At a time when others his age are reflecting on their life’s work, Elmer Hensler, who turns 84 in May, is still looking ahead.
Hensler, president of Queen City Sausage & Provision Inc. in Camp Washington, is expanding the meat processing plant he started nearly 50 years ago.
It’s the 12th time he’s expanded since he and a couple of partners put together $13,000 in cash in 1965 to buy an old sausage plant at Spring Grove Avenue and Straight Street.
He’s spending about $1.3 million to add 14,000 square feet on the east side of the plant to streamline the meat chopping, grinding, mixing and stuffing, now in different locations in the plant, to improve efficiency.
Hensler has no qualms about the investment. He’s a Cincinnati original. One of the last working links—pardon the pun—to Cincinnati’s Porkopolis heritage as the nation’s leading pork processor.
“I figure, I made the money; I might as well spend it,” he says.
Hensler quit school after the eighth grade and has been working for himself as well as others’ Cincinnati meat processors ever since.
“I didn’t have any [formal] education, but I listened and learned a lot from the people I worked for,” he says.
Today, Queen City is the largest independent sausage maker still operating in Cincinnati. It’s a point of pride with Hensler. He has a typed list on his office wall of 40 meat processing operations in the city that have shut their doors since he and two European-trained sausage makers, Alois Sadler from Germany and George Nagel from Yugoslavia, started the business.
Hensler has been the sole owner since 2001 when the last of his partners passed away. But he’s still at his desk by 9 a.m. Monday through Friday.
“It’s just what I love to do,” he says. “I love to get up every morning and come in here.”
His friends notice this.
“His work ethic is absolutely unbelievable,” says attorney Merlyn Shiverdecker, who has known him for more than 25 years. “He doesn’t look at running the business as work. How many people his age still go to work every day, and are trying to expand their business?”
Hensler’s younger brother, Art, who is 82, came to work at Queen City about 18 years after retiring from Ficks Reed, the former rattan furniture company, after 44 years.
“Retirement isn’t in our vocabulary,” says Art.
Queen City, which employs about 35, has annual sales of about $7 million producing bratwurst, mettwurst, hot dogs, lunch meat, cottage hams and goetta for major retailers such as Kroger Co., Meijer and countless other restaurants and small groceries in Ohio and neighboring states.
Queen City produces about 80,000 pounds of sausage and lunch meat a week.
In Cincinnati, nothing says spring like baseball, beer and brats, and Queen City’s production jumps 50 percent to 120,000 pounds a week in April, as backyard grills get heated up.
This is the fourth year Queen City has been the official mett and brat supplier for the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. On Opening Day, Hensler is in Queen City’s red truck in front of the ballpark serving up brats to baseball fans for the benefit of the Reds’ Community Fund.
“I want to meet the people and let them know I’m here and I take an interest in what I do. If they don’t like something, I want to know it,” Hensler says.
He likes to tell people, “If you eat my product and you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back plus $10.” He says he’s never had to pay a dime.
The second weekend in July, Queen City holds its annual Sausage Festival on the Newport riverfront. The promotional event usually draws about 65,000 for the food, music and fun, says Mark Balasa, Queen City’s marketing director.
Showing visitors through his meat processing plant, Hensler is like a kid in a candy shop. “It’s all meat,” he says. “None of that mechanically separated turkey. It’s garbage. I won’t have it in my plant!”
Says Shiverdecker, “Elmer doesn’t pretend to be something he is not. He’s as down to earth as an old shoe.”
Hensler and his brother grew up on the West End, two of nine children. His father was a railroad switchman.
“I was about 11 years old and going to school at St. Augustine’s Catholic School on Bank Street,” Elmer says, when he started hanging out around E. Eckerlin’s slaughterhouse on John Street.
“I was just fascinated by the way they killed cattle and calves,” he says. “I knew everybody there.” They’d give him dimes, and he’d run to the tavern on the corner to get them beer for their breaks.
Later, he earned money covering the carcasses at night with hides so they wouldn’t dry out. “I’d get 35 cents for covering 40 calves. It would take maybe an hour and a half. But it was money. I thought I was a kingfish,” he says.
His part-time job wasn’t a hit at St. Augustine’s, though.
“The nuns would come up to me and say, ‘Sir, did you bathe before you came to school?’ ‘No sister, I was at work at 4 o’clock this morning, and I came to school after that.’ They’d send me home but instead of going home, I’d go back to work.”
After the eighth grade, Hensler spent 59 days at a trade school in Camp Washington. When an instructor whacked him on the behind for not paying attention in woodshop, Hensler jumped out the first floor window. “I haven’t been back to school since.”
Actually, that’s not accurate. Last May, Elmer received an honorary arts degree from Cincinnati State Community & Technical College, which frequently recognizes self-made business people as student role models.
“I’ve always admired him for his hard work,” says Dr. O’dell Owens, Cincinnati State president. “He replaced formal education with hard work and became a successful businessman. He worked hard. He sacrificed.”
Owens and Hensler met several years ago and discovered they had something in common. As boys, they both earned spending money reselling penny shopping bags for two cents at Findlay Market.
Hensler worked at Eckerlin’s and other slaughterhouses and meat processors, eventually becoming a sales-delivery driver where he sold meat all over town. That’s how he came to know his original partners.
By the early 1960s, Hensler was running a sausage plant.
“I was getting there at four in the morning and working until midnight some nights. I thought, ‘If I could do it for them I could do it for myself.’ ”
He discovered a closed sausage plant on Straight Street was for sale.
“All the pipes were busted, but all the equipment was here. Everything worked. We got the pipes fixed and the boiler working,” Hensler says. “The first week, we made 10,000 pounds of sausage, and I sold every bit of it. We did one heck of a job. We did nothing but wieners and bologna at first. At that time, you could go into a store and sell 2,000 pounds of bologna, because that’s what people ate.”
Douglass McDonald, president of the Cincinnati Museum Center, met Hensler several years ago when they shared a van returning from the airport.
“I grew up on a farm in Iowa, so I know something about hogs,” McDonald says.
“Today we think of entrepreneurship in terms of hands on a keyboard,” McDonald says. “But there’s something unique about building something yourself. Elmer didn’t have the advantage of formal education or family access. He had none of that. Every door he opened, he opened himself.”
Recently McDonald and attorney George Vincent invited Hensler to lunch at the Queen City Club. He told them the stories about growing up on West End, working at Eckerlin’s slaughterhouse and building his business.
In the midst of lunch, they told him they wanted to include Hensler in the Cincinnati Business Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Museum Center and Junior Achievement. The event is in October.
“I was speechless,” says Hensler. “I got choked up and couldn’t finish my lunch. I get choked up thinking about it now.”