BRIDGEPORT — Nicole Makowski was just a teenager when the bosses asked her to flush out piles of unwashed hog and sheep intestines used to make hot dog casings.
"I actually passed out the first time I did it. It was kind of like my blessing into the business. I hung around for as long as I could, but they brought me back to the office to cool off and said, 'Welcome to the business.'"
Makowski, 36, is now the president of Makowski's Real Sausage Co. at 2710 S. Poplar Ave. in an industrial stretch of Bridgeport.
What began as her great-grandfather's butcher shop in Wisconsin, and later became a manufacturer of canned meats for World War II soldiers and deli meats for convenience stores, has grown into a mini sausage empire.
The company now produces a staggering 30,000 pounds each week of hot dogs, bratwurst, chorizo, knockwurst, Polish, Italian and virtually every other type of sausage you can pronounce.
The pork and beef trimmings arrive 2,000 pounds at a time to the South Side factory, where they're ground by big steel machines, mixed with huge bags of spices, blasted into casings, looped across steel racks and sent to a second-floor smokehouse.
The bulk of the business is food service, so the sausage made by Makowski's 18-person union shop is sent to schools, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and catering companies across the city.
They also make custom orders, including Bill Kurtis' Tallgrass beef hot dogs and a duck meat, pork and duck fat hot dog served at The Duck Inn, chef Kevin Hickey's new Bridgeport tavern. That hot dog took Best in Show at a recent Food Network competition.
For the first time ever, the company is about to launch a new line of products that'll soon be available in grocery stores, including smoked hot links, spicy red hots, Polish sausage and cheddar and jalapeno bratwursts. Those products are available at Peoria Packing in the West Loop and Park Packing, 4107 S. Ashland.
"We're not trying to go into Mariano's and compete with the other 86 hot dogs in there. We'll be doing a lot of local grocery stores, focusing a lot on the barbecue aspects of the South and West Sides," she said.
Equally comfortable behind the desk — in the same wood-paneled office occupied by three generations of Makowski men — or walking around the chilly, hospital-sterile packing floor, Makowski exudes professional know-how.
She can tell you about the unpredictable nature of USDA food laws, the ratios of fat, water and sodium in different sausage blends, the merits of coarse or fine emulsions, why sales surge when the Bears play well and the current state of the sausage industry, which she describes as "really, really tough" right now because of record-high beef prices.
"Most people are looking for pennies and not quality, so that's the battle you're facing," she said.
Makowski, who took over as company president in 2002, said she looks forward to leading the family business far into the future.
"I've grown up in this business since high school. I mean, I smelled like hot dogs for a really long time," she said.