Wenzel

Mike Vieth, president of Wenzel’s Farm in Marshfield holds a package of Mango Habanero snack sticks, a product that was a nominee last fall for the “Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin” contest.

When it comes to beef,  bacon and ham snack sticks — not to mention other favorites — Wenzel’s Farm is a tradition that’s been more than 100 years in the making.

Wenzel’s Farm, 500 E 29th St., Marshfield, is now comprised of two brands, its long-standing Wenzel’s  Farm brand as well as Nick’s Sticks, which came into the company fold in 2017. Across the board, the company is known for being uncompromising on its quality.

“We’ve been known since the beginning for quality, and that is how we are known today,” said Mark Vieth, president, Wenzel’s Farm. “When people in Marshfield rate meat products in any meat snacks industry category, we’ve always been the best in the category. We’ve won a lot of awards, and as we grow, what really differentiates

us is that you continue to get the touch of a small company and that sets us apart."

Meat sticks (including the beef jerky the company added a year ago) are about 90 percent of the company’s business, but believe it or not, it’s not what the company “grew up on.”

When William Wenzel settled into Marshfield in the late 1800s, he set up a butcher shop. That evolved into work in the veal business that originated in the location the company now calls home. In the 1940s, the company expanded into sausage making and that took off to such an extent that the company stepped out of the veal production business in 1951. At that point, hot dogs, brats and German sausages, as well as Braunschweiger, kabobs and dinner meats, made their way to momand-pop grocery stores in the state. 

“It wasn’t uncommon to go to a grocery store and see Wenzel’s Farm as the only hot dog in the 1950s and 1960s,” Vieth said. The company had direct store delivery, a model that worked for many, many years. As they wrapped up the 1980s, Wenzel’s Farm started making snack sticks.

“It was a novelty at the time,” Vieth said. “The only other one out there back then was a Slim Jim. Even when we started making beef snack sticks, we used to put ‘summer sausage stick’ on the packaging. It stayed on packaging even as late as 2004 because meat snacks just weren’t wellknown with the exception of the Slim Jim."

As mom-and-pop grocery stores closed and big chains/big box stores became the rage, these companies introduced regional and national brands and with them, more competition. Wenzel’s Farm’s foundational grocery business has diminished over the years “but the snack sticks keep growing,” Vieth said. “That’s how we evolved into the snack-stick business.” 

It didn’t hurt that an early player in their snack stick growth is a gas station/convenience store chain with a very loyal following that opted to sell the Wenzel’s Farm snack sticks as a staple item. 

“It was a destination point to get the snack stick, and that was a great anchor account,” he said. The company went so far as to hire a sales manager to expand that category of business, primarily staying in the state although they have trickled into the Twin Cities as well. 

“By 2010, we knew snack sticks were the future of the brand and we continued to emphasize them,” Vieth said. In 2010, Owner Russ Wenzel passed away and by 2014, the company sold to CastleRay, an investor Vieth said they believed could take the business to the next level while respecting the integrity of the brand. “They had the resources to produce a larger company, and that set us apart,” he said. 

Since then, the company has significantly expanded its snack sticks and the resulting marketing team needed to support their sales and promotion. Snack sticks definitely have an advantage over the company’s original products since they easily can be transported nationally, don’t require refrigeration, are portable and offer an opportunity to be competitive in the category. Vieth said Wenzel’s Farm snack sticks are naturally smoked, feature a wrinkled texture and offer a “bite or a snap to it.”

In addition, they are handcrafted and produced in small batches using no fillers or binders.

In the past three years, the snack sticks have evolved. Wenzel’s Farm went from an artificial color casing to a naturally clear casing and there are no artificial colors in the product. They removed corn syrup from the list of ingredients, making it a “better-for-you” product. “Consumers began looking for a cleaner label, which we can deliver with a great-tasting snack stick,” he said.

The company continues to evolve its product lines in keeping with consumer preference changes. A great example is in the seasoning blends they concept and taste test through taste panels and internal sampling. Each year, Vieth said they make many of these and it’s not unusual to find nine to 10 products in testing that haven’t gone to market. Among those that have is the Mango Habanero snack stick, the item nominated last fall for the Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin competition. Vieth said he that every person he had try it — especially those in the under-40 crowd — went crazy for it. “I knew we had to get this out,” he said. 

The company started selling it on Amazon, garnering raving reviews as people were drawn to the sweet and spicy taste combination. “Everybody is looking for new flavors, and spicy is always a great choice,” he said. “Sweet and spicy is a combo that works.” The proof is in the numbers; the company's snack stick sales grew 10-fold last year. “2020 was a breakout year for Wenzel’s on Amazon,” Vieth said.

    Both the Wenzel’s Farm brand and Nick’s Sticks brand have their own websites; together, they are available in 8,000 locations across the country including some large-scale home improvement stores as well as the gas station/convenience store and grocery stores as well. While the sticks appeal to a broad audience, the commonality in the home improvement and tractortype stores is an outdoor person —people with an active lifestyle is a core audience for the company. 

Nick’s Sticks appeal to a specific category of the population — those seeking natural, glutenfree, Keto- and Paleo-certified snack sticks. (Wenzel’s Farm snack sticks are gluten-free as well. In fact, the entire Wenzel’s Farm facility is certified gluten-free.) 

“We were one of the first companies to have a gluten-free teriyaki snack stick in 2017 and becoming gluten-free in all products in 2018 was a big development,” Vieth said. When the company purchased Nick’s Sticks in 2017, they learned to make meat snacks with natural nitrites. 

“How a snack stick is made now is different than even five years ago,” Vieth said. “The efficiencies of technology and equipment keep evolving.” That led to a major plant expansion in 2018, adding 5,000 square feet to the facility. Growth has the company looking to expand even further in 2021.

After years of fairly consistent employment — the company had 30 full-time employees in 1967 and about 32 to 33 in 2017, they’ve jumped to about 50 employees in the last three years including employees to work the second shift they added in early 2019. Adding Nick’s Sticks to the mix has helped the company double its business within a two- to three-year period. The sticks have a loyal following for its grassfed beef and free-range turkey choices and made the company an immediate entry into the natural foods snack food channel.

“It’s a smaller space but we’re a major player in that,” Vieth said. Since acquiring Nick’s Sticks, the company was able to expand its distribution including into the Sprouts national food chain. In turn, the company has learned a lot from Nick’s on growing its core business through its website and Amazon as well as how to better position the Wenzel brand. “There is a lot of intellectual property they brought to the table that we were able to learn from,” he said.

Wenzel snack sticks have grown 80 percent cumulatively from 2017 to 2020 “and we have aggressive growth goals for the next three years as well,” Vieth said. ”Given demand, there is an expectation that our business will continue to grow.”