Heritage Businesses in WNY / Sahlen’s
The reason Buffalo is hot dog heaven
Joe E. Sahlen, Bill Sahlen, and Joe Sahlen
Photo by Eric Frick
318 Howard Street, Buffalo
Hot dog and deli meat production
How old: 150 years
How many employees: 85
In the mid-nineteenth century, the East Side of Buffalo was home to many stockyards with accompanying slaughterhouses specializing in beef and pork butchery. This location was ideal for Joseph Sahlen’s slaughterhouse and meat processing company, perfectly situated between the stockyards, the Erie Canal, and the New York Central railroad tracks that brought livestock into Buffalo and took meat cuts out.
Back then, the stockyards were so close to the 318 Howard slaughterhouse that the animals could be driven down the street to the processor live and on hoof. This continued until the mid-twentieth century, when Sahlen’s began to use already-slaughtered sides of beef and dressed hogs.
Throughout its history, Sahlen’s has made a wide assortment of sausages, including hot dogs. But it wasn’t until the fifties that the formulating, perfecting, and finalizing of its famous hot dog recipe took place. What makes that recipe special and different from most? According to the team at Sahlen’s, it’s the use of high-quality whole ingredients. That means no fillers, additives, or mechanically separated chicken (a cheap ingredient found in most hot dogs). It helps that the recipe produces a mildly flavored and tender hot dog sure to please most any palate.
According to Sahlen’s, that recipe remains relatively unchanged today, and it’s garnered favor well beyond Western New York. Over the past decade or so, Sahlen’s has found a foothold in markets with a heavy predisposition for Sahlen’s love: Rochester, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. There, the one-pound deli bag of signature dogs reigns supreme, though Buffalonians, who eat more hot dogs than any other area of the country, tend to prefer the three-pound bag.
Vintage images show production at Sahlen’s in past decades.
The company produces thirty-five million hot dogs a year, but it’s important to note that it does more than make hot dogs. Sahlen’s deli meat business is large enough that the company has added a second building to its facility. Today, it produces several types of sandwich meat, including several popular ham varieties, as well as Braunschwieger, a German-style sausage often confused with liverwurst.
Operator Joe E. Sahlen, great-grandson of the company’s founder, functions as company CEO, though he’ll tell you he’s not really one for titles. “I regret the fact that we carried a large variety of cold cuts and sausages until the seventies, but phased out many products that I loved as a youth,” he says. “Getting those spices isn’t easy anymore and making that many different items just isn’t practical.”
Never one to let the company lag behind a trend, Sahlen quickly points out that the company is building a test kitchen, a perfect illustration of his credo about adapting to the ever-changing marketplace. “There we’ll be able to do some specialized processing for new products, like certain deli meats, older recipes from when I was a kid, or even uncured bacon.”
Did someone say bacon?
When asked about the company’s long-term success, Sahlen remarks, “To help facilitate longevity, you have to embrace technology and recognize and adapt to changes in the marketplace. Our competitiveness and our desire to constantly improve helps too. We’re also efficient; there’s a reason behind everything we do in our plant and as a business. Nothing here happens just by chance; every process and every step of every process is fundamental.”