Handled with special care: Fortuna’s sausage

Company: Fortuna’s Authentic Sausage Co., 975 Greenville Ave., Greenville
Type of business: Makes and sells all natural sausage, gift baskets, and Italian food specialties.
Owners: Patti and Paul Stannard
Number of employees: Six (increases during holiday season)
Founded: 1994
Anual sales: $500,000+

SAUSAGE MAKERS Patti and Paul Stannard.

Mona LeBlanc, who runs the office at Fortuna’s Authentic Sausage Co. in Greenville, said during this past December holiday shopping season “we apologized for two weeks straight to anyone who came in: ‘we’re sorry, we’re not normally like this.'”

The problem was they had so many orders for the company’s well-known Soupy – a dry-cured Italian sausage ranging on the spicy scale from mild to nuclear – and other items that anyone who visited Fortuna’s snug retail shop was tripping over boxes waiting to be picked up by United Parcel Service.

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”We were shipping over 100 boxes a day,” added Patti Stannard, who owns the company with her husband Paul.

They had expected to be busy, but wound up doing about four times the business projected, she said. Orders from the company’s two-year-old Web site, www.soupy.com, were up noticeably, in addition to the usual catalog, phone and walk-in orders.

With so many Rhode Islanders, who are notoriously attached to local fare such as spinach pies and quahog stuffies, transplanted to locations across the globe, Fortuna’s has shipped packages to a variety of locations, including Turkey, France, Canada, Hawaii and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The Stannards started out 16 years ago with Fortuna’s Italian Deli & Catering, a Westerly landmark they sold last summer. It was there the sausage, which is made from recipes passed along by Patti’s grandmother, gained popularity locally and got some national attention.

A food critic from the Los Angeles Times discovered the sausage while visiting Rhode Island, and gave Fortuna’s a boost in an Aug. 13, 1992 article headlined “Amer-ica’s Best: Worth Waiting For.”

Patti Stannard said they didn’t hear about the article until after it appeared and West Coast residents began placing phone orders. “We were brave enough to ask after the 10th or 12th call, why is this happening?” she said.

Comedian Jay Leno, who hosts NBC’s Tonight Show, is perhaps Fortuna’s most high-profile customer. Leno has mentioned his fondness for Soupys so many times actor Tom Berenger gave him some during an on-air interview.

Fortuna’s sausage stands out because they don’t use nitrates and other chemical preservatives – ingredients many health conscious consumers avoid, explained Paul Stannard. He and fellow sausage maker Rod Taddel do everything from grinding up the ingredients, stuffing the natural casing, and stocking the drying room.

In Fortuna’s process the sausage is never cooked, instead it goes into a 58 degree drying room for three to four months so moisture can be slowly removed from the meat. Larger products like salami are dried for about six months, he explained. If they used nitrates and other chemicals, the drying process would take only 22 days.

”Years ago my wife’s grandmother would make it in her basement and attic once a year,” he said. “It would normally be done by Easter and they’d put it in crocks of oil (to preserve it). On Federal Hill in Providence people still make it that way.”

With demand for Soupys growing after the Times’ article, the Stannards decided to open a sausage-making operation. “Having the deli and restaurant was great. We could see this was a future,” said Paul Stannard, adding this allowed them to shift to a five day work week instead of seven, since they can only be open when federal inspectors are around.

Because they ship meat products they must meet the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s regulations. A USDA inspector visits the shop every business day, checking everything from refrigerator temperatures to clothing and hair covers worn by people in the production room.

Keeping up with federal regulations provides the biggest challenge, according to Paul Stannard. And the regulations keep getting tougher.

As of Jan. 25, 2000, Fortuna’s must comply with the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) Act passed by Congress, which is designed to improve protections against food-borne pathogens such as E.coli and salmonella. Because there is no federally validated process for dry curing meat, they will have to send 30 samples from each day’s batch to be tested at a federal lab, Paul Stannard explained.

Other companies that heat or cook sausage products can follow a federally validated process and will not have to have samples tested.

They could cook the sausages, but then, Stannard said, “it wouldn’t taste any good.”

Continuing with the dry-curing process after Jan. 25, 2000, “will run about $600 to $700 a batch,” he estimated. So when they begin following the new rules, they will increase the amount they produce in a day, instead of spreading production over a number of days. “We’re gambling because if there’s any contamination it all has to be thrown out.”

They now produce about 1,000 pounds of sausage a day.

”If I was a consumer, I would want that too when I was buying food for my family. As a businessman, it’s tough though,” he said. “It’s (HACCP) going to be very expensive for this plant to work through.”


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