OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — The humble, unassuming bratwurst has become an indispensable part of many small businesses across Wisconsin of late, and along the way the sausage has undergone a makeover that would make a high-brow fashionista drool.
The transformation of the brat comes as small meat markets and grocers seek to stand out in a crowded market where everyone from pharmacies to home improvement warehouses are selling food. The result has been an increasingly wild variety of brats, and consumers are snarfing them up by the ton.
"People have embraced unique-flavored bratwursts," said Jeff Sindelar, an associate professor who studies the meat industry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Many consumers are looking for the next unique flavor of bratwurst. You see that across the state."
These days, brats contain everything from chicken to dried cranberries to pineapple to applesauce to peppers of every color and spice level.
"The driving trend in the meat industry in the past decade has really been what's new, what's different, what's unique?" said Sindelar, who also is a UW Extension meat specialist and a barbecue contest judge who is certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.
"The average consumer today is much more food savvy. They are always looking for a new eating experience and a new flavor profile."
Fox Bros. Piggly Wiggly stores this month was closing in on 1 million brats manufactured at its Oconomowoc, Wis., store. It makes the sausage at the store and then ships it to its other five stores in southern Wisconsin where they sell briskly, said company President Pat Fox.
"Our challenge is how do we compete against multibillion-dollar (retail food) companies?" Fox said. "That's the whole key."
He said his stores seek to compete on service and quality — and sausage you can't buy anywhere else.
"We've been selling 3,000 to 7,000 pounds of brats a week," he said. "It's very important. It differentiates us."
The store's traditional brat still is Fox Bros.' best-seller. But a close second is a spicy Southwest style chicken brat with jalapeño peppers and cheddar cheese.
"It's almost like being a chef," said Chip Bunzel, third generation co-owner of Bunzel's Old-Fashioned Meat Market in Milwaukee. "You have to come up with different ideas."
His store sells lots of Reuben brats, which include pork, corned beef, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese.
It took Bunzel four or five tries to get the Reuben recipe the way he wanted it. There's a lot of trial and error involved, he said.
"Our new one we made up for this year is our honey mustard-cheddar brat," he added. "Those are really good.
"You get some people who say, 'Can I have 20 to 30 pounds of it? I want to fill my freezer.' "
Bunzel, too, said he is trying to stand out in a crowded market and the specialty bratwursts are a big part of that effort. "It's a good 25 percent of our business," he said.
Meanwhile, the brainstorming over new flavors continues.
A corned beef and cabbage brat for St. Patrick's Day? "I haven't thought about that one yet," Bunzel said.
"You never know," Sindelar said.
"I've always wanted to try making a seafood brat," Rindahl said.