CUMBERLAND, WIS. — CUMBERLAND, Wis. - As they returned, one after another, to the family meat business their father started three decades ago, the Muench brothers realized that straightforward sausage might not be enough to compete in a state where grilled bratwurst can be a summertime art form.
So Louie E. Muench, the oldest of the brothers, began experimenting. He started with a small batch of basic summer beef sausage and then added ingredients with a distinct homestate heritage - cheddar cheese, maple syrup, honey and cranberries.
He called it "Wisconsin Sausage," and the first few packages he put up for sale along with the more traditional fare at Louie's Finer Meats sold in a flash. A long lineup of creative combinations soon followed. Items like the Packer Bratwurst, stuffed with cheddar cheese and sauerkraut, and the more self-explanatory mushroom Swiss brat, bacon cheeseburger brat and cherry almond brat.
At the end of each summer, to mark Cumberland's annual Rutabaga Festival, the store produces a limited batch of rutabaga brats. They are, said another of the brothers, William G. Muench, 30, "surprisingly good."
So, too, is the family business, fueled increasingly by steady sales through the Internet and an outsized appetite for sausages among locals, especially around the Fourth of July, the peak of the grilling season.
"I think the specialty items are really what turned this business into its own niche," Louie Muench, 50, said. "There's a lot of meat markets in Wisconsin, but most of them are pretty traditional. If this was just a run-of-the-mill meat market, it wouldn't really make a difference."
Louie's Finer Meats sits just north of the few crossroads that make up downtown Cumberland (population 2,280), not far from where the family patriarch, Louie G. Muench, started the business in 1970.
The elder Muench, now 73, got his start at an uncle's meat market in Chicago, just blocks from Wrigley Field, after immigrating from Germany. In 1963, Louie G. Muench, by then married with six children, moved his family to Wisconsin and took a job at the meat counter at a local grocery in Cumberland.
Six years later, he went into business for himself, opening the meat store in a tiny storefront within walking distance of the family house. In 1978, he moved the business to the current location, doubling its size and providing highway access that was critical to drawing in the stream of tourists, mostly from Minneapolis and St. Paul, who spent their summers on Northern Wisconsin lakes.
Those tourists helped build a broad customer base, with word-of-mouth referrals about the store's thick bacon and inventive summer sausage and, of course, all those brats - a year-round staple across the upper Midwest that in summer becomes as ubiquitous in Wisconsin as steamed crabs in Maryland.
"It's funny, you talk to somebody in town, and they'll say they were on vacation in Florida or somewhere, and people will say, 'Cumberland? That's where Louie's is,'" said James S. Muench, 44, the fourth-oldest of the family's six children.
The brothers returned to the business after college, balancing the daily operations of the business, which three times has won a governor's trophy recognizing Wisconsin meat producers and collected two gold medals from the meat industry's International Trade Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. One of the medals was for beef summer sausage, the other for its cotto salami - "a heck of a thing for a German to like," said the younger Louie Muench, who counts it one of his favorites.
Louie's is a small operator compared to Johnsonville, the big bratwurst maker from Sheboygan, Wis., or Usinger's of Milwaukee, whose sausages can be found for sale around the country.
Louie E. Muench said the shop makes about 5,000 pounds of sausage a week and acknowledges, "A lot of places make that in an hour." Still, that is a vast increase from 1970, when Louie's produced 300 or 400 pounds a week.
The store's original meat grinder, painted a bright red, still stands in one corner of the store. In a back room are a few cubicles with computers, the machinery responsible for the shop's more recent changes.
And on the Internet
Over the past year and a half, Louie E. Muench said, the store has gradually expanded its Internet sales operation. It now accounts for about 10 percent of the store's business and is steadily expanding - most of the store's specialty items are available through its Web site (www.louiesfiner meats.com), along with gift baskets that also have helped spread Louie's name well beyond Wisconsin.
Louie E. Muench said he has approached the online business cautiously.
"You want to make sure that things are delivered in a timely fashion, and that the quality is just as good," he said. "Every package that goes out, I tell the people here, 'Unless it's something you want to eat - it's something somebody else would want - then I don't even want it going out of here.' "
The idea is to somehow replicate online the attentive service of the store in Wisconsin, where the Muench brothers' expertise in all things meat means shoppers can get a quick tutorial in brat cooking (steamed in beer, then straight to the grill) buy their own casings to make sausages at home or bring in game from hunting trips to have cured in the store's large smokers.
"Just about anything that walks, we've made something out of it," James Muench said, mentioning the occasional bear, and one crocodile, brought to the store to be processed. "Customers say, 'I hate to be picky,' and my dad always says, 'Well, that's why you come here.'"