Sauerkraut galore

For some 70 years now, the Kiss­ling fam­ily has been turn­ing cab­bage in­to a product that has be­come a Philly in­sti­tu­tion.

The of­fice that Mark Kiss­ling shares with his broth­er Rick at 161 E. Al­len St. is a shrine to fam­ily and the his­tory of the com­pany.

If you live in the city — even more, if you love sauerkraut — you prob­ably know that the A.C. Kiss­ling Co. is a loc­al in­sti­tu­tion.  

Pho­tos of fam­ily mem­bers fill the desks and cov­er the walls; black-and-white archiv­al pho­tos of the Kiss­ling build­ing, taken in 1958, are moun­ted on a far wall.

For dec­ades, the Kiss­ling fam­ily has been mak­ing sauerkraut in the Fishtown fact­ory, but just how long have they been in busi­ness? 

Mark Kiss­ling, son of re­tired own­er Richard Kiss­ling and grand­son of com­pany founder Al­bert C. Kiss­ling, says that’s a tough ques­tion to an­swer.

ldquo;No one’s quite sure when it star­ted,” he replied while of­fer­ing a re­cent tour of the ven­er­able com­pany.

In the 1930s, he said, his grand­fath­er was a “job­ber” who filled the back seat of his car with ice and packed in his sauerkraut along with meat that he would pick up from area butchers. From the back of his car, Al­bert would sell his goods to stores around the city.

“They were all job­bers back then,” he said of the mo­bile mer­chants of that era. “He sold meat and made sauerkraut as a side­line.” 

Al­bert Kiss­ling made the sauerkraut, a fer­men­ted cab­bage dish, in 55-gal­lon wooden bar­rels. The com­pany founder ori­gin­ally worked out of his West Phil­adelphia home; some­time in the 1940s he was ready to ex­pand.

A 1988 ob­it­u­ary for the sauerkraut king re­por­ted that his com­pany built its ori­gin­al Rich­mond Street plant in 1944 and un­der­took an ex­pan­sion in 1968.

At the time of his death, ac­cord­ing to a Phil­adelphia In­quirer story, Kiss­ling’s sauerkraut com­pany and pre-pack­aged fresh meat di­vi­sion had $20 mil­lion in an­nu­al sales. Kiss­ling died with an es­tate worth more than $1 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the story.

The A.C. Kiss­ling Co. still oc­cu­pies the fact­ory today.

Grand­son Mark said the build­ing ori­gin­ally was a paint fact­ory that closed after a de­struct­ive fire. But with World War II ra­ging in Europe, Al­bert Kiss­ling had to delay his move in­to the dam­aged fact­ory be­cause of a short­age of build­ing sup­plies.

“He just couldn’t do any­thing with it un­til the war was over,” his grand­son ex­plained. “All the steel was be­ing used in the war.” 

Mark’s fath­er, Richard, was the next-gen­er­a­tion Kiss­ling to con­tin­ue the com­pany’s growth. Fol­low­ing his re­tire­ment in 1994, the fam­ily busi­ness sold its meat plant to a former em­ploy­ee, but the sauerkraut pro­duc­tion plant has grown stead­ily over the years.

In its early days, the fact­ory pro­duced about 10,000 pounds of sauerkraut every two or three weeks; by the late 1980s, that pro­duc­tion was up to about 80,000 pounds — a day.

Now, Mark Kiss­ling said, the fact­ory pro­duces about 130,000 cases a year — 2.5 mil­lion pounds of sauerkraut — and uses nearly 1,700 tons of cab­bage in the pro­cess. 

In fact, these days, the A.C. Kiss­ling Co. makes so much sauerkraut that it no longer is sold ex­clus­ively un­der the Kiss­ling name; the product is sold un­der loc­al la­bels in a vari­ety of stores throughout the mid-At­lantic states. 

For ex­ample, head in­to a Winn Dixie store — a South­ern su­per­mar­ket chain — to buy a bag of the store’s sauerkraut and you’re really buy­ing Kiss­ling’s.

Of course, you don’t have to go to Alabama to get Kiss­ling’s sauerkraut. Be­sides be­ing avail­able at loc­al gro­cery stores, it’s the filling of choice ad­ded to the pop­u­lar sauerkraut pierogi made by Pol­ish Good­ness, the Port Rich­mond out­fit that is gain­ing a repu­ta­tion far and wide as a spe­cialty-food sup­pli­er to area eat­er­ies, in­clud­ing the Grey Lodge Pub in May­fair.

Al­though Kiss­ling’s has seen much change dur­ing its busi­ness growth, in more than sev­en dec­ades now, the pro­cess of mak­ing the sauerkraut has changed little, Mark Kiss­ling said. The fact­ory em­ploys about 15 people who take the heads of cab­bage — they ar­rive from a farm in up­state New York — peel off the out­er lay­er and core the leafy heads. 

These are then sliced, salted and put in­to vats that can hold up to 38,000 pounds of sauerkraut. De­pend­ing on the tem­per­at­ure and time of year, the tubs can fer­ment in months or as little as a few days. 

“If we were cut­ting today, I’d have sauerkraut in about ten days,” he said dur­ing the re­cent 100-de­gree heat wave. “But in Janu­ary, when it’s colder, it could take about four months.” 

Kiss­ling won’t tell you all the de­tails of his pro­duc­tion pro­cess. As he walked along a line of nine tubs in the fact­ory, he ex­plained that the fam­ily re­cipe re­mains a secret, but he also felt there were a few things im­port­ant to note about the pro­duc­tion of Kiss­ling sauerkraut. 

First, he said, you have to care­fully mon­it­or just how much salt is used in the fer­ment­a­tion pro­cess. 

“Too much and it could end up pink. Too little and the whole thing is mush,” he said. 

Also, some oth­er brands use a food ad­dit­ive, so­di­um bi­sul­fate, to bleach the product white, he said. 

Kiss­ling’s doesn’t. In­stead, Vit­am­in C is ad­ded. 

Us­ing the food ad­dit­ive provides the be­ne­fit of a longer shelf life, Kiss­ling said, but he likes to think that Kiss­ling’s is the bet­ter product be­cause of few­er ad­dit­ives. 

As for the fu­ture, he sees a lot more sauerkraut. Hav­ing spent more than 60 years in its fact­ory, the com­pany has no plans to leave, Kiss­ling aid. 

It has sur­vived through the rise and fall of oth­er in­dus­tries in the city and “some prob­lem times,” he noted, point­ing to years when rowdy nightclubs were a prob­lem for res­id­ents and busi­nesses along Delaware Av­en­ue.

Now, he said, the neigh­bor­hood is ex­per­i­en­cing a re­sur­gence. It’s something he plans to em­brace. 

“This area has def­in­itely changed,” Kiss­ling aid. “There’s so much here, why leave? It would be too ex­pens­ive to build from scratch some­where else.” ••

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­

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