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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.