Interview with the Sausage Pickler: John Foster of Red Smith Foods

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Red Smith
Never mess with a sausage in a tuxedo
One might think that this weekend's annual Mango Festival in Deerfield Beach might actually be about ... oh, I don't know... mangoes? 

But after calls to promoters went unreturned, a look at the website revealed that the event actually seems like a big R&B concert, not a foodie festival. Desperately seeking info, I contacted a sponsor of the event, South Florida's own Red Smith Foods -- perhaps America's most well-recognized purveyor of pickled sausage, pickled eggs, pickled pigs' feet, awesome t-shirts, and more. As they like to say, "Life Is Better When You Pickle It."

Turned out, the family-owned company's John Foster didn't know too much about the Mango Festival, either, but he had a wonderful sense of humor and was more charming than you'd ever expect a sausage pickler to be. Here's our Q&A:

Hey! Do you know what's up with the Mango Festival?
Foster: Well, it's going to be our first year there. We'll be debuting a new product - a single-serve sausage -- something that you might see in a 7-11. It's vacuum-packed, looks like beef jerky. Our most popular product by far is the full-gallon jar of pickled sausage. But buying one of those is a big commitment.
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Red Smith's
...And buying a single sausage out of a jar, with the tongs -- that could be unappetizing and steer some people away.  We worked a long time to get the single-sized product made -- we had to buy new equipment and everything. And we heard that the Mango Festival might be a good place to launch the product -- to get in front of customers, offer giveaways and samples, especially to people who never heard of it before.

So, will you have a booth there?
Yep, a booth inside the festival. And we'll hand out free samples of the single-serve product. Probably to the first thousand people. After that, we'll have the single-servings for sale -- but we'll still have hats and tshirts and other giveaways. Beer coozies...

I love your t-shirts. [Sales pitch for one says: "This shirt sends the message that hey, I'm edgy, but there's no need to be frightened. However it still provides the same emotional security that our other Red Smith Pickled Sausage T-shirt offers."]
Thanks! The drunken egg has been our logo for some 30 years.

Do you know what the expected audience is?
I think it's really centered around R& B and gospel acts. Organizers expect 40,000 people. I don't really know. It'll be interesting.

Your company is called S.W. (Red) Smith Foods. Who is S.W. Smith?
We actually changed the name to Red Smith Foods. S.W. stood for Silas Warren Smith -- he started the company. He was a tall redhead. My family bought the company in the early '70s. My father and uncle ran it, and now [it's them plus] my brother and I. 

And you sell pickled sausages and eggs?
Well the category is called pickled snack foods, or pickled meat snacks. We sell pickled eggs, pickled pigs' feet, and a surpisingly big item -- pickled pork hock, which is basically a small ham hock. We recently started selling pickled pigs' lips.

That sounds nasty.
Wait till you actually see it!

Do you seriously eat these things?
Um... We have tried all of our products. How's that? (laughs.)  Eggs and sausage are not that odd, although a lot people might not eat it all the time. Pigs'  feet -- that might not appeal to you if you didn't grow up eating it. So we have a static market for some of the foods -- especially for pigs' feet. But the people who do eat them are very, very passionate about them. There's an expectation that they are always going to be a certain way -- cooked a certain way, packed a certain way. Those are our real core customers.

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Red Smith's
Tell me more about this core customer.
We've done a lot of research, actually. There's a generalization -- people assume it's probably African-Americans who eat our products. But the research actually found that it's a much bigger array of people, for pigs' feet in particular. The main demographic is people who grew up in the South -- but it's white people, black, hispanic, native american. People who grew up primarily in the Deep South -- Alabama, Mississippi. 

Where do you sell the most?
Oh, Florida, definitely.  We're in every Wal-mart, Sam's Club, Costco. People thought for a long time that it was bar food - and it is -- but people mostly buy a gallon to keep at home. It's
shelf stable. My wife is an elementary school teacher and her students eat a lot of pickled sausage when they come home as an afternoon snack. We see a big spike in sales around the Super Bowl, and holidays like Labor Day. 

Where do you make the foods?
We have a plant in Davie and another in Pinellas.

Your website says you use "only extra large eggs from chickens that were hand-selected by a team of Roosterologists."  Haha. Where do you get the ingredients?
Well, the eggs, pigs feet, and hocks, we buy through food brokers, commodities brokers, because the price can vary a lot depending on what's happening with the hogs market. There might be a 1/2 truckload available, that they'll give to us below market because they're looking to unload it. But we have just one sausage vendor -- a guy in South Georgia. He's been selling to us for ten years for our proprietary blend.

Who knew we could learn so much by talking to a sausage pickler? How did you meet your wife? Did you say, "Hey baby, I pickle sausage?"
Ha ha, yeah, it was like in that movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I'm the Pickled Sausage King of Fort Lauderdale. (chuckles). I guarantee you, at a cocktail party there's not going to be two people who have the same conversation about pickled sausage.

Thanks for taking my questions in stride.
I get a kick out of it. We definitely keep a sense of humor about our business.

What's your cholesterol level?

Actually all of us -- I'm 35, my brother's 32, my dad and uncle are in their in late 70s, and we're all quite healthy. But we don't eat our products every day, so our cholesterol is good. I can't say that about all our customers, though.  :)
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