time several years ago when Kiolbassa was forced to nearly give away its product to remain afloat, the company is currently on solid ground again. A period of fast growth followed his start with the company, but as Michael told a Forbes reporter in 2016, eventually it was struggling to make a profit and couldn’t keep up with sales growth.
That’s when he was inspired to make some changes that he said are the other ingredients of the company’s turnaround and near-term success. They adopted an “open-book management” system and began to make company financials available so that employees at every level could better understand how they contribute to the bottom line. They instituted values-based leadership and focused on company culture.
“That strong cultural foundation has allowed us to attract really great people to our organization, people that a small-family company in San Antonio would not normally be able to attract,” Michael said. “We’ve been named a top workplace in San Antonio for several years in a row. That doesn’t happen in a manufacturing environment very often.”
With the added capacity, Kiolbassa plans to continue expanding its distribution into more retail outlets and attracting new customers by developing new products. The company currently sells in all 50 states, though primarily through club stores like Sam’s and Costco.
On the day Kiolbassa marked its anniversary, however, Michael reflected on the impact that the San Antonio-based grocery giant H-E-B has had on the company’s start and longevity.
“They were the first ones to give us distribution outside of San Antonio,” he said. “I used to tell people we have no idea how fortunate we are that our little company happened to be in the same city as one of the best retailers in the world … That made us so much better of a company, just by being close to them.”