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 email@example.com