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The Next Generation: Liehs & Steigerwald
Shortly after arriving in the U.S. in 1936, Ludwig Steigerwald teamed with fellow German immigrant Curt Liehs, Sr. to open a butcher shop in downtown Syracuse. The duo launched a successful startup in the midst of the Great Depression by providing quality meats and traditional sausages made from heirloom family recipes. Ever since, generations of Syracuse families have grown up enjoying Liehs & Steigerwald products as part of their everyday and special occasion meals.
Known as “the best of the wurst”, Liehs & Steigerwald has become famous for their 18 types of bratwursts made of the freshest cuts of meat without preservatives, fillers or artificial flavors. In addition to bratwursts, the company makes all types of sausages, including spicy chorizo, smoked Italian sausage, and garlic kielbasa. Liehs & Steigerwald earned nationwide acclaim when their hot dog tied for first place with New York City’s Schaller and Weber in an annual ranking by the Rosengarten Report.
In the 1980s, Ludwig’s nephew Bob Steigerwald and Curt Liehs, Jr. took over operations and worked together until Steigerwald became the sole owner in 1998. Bob Steigerwald continued to deliver the quality meats customers had grown to rely on for another dozen years before selling the company to his son Jeffrey and longtime employee Chuck Madonna in 2003. Both Steigerwald and Madonna worked at the downtown butcher shop in their high school days, though Steigerwald started out on a different career path after graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in accounting.
After working in computer science positions in Texas and Michigan, Steigerwald returned to his Syracuse roots when his father was ready to retire: “When I worked for other people, I felt like I was a hard worker. I started to think that I could work for myself if I had the opportunity. The timing worked out that my father was at a point in his life where he was ready to retire and I was ready to move back to my hometown with my young family.”
The new partnership cemented Steigerwald and Madonna’s longtime friendship and with twice the management capacity, the duo set out to strike a balance between honoring traditions and modernizing the business model. One gradual but significant change that the business faced was the shift of residential population from inside the city of Syracuse to the suburbs. Since customers often shop for grocery and produce items closer to home, Liehs & Steigerwald followed their lead and during their first year of ownership, Steigerwald and Madonna opened a second location in the suburb of Clay. The Clay store is open Monday through Saturday, while the Syracuse shop is closed on Mondays for production and smoking. Their suburban location also offers a deli area where customers can eat fresh homemade sandwiches and meals while shopping.
“Eating and shopping habits have significantly changed over the past 50 years. We’ve had to adjust to meet customers’ needs with different products and services. The biggest challenge we face is convenience,” says Steigerwald. Families have transitioned from making multiple stops for fresh produce, bakery and meat items to one-stop shopping at large grocery stores. “At Your Door”, the company’s new delivery service, brings individual orders placed by phone or fax to the customer’s workplace or home address. Steigerwald personally delivers the orders to locations such as Camillus, Fayetteville, Cazenovia and Skaneateles. The delivery service has been a hit for customers too busy to visit one of Liehs & Steigerwald’s two locations, increasing sales by 10%.
This year, Steigerwald spent many hours working on his business strategic plan for growth as part of the first Syracuse class of e200. The free MBA-style program for urban entrepreneurs is an SBA initiative that offers participants small class settings, collaborative CEO-mentoring groups and expert guidance for nine months. Important outcomes for Steigerwald are an increased focus on the company’s relatively new catering division and learning when to delegate. “e200 has helped me focus on trying to find a little more balance in my role in the business. It’s an owner-operated company, but there is so much going on that I need to focus more on the management aspects,” comments Steigerwald.
After participating in e200, Steigerwald feels more than ready to handle the busy winter weeks ahead. The current holiday season is second in sales only to the summer months, when family and corporate cookouts are popular. While families have been excitedly planning their holiday feasts, ramping up production to meet the spike in sales meant 80 hour weeks for Steigerwald and Madonna since everything is made fresh. In the days leading up to Christmas, Liehs & Steigerwald sold 40 tenderloin roasts, 250 rib roasts, 150 hams, 300 dozen homemade pierogies and 400 pounds of kielbasa. By offering the best quality meats and finding new ways to bring their products to customers, 75-year-old butcher shop Liehs & Steigerwald can stay relevant for the next generation.