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Changes abound at Uncle Charley's Sausage, but taste isn't one of them

| Monday, Dec. 22, 2014, 11:06 p.m.
Uncle Charley’s Sausage President Len Caric and his partner, Jim Rudolph, purchased the company from its founder in January.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley’s Sausage President Len Caric and his partner, Jim Rudolph, purchased the company from its founder in January.
Uncle Charley’s Sausage packager Stefan Houser boxes the finished product as labeler Robin Lorent affixes tags to packages on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company’s Parks Township plant.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley’s Sausage packager Stefan Houser boxes the finished product as labeler Robin Lorent affixes tags to packages on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company’s Parks Township plant.
Uncle Charley's crew leader Crystal Klingensmith works on the packaging line on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley's crew leader Crystal Klingensmith works on the packaging line on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Uncle Charley's Sausage's new packaging includes updated nutritional information, providing calorie counts and other figures based on actual links or patties, instead of artificial servings sizes.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley's Sausage's new packaging includes updated nutritional information, providing calorie counts and other figures based on actual links or patties, instead of artificial servings sizes.
Uncle Charley's Sausage President Len Caric explains the process of making sausage on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley's Sausage President Len Caric explains the process of making sausage on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Uncle Charley's Sausage line operator Daniel Ormeo checks on a machine on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014 in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley's Sausage line operator Daniel Ormeo checks on a machine on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014 in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Uncle Charley's Sausage line operator Shaun Biesecker prepares sausage on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company's plant in Parks Township.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Uncle Charley's Sausage line operator Shaun Biesecker prepares sausage on Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014, in the company's plant in Parks Township.

Len Caric worries that shoppers have been judging Uncle Charley's Sausage by its cover.

Inside the packages, featuring a familiar, yellow logo that Western Pennsylvania consumers have come to know over 25 years, the company's products made in Armstrong County have an untold story to tell.

“The animals were slaughtered yesterday. It came in last night. And the majority will be in stores tomorrow,” Caric said recently at the company's plant and headquarters in Parks Township. “It's as fresh as fresh can be.”

Nearly a year after Caric and a group of investors bought Uncle Charley's, he has checked off a list of goals toward improving the company, including freshening up its brand, buying new equipment and acquiring Safe Quality Food certification from the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Uncle Charley's was a $12 million company with 40 employees when founder Charles Armitage sold it in January to Caric and partner Jim Rudolph. Caric said he hired nine employees this year, including production workers and salespeople, and increased revenue by about 10 percent.

The company soon will roll out new packaging consistent with its focus on being a premium brand and telling that story of locally sourced food with no preservatives. Caric hopes to add a second shift and at least 20 more employees as production increases.

One part of Armitage's legacy will remain.

“He was relentless at keeping the recipe the same, and we haven't changed that,” Caric said. Armitage founded the company in 1988.

The mission of all the changes is getting Uncle Charley's into more stores — about 700 outlets sell it in the Appalachian region — where it can compete against nationally known brands. A group of 65 Aldi's stores started selling the sausage in April with an agreement that Uncle Charley's would get the Safe Quality Food certification it received last month. The certification requires tracking of products and their temperatures from sources to store.

“We want to do what the large nationals do from an infrastructure standpoint, but keep a local identity,” Caric said.

National brands are getting more competition from speciality and local brands such as Uncle Charley's that are pushing the local sourcing of their products and natural ingredients, said Kevin Ladwig, a vice president at Sheboygan, Wisc.-based Johnsonville, one of the country's largest sausage makers.

“Consumers want to know more about where the product comes from, and we are spending more time in that area, thinking about how to provide more information, including on our website,” Ladwig said. “We have a clean label to begin with. It's always been a more easier to pronounce list with fewer ingredients.”

The new packaging at Uncle Charley's includes a change in colors. Too many shoppers equate yellow with discount brands and fast food, Caric said. The new labels will stand out with bold reds and blues on black backgrounds, over sausages and patties sitting in black trays.

The packaging will include updated nutritional information, providing calorie counts and other figures based on actual links or patties, instead of artificial servings sizes. That means expanding from 14 different labels to 57. The USDA had approved all but two of the labels as of last week.

The labels keep the name “Uncle Charley's” written in the same script but abandon the familiar figure of a cartoon pig at a grill with the picture of an older man — an actor, not the real Charley — appearing to look directly at shoppers.

The packaging matches with a media campaign designed by Bloomfield-based firm C-leveled that includes new TV ads and an emphasis on the ingredients; the pork is from Pioneer Packing Co. in Bowling Green, Ohio, and the spices come from New Castle.

“Fresh, honest and delicious has become our mantra,” Caric said, repeating a phrase in the new branding campaign.

Continued attention to taste can't be underestimated with so many choices in the sausage case.

“At the end of day, consumers vote for flavor. People buy sausage most often because of how it tastes,” said Ladwig of Johnsonville, which started as a small, family-owned business.

Caric won't disagree. He did not come to Uncle Charley's from a food management background; his previous work and investments were in propane cylinders, tool shops and Penn Brewery.

“I love it. I love the product,” said Caric, 55, of Monroeville. “When we test the food, I don't have to eat dinner later.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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