Northeast Times

Kissling's, a Philly sauerkraut dynasty

The Kiss­ling fam­ily has been mak­ing sauerkraut in Philly since be­fore the Great De­pres­sion, and still cranks out mil­lions of pounds an­nu­ally from their Fishtown plant.

The of­fice that Mark Kiss­ling shares with his broth­er Rick in Fishtown’s A.C. Kiss­ling Co. at 161 E. Al­len St. is a shrine to fam­ily and the his­tory of the com­pany.

Pho­tos of fam­ily mem­bers fill the desks and cov­er the walls, while black and white archiv­al pho­tos of the Kiss­ling build­ing, taken in 1958, ad­orn one far wall.

For dec­ades, the Kiss­ling fam­ily has been mak­ing sauerkraut in the river wards 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, said no one is really cer­tain.

“No one’s quite sure when it star­ted,” he said when giv­ing a tour of the com­pany on Fri­day, Ju­ly 22.

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

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

Kiss­ling said his grand­fath­er would make the sauerkraut, a fer­men­ted cab­bage dish, in 55-gal­lon wooden bar­rels.

The com­pany founder ori­gin­ally worked out of his West Phil­adelphia home and, some­time in the 1940s was ready to ex­pand.

A 1988 ob­it­u­ary for A.C. Kiss­ling re­por­ted the com­pany built its ori­gin­al Rich­mond Street loc­a­tion in 1944 be­fore ex­pand­ing in 1968.

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

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

Grand­son Mark said the build­ing was ori­gin­ally a paint fact­ory that had closed after it was rav­aged by fire.

But, with World War II ra­ging in Europe, Al­bert Kiss­ling couldn’t move in to the dam­aged fact­ory build­ing.

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

Fol­low­ing Richard Kiss­ling’s re­tire­ment in 1994, the com­pany sold its pre­pack­aged meat plant nearby to a former em­ploy­ee, but the sauerkraut 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, the fact­ory pro­duced about 80,000 pounds a day.

Now, Mark Kiss­ling said, the fact­ory pro­duces about 130,000 cases a year — about 2.5 mil­lion pounds of sauerkraut — and it goes through some­where between 1,600 and 1,700 tons of cab­bage in the pro­cess.

In fact, Kiss­ling makes so much sauerkraut that it isn’t even al­ways sold un­der the Kiss­ling name; the product is sold un­der dif­fer­ent la­bels in a vari­ety of stores throughout the mid-At­lantic.

Head in­to a Winn Dixie — a south­ern su­per­mar­ket chain — and buy a bag of the store’s kraut, and you’re really buy­ing Kiss­ling’s.

Of course, you don’t have to go to Alabama to get Kiss­ling’s. Be­sides be­ing avail­able at loc­al gro­cery stores, it’s the filling ad­ded to the sauerkraut pierogi made by Port Rich­mond’s Pol­ish Good­ness.

Kiss­ling’s is also a must-grab con­di­ment if you’re stock­ing up on the famed smoked kiel­basa at the 73-year-old Czerw’s smoke house, loc­ated at 3370 Tilton St. 

Mark said that in these past dec­ades, the pro­cess for mak­ing the sauerkraut has changed little.

The fact­ory now em­ploys about 15 people — most Fishtown res­id­ents — who take the cab­bages that are brought in from a farm in up­state New York, peal off the out­er lay­er of leaves, and core the leafy cab­bage heads.

These are then sliced, salted and put in­to vats that can hold up to 38,000 pounds of sauerkraut.

De­pend­ing on the tem­per­at­ure, the tubs can fer­ment in months or as little as a few days.

“If we were cut­ting today, I’d have sauerkraut in about 10 days,” he said dur­ing 100-de­gree heat. “But, in Janu­ary, when it’s colder, it could take about four months.”

Walk­ing along a line of nine tubs in the fact­ory, Mark said the fam­ily re­cipe is a secret, but there are a few things that are im­port­ant to note about their sauerkraut pro­duc­tion.

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

Kiss­ling’s doesn’t.

In­stead, Vit­am­in C is ad­ded.

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

And, after more than six dec­ades spent in the river ward-based fact­ory, Mark Kiss­ling said the com­pany has no plans to leave.

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

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

“This area has def­in­itely changed,” said Mark. “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 hmit­man@bsmphilly.com

Clas­sic river ward combo

Want to make the “Ul­ti­mate River Wards Sand­wich”? It’s about as easy as fir­ing up the grill after mak­ing a few stops in the neigh­bor­hood. 

1. Grill some Czerw’s smoked gar­lic kiel­basy (3370 Tilton St. www.kiel­basy­boys.com)

2. Put it on a Met­ro­pol­it­an baguette (Try the Sat­urday mar­ket at Greens­grow, 2501 E. Cum­ber­land St. www.greens­grow.org)

3. Cov­er it with Kiss­ling’s kraut. (Also avail­able at Czerw’s)

Re­com­men­ded with Ken­zinger (Phil­adelphia Brew­ing Co. 2439 Am­ber St.) to com­plete the ex­per­i­ence.

Everything is made with­in a few miles of the oth­er.

You can reach at hmitman@bsmphilly.com.

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