With a family-owned tradition dating back to 1941, Land O’Frost Inc., based in Lansing, Ill., has steadily grown as a respected processor of retail-based sliced lunch meats over the years. Along the way, Land O’Frost has diversified its product offerings and expanded its distribution through several strategic acquisitions and product innovations that included the production of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for the military and health-based meals for diet focused customers, including Nutrisystem in the 1980s.
The company is now in its third generation of family ownership with David Van Eekeren serving as its president and chief executive officer. He joined the company in 1991, working his way up through the ranks. During his long tenure at Land O’Frost, the company increased its presence in the hot dog and sausage space with the acquisition of Wimmer’s Meats in 2012.
It went on to acquire Wellshire Farms Inc. in 2018, to expand into the natural and organic meats segment with nine brands in the Wellshire portfolio. More recently, in 2022, Land O’Frost successfully made a bid to purchase the assets of Chicago-based DaBecca Natural Foods Inc., a processor specializing in natural, clean-label deli meats and value-added meats.
The deal with Wimmer’s stepped up the company’s position as a large-scale processor of hot dogs and sausage products, including the West Point, Neb.-based company’s Ambassador, Fairbury and Bassett’s brands, each with an iconic following and reputation for high quality and unique products and flavor profiles.
Van Eekeren said once he recognized the history and tradition of Wimmer’s the decision to diversify was easy.
“We realized very quickly this was the right move for Land O’Frost,” he said. Van Eekeren said he was committed to Wimmer’s Old-World traditions. “These are hand-mixed spice blends that are made on a batch-by-batch basis,” he said, and the closely held recipes came with the keys to company. Owning and protecting the coveted recipes were responsibilities Van Eekeren took very seriously from day one.
On the front lines
Clint Yonkers, began working at Land O’Frost about eight years ago as a product developer, and for the past year has been transitioning to a new role as associate brand manager for its Wimmer’s Meats brand portfolio of hot dog, sausage, lunch meats and specialty products.
Operations at the Wimmer’s plant in West Point were closed in 2015 and its production was consolidated to Land O’Frost’s processing facility in Lansing, Ill.
“My focus now is on all of our sausage brands,” Yonkers said of his current role. “I spent a lot of time in the plants for scale up runs and wherever they needed help running larger scale R&D tests. I transitioned into a developer role and spent a little less time in the lab and more time writing formulation sheets and creating SOPs,” he said.
The move from Nebraska, where Wimmer’s had operated since 1934, to Illinois was an opportunity to streamline operations and become more efficient.
“We focused on modernizing the process, which included investing in new equipment like bowl choppers, natural smoke generators and portioning [equipment] for packaging,” Yonkers said.
Utilizing three stuffing lines and five packaging lines at the plant, its annual hot dog and sausage production capacity is about 12 million lbs.
He added that to accommodate the additional products in the 152,000-square-foot plant, the company also invested in sausage stuffing technology, to facilitate the production of skinless and Old World-style natural casing hot dogs, which are signature items of Wimmer’s and the Ambassador brands. Most of the sausage making equipment was sourced from Reiser, based in Canton, Mass.
Ensuring the wide array of products produced at the plant and expanding beyond Land O’Frost’s core, sliced deli meats, also meant being able to produce consistent and specific levels of smoke during the cooking process.
"Going from lunch meant to hot dogs there was a lot more variation on what levels of smoke certain products needed," Yonkers said in explaining the addition of more smokehouses at the plant. “It ensured we could consistently get those colors and flavors delivered the way that we need.”
The plant operates with six smokehouses, each is equipped to cook any of the products, from lunch meat to hot dogs or sausages. Operators use maple wood chips for the hot dogs and sausage and hickory wood to smoke the lunch meats.
Lastly, Yonkers said efficiencies were also realized at the consolidated plant with the addition of updated product handling and packaging equipment. Wimmer’s signature Little Smokies cocktail sausages, for example, had previously required each package to be weighed out manually.
“So we invested in some portioning equipment that can automate that process and make it a lot more efficient for us in the packaging.”
About 300 workers are employed at the plant and when the operations were consolidated, most of them were trained on the specifics of manufacturing the new products. The facility operates on two shifts in addition to an overnight sanitation shift.
Counting on sausage and hot dogs
With retail sales in 2022 of $10.2 million, Wimmer’s products account for the bulk of Land O’Frost’s hot dog and sausage business, followed by its Ambassador brand with sales of approximately $8 million.
The Fairbury brand’s claim to fame is its status as the official hot dog of the University of Nebraska, as is evident by the bold Nebraska Cornhusker red color of the products and packaging, which are sold at sporting event concessions and at retail outlets. Ambassador is a sponsor of the University of Minnesota while the University of Iowa’s official hot dog is made under the Wimmer’s brand.
The Wimmer’s brand manufactures natural casing and skinless hot dogs in addition to a variety of summer sausages and cocktail sausages. Wimmer’s also makes some deli items including a cured beef item and larger gauge summer sausage and smokies.
The other two brands have roots in the Minnesota market. Summer sausage is produced under the Bassett’s brand, while the Ambassador brand is focused on making natural casing hot dogs as well as some summer sausage products and cocktail sausages.
For Wimmer’s and Ambassador, their natural casing hot dogs are easily the best-selling item of each of the brands.
Adding sausage and hot dogs to the product mix at Land O’Frost required sharing of processing techniques and technology that wasn’t commonplace at the plant, where traditionally lunch meat was manufactured for years.
“We learned that pretty quickly,” Yonkers said. “I think sausage making is a little bit more of an art; it’s a lot more nuanced than traditional lunch meat.”
Workers from the former Wimmer’s facility in West Point were integral in bringing the brands together under one roof and sharing their processing knowledge with workers at the plant in Illinois, where production was consolidated. The addition of the sausage and hot dog production added significant complexity to the operations due simply to the fact that there is more variability in the sausage business in terms of different types and sizes of products.
Yonkers said he’s been fortunate to witness the transition to the additional products while watching efficiencies increase without sacrificing the products’ integrity and preserving the product quality and flavor that was started in 1934.
The Wimmer’s and Ambassador branded products are sold at retail chains that include Hy-Vee, Club Foods with additional distribution at regional Walmart stores and Costco and many independent retailers. The company also produces private label products for Hy-Vee and HEB.
Speaking of efficiencies, Yonkers said like most companies, production at the plant will be streamlined significantly when it is fully staffed as the company struggles with labor challenges like its industry counterparts. He also said there are opportunities for automation at the plant, especially at the end of the processing line.
“I think there’s great opportunities for automation in packaging of our products,” he said. “It’s time consuming and you need to make sure you do it efficiently and safely. We’re definitely exploring automation around the packaging piece and getting hot dogs in a package and getting those boxes on a pallet.”