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DiRusso's expands from fairs to freezers



Published: Sun, September 23, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



THE VINDICATOR, YOUNGSTOWN

Locally made sausage is sold in restaurants and hotels infour states.

By DON SHILLING

VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR

YOUNGSTOWN -- DiRusso's Sausage, a long-standing fixture at the Canfield Fair, is expanding way beyond its concession-stand roots.

Sausages made in its Youngstown production plant are sold in 75 stores from Pittsburgh to Toledo and in restaurants and hotels in four states.

Recent expansion into stores in the Mahoning Valley and nearby areas hasn't been too difficult because people recognize the name from the Canfield Fair and other events that have DiRusso concession stands, said Laura Lonardo, director of sales and marketing.

Sales in other areas have been more difficult because store owners and managers aren't familiar with the name. In those cases, an effort is made to have store officials sample the product.

"Once they taste it, smell it, eat it, they buy it," she said.

The business is 38 years old but is expanding like it's much younger because of new ownership, Lonardo said.

"We're a young company, and we're up and coming," she said.

Background: Robert DiRusso, nephew of the company founder Augustine DiRusso, took over ownership seven years ago.

Augustine DiRusso, who had a grocery store in Poland, started a concession business in 1963 with sausage sandwiches and other Italian items. People were so unfamiliar with sausage sandwiches that he called them "Italian hot dogs."

The sausages soon became his best seller, so he focused his efforts on sausage production.

About 10 years ago, sales were growing enough for him to move sausage production from Poland to a larger building at 1035 W. Rayen Ave.

Robert DiRusso then expanded both the retail and wholesale operations, while maintaining the concession stands and DiRusso's Restaurant in Canfield. The concession part of the operation worked more than 150 events this summer and had nine stands at the Canfield Fair.

The retail and wholesale sales operation remains the biggest part of the business, however, Lonardo said.

Joining the club: Retail accounts keep on growing. The company's first big breakthrough came shortly after Robert DiRusso took over when some Sam's Club stores agreed to carry the product. DiRusso's now is sold in 14 Sam's outlets.

Until last year, Sam's and Sparkle Markets were the only retailers carrying DiRusso's. New sales efforts and new packaging helped place the product in grocery stores in this area as well as areas such as Wooster and New Philadelphia, Lonardo said. DiRusso's also is available at MARC's, a discount chain based in Cleveland, and Sav-A-lot, a Youngstown-based grocery chain.

The company also sells to 38 distributors, who sell products to restaurants and hotels in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia.

Lonardo said she couldn't release sales figures but said they have been increasing by more than 10 percent a year.

The company had about 10 employees when it moved to Youngstown but now has 30 full- and part-time employees in the summer and 20 in the winter.

In the future, company officials are looking to add distributors, which could push the product into new states, Lonardo said.

Retail sales, however, will be concentrated in Ohio as the company tries to increase its sales outlets in cities such as Cleveland and Columbus, she said.

As sales continue to grow, the company probably will have to expand its freezer section and office space, she said.

The company receives pork daily from slaughterhouses. The meat is ground twice to eliminate gristle and a blend of seasoning developed by Augustine DiRusso is added.

The meat is then run through machines that make links or patties, and then it is hand-packed into boxes.

shilling@vindy.com




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