Denver, Colorado

CEO Eric Gutknecht has taken the family sausage-making tradition and ran with it. The latest milestone is organic certification.

Photos Jonathan Castner

Gutknecht regularly wakes up at 3 a.m. to run, bike, or swim. He’s training for the biggest triathlon of them all: the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in October 2021.

Then, after a few hours of exercise, it’s time to make the sausages. This is nothing new: Gutknecht’s family has been in the sausage business since 1809 in Zurich, Switzerland, making him a seventh-generation sausage maker.

Now doing business as CharcūtNuvo, Continental Sausage has been the Gutknecht family business for two of those generations. His parents bought the business, founded by Ted Jaeggi in 1969, in the early 1980s. Gutknecht and his wife, Jessica, took over in 2003.

That’s when Gutknecht steered the company in an entirely new direction by balancing centuries-old culinary traditions with forward-thinking innovation. He saw an opportunity in Whole Foods and other upscale groceries for an all-natural sausage line. He also saw an opportunity to get creative with game meats, hot peppers, and other unexpected ingredients. The CharcūtNuvo catalog now includes sausages made with pheasant, elk, wild boar, and bison; other ingredients range from jalapenos to apples to macaroni and cheese.

The company made some big moves in 2015-16 — expanding the Denver sausage factory from 8,000 to 18,000 square feet — and 2016-17 — rebranding from Continental Sausage to CharcūtNuvo — as the company steadily grew its sales in both the retail and food-service channels.

“We were growing at about a 20 percent clip year-over-year, and we literally ran out of space to produce another pound of sausage,” says Gutknecht. “As far as the rebranding, we were expanding nationally with Whole Foods, and we knew we had some potential trademark issues on both coasts.”

As of 2019, retail and food service each represented half of sales. Then COVID-19 quashed food service in 2020. “Food service dropped off by 80 percent,” says Gutknecht. “Retail got a nice spike, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the food-service drop. It was hard.”

Sales were down about 12 percent for the year as the company focused on its retail presence as it waited out closures capacity limits at restaurants, sporting venues, and other top food-service markets.

A new line of organic sausages lessened the blow. CharcūtNuvo has added more than 300 new retail outlets since the organic launch in October 2020, says Gutknecht. “That pretty much saved our business during COVID,” he notes. “Before the organic [launch], we were tracking down 25 to 30 percent.”

“Organic was the next step in our progression,” he continues. “It takes three to four years and a lot of work to get certified as organic — in the meat business especially. There’s not many of us that are certified.”

Year-over-year sales were up 40 percent as of June. “We’re going to have our best year ever by 20 percent — maybe more,” says Gutknecht.

“We’re one of the few brands that make our own products,” says Gutknecht. “Most of the brands we compete against use co-packers. Also, we’re one of the few brands that only sources U.S. proteins for our organic line. Most [organic proteins] are coming from South America or Australia or Tanzania or wherever, but we do exclusively U.S., grass-fed, regenerative agriculture.”

Other recent initiatives include the capability to make sausages without casings, which required new equipment. The company has invested more than $1.5 million in capital equipment in the last five years.

One catalyst: More people eating at home meant more people trying CharcūtNuvo sausages.

“Usually once somebody tries our product, we establish a long-term relationship,” says Gutknecht. “Costco is booming. We have a buffalo jalapeno cheddar [bratwurst] that’s doing really well at Costo. Because that was doing so well, they added a 100 percent bison wiener, and that’s doing really well.”

The CharcūtNuvo differentiator? “It’s all about the taste, not the price,” he says. “We do the highest quality we can possibly do.”

Post-pandemic, food service “has come back stronger,” he says. “Sadly, a lot of independent guys and food trucks went under, but it seems like some of our core guys are coming back pretty strong.”

He works with exclusively domestic protein suppliers, and counts a number of Colorado-based vendors in the broader supply chain, which has been complicated by the organic line. Produce is often Colorado-grown, and spices are sourced via Rocky Mountain Spice Company.

CharcūtNuvo products are available at retail in every state west of the Mississippi River, says Gutknecht. “We’re doing really well in California,” he says. “They have so many high-end retail markets.”

Challenges: “It’s people,” says Gutknecht. “A lot of people are hanging out, collecting an unemployment check, and right now, with the housing market booming and construction market and landscaping booming, it’s crazy. It’s hard to find people.”

He also says inflation is a concern and notes that ingredient prices are up 6 to 12 percent across the board in the last year. “Everything is going through the roof,” says Gutknecht.

Opportunities: Every retail market east of the Mississippi River. Gutknecht says he sees the Northeast and New England as particularly fertile. “We’re currently working on the East Coast, but we’re not there yet,” says Gutknecht. “Hopefully, we will be by the end of the year or sometime next year.”

Needs: Employees. Gutknecht sees an increased amount of automation being part of the mix, citing a $200,000 investment in packaging equipment set to be installed by the end of the summer. “It’s essentially going to increase our productivity by at least 50 percent,” he says.