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Grinding it Out

Corridor Sausage

Already, 2013 has been an impressive year for Corridor Sausage. The artisan sausage company has found a rhythm in their new Eastern Market facility, they’ve launched The Grindhouse food truck, and thanks to USDA approval, they’re about to start selling to retail outlets.

So it seems like this is the time to take the region by storm.

Corridor co-founder Will Branch agrees. “If it isn’t, I probably have a bankruptcy and a divorce in my future,” he says with a hearty laugh. He’s kidding (sort of), but after a long three and a half years of strenuous work, he and partner Zak Alexander seem poised to truly reap the fruits of their labor.

The journey began in 2009 when Branch and Alexander were cooking together at a southeast Michigan restaurant. Neither wanted to open their own eatery, but both were excited at the prospect of something beyond working the line. “If I wasn’t going to law school and I was going to cook, it wasn’t to work for someone else for the rest of my life,” Branch says. “It’s about ‘what am I going to create?'”

Branch had grown up as a routine visitor to metro Detroit’s ethnic butchers, and Alexander had worked on a charcuterie program at Novi-based Steve & Rocky’s prior to their meeting. So the notion of starting a sausage business emerged quickly. “Planning a sausage or charcuterie shop is something every cook or chef talks about at 2am after too much Jameson and Guinness,” Branch jokes.

Wasting little time, they organized a meeting with some potential investors, a restaurant group looking to put a few businesses into a Midtown, Detroit-based development.

“That’s where we started to get attached to the space in the Cass Corridor,” Branch notes. Schoolcraft College generously granted them one-time use of their space and equipment to put together a product tasting, and though it went well and lease negotiations proceeded swiftly, the project eventually stalled. “We branded as Corridor Sausage and thought it was a done deal,” he continues, “And you could say, ‘Oh man, that didn’t come through, we’re bitter about it,’ but we’re not. Those people were all so, so helpful.”

The duo, unfazed, took a flexible approach, looking for any entry point to the marketplace.

They acquired rental space in Howell, got licensed, and started making sausage just seven or eight hours a week. For a full year, they made sausage to order, serving clients like Woodbridge Pub and Jolly Pumpkin. That slow ascent allowed them to perfect their process, eventually making about 500 pounds of sausage in just their eight hour kitchen stint, which opened the door to farmer’s markets.

Grinding and Mixing at Corridor Sausage

Jolly Pumpkin’s first order, which they made on Labor Day, 2009, still stands as a memorable moment. They had to produce 250 pounds, and they weren’t yet operational in Howell. So they borrowed restaurant space in Detroit with coolers in the basement, grinders on the fourth floor, and stuffers on the first floor. Branch’s exhaustion is evident in his voice, even years later.

But looking back, he couldn’t be happier. “Pretty much, [the Jolly Pumpkin] order financed our company,” he contends. “Instead of going out of pocket, we had something sitting in our bank account we could parlay into success.” And he still remembers what they put together that day – Vietnamese chicken, lamb merguez, apple and sage pork, and Moroccan lamb with fig.

In summer of 2012, they moved into their new production facility in Eastern Market, a space at the corner of Division and Orleans – perhaps best known to Market goers as the Marry Me Tizzie building. With the new space came new equipment as well, including a vacuum stuffer than apportions the ground meat into their desired quantity. For all its obvious advantages, that brought a series of headaches all its own.

Branch explains: “That first month in the new space sucked. It was awful. It was new equipment, it was an enormous space compared to what we were used to. So everything took longer…. Eight months ago, a fuse blew on our stuffer. Now we know how to fix it and what to look for, but at the time… I didn’t know.” After wading through circuit boards and wires, they got the machine repaired – and now they’re capable of producing thousands of pounds per week.

In outlining that production process, Branch and Alexander humbly reveal the level of quality to which they aspire.

On Mondays, their sole task is preparing the ingredients to mix into the meat – chopping fresh herbs, mincing fresh garlic, weighing spices and figs, and prepping sauces. There are no bagged mixes, no pre-assembled products that go into their sausage. Tuesday, I watched them halve chunks of lamb and unpack ethically raised pork to head into the grinder. After grinding, they mix with their prepped ingredients and stuff into natural casings. And finally, on Wednesday, they package and freeze the meat.


USDA certification represents the next evolution: For Corridor, the rules will preclude any possibility of working with the same protein on the same day. Thus, different meats will get moved to different days of the week, meaning their production schedule must expand. “Right now, we typically make four to six varieties, 600 to 800 pounds [on that Tuesday],” Branch says. “We’ll have to shift our production model to maybe 1,000 to 1,500 pounds in a day, but that’s maybe only two varieties.”

If it seems like a lot of effort, that’s because it is. As finely honed as their process is, it still takes hours of focused effort to achieve. After all this time, Branch still enjoys talking about it. And when I ask what makes his sausage different, he laughs, “It’s the love. The secret ingredient.”

Earnestly, he continues, “No, it’s the quality and the care we put into it. The freshness of the meats.  A lot of it is the recipes, the flavor that comes through you won’t get anywhere else.”

Early on, Corridor routinely extended their business to regional catering. Indeed, Branch credits a spike in their initial Eastern Market business to a large event at Cloverleaf Fine Wine in Royal Oak. But as their business has grown, they’ve invested in their food truck – The Grindhouse – and in doing more charity events in town.

“[Last fall], we got to do a catered charity event which may be the thing I was most proud of,” Branch says. “At the Downtown Youth Detroit Boxing Gym, Rock Financial walked into the building with a check for $15,000. Catering has taken a step back to a point where we can do charity stuff.” They continue to work with Dave Mancini of Supino Pizzeria on efforts for the Gym, and last summer, Branch participated in the Next Urban Chef, a program that supports food education initiatives in the city.

While Branch contends they don’t want to overreach, he acknowledges that they’re primed for significant business growth. The USDA label will allow them to sell to local markets as well as take advantage of contacts across the western half of the state and the entire Midwest, building upon existing restaurant clientele in Cleveland and possibly Chicago.

So what comes next? Alexander showed me their new charcuterie cooler, which is in place though not fully built out. Within weeks, they should be hanging salumi and growing their cured meat portfolio. After, Branch says, “the next step will be provisions, like mustards.”

I pressed Branch a bit more about if all the work was worth it and if he’s still genuinely glad that he and Alexander chose to pursue sausage. He chuckled, and offered a sentiment that’s impossible to argue against: “Sausage is delicious. It’s delicious.”

Cleaning up after making over 700 pounds of sausage


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