Building the Valley: Frankie's Sausage in Sharpsburg making its … – TribLIVE

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Frankie Marckisotto and Mike Conte weren’t looking for business partners when they met after Conte’s sister, Macrae, and Marckisotto began dating several years ago.
But their partnership quickly bloomed with realization that unfulfilled dreams they both had were remarkably similar.
The result was the launch of Frankie’s Sausage at 807 Main St. in , where they opened a retail store and production facilities in January.
Marckisotto, 33, says he never got the chance to start a business with his father selling the sausage the family has been since their arrival in the United States from Sicily nearly 80 years ago.
Conte, 37, also had plans to open a speciality market with his dad that would focus on prepared foods.
But both men lost their fathers to cancer before those plans could materialize.
“Our backgrounds are so similar and we both wanted to do something, not just for ourselves, but something that we could pass on to our children to keep the tradition going with the next generation,” Conte said.
The importance of family tradition — from the recipes they use to the face-to-face approach to courting new business — is expressed in their business motto: Prodotto dei nostri padri” — “Product of our fathers.”
The business partnership has grown to include Macrae Conte, who is engaged to marry Marckisotto next year and serves as general manager for Frankie’s.
Frankie’s finds its feet
Within weeks of opening Frankie’s in early January, business took off, the owners say.
Production was doubled to about 320 pounds of sausage per week and has showed no signs of slowing.
“We knew we had a good product, but we went into this not really knowing if people would take to it,” Marckisotto said. “But people were coming from everywhere. Pittsburgh has become such a foodie town that, when somebody new opens up a shop, the word spreads and people seek it out.”
Conte said they knew if they could get people to try their sausage they would have a good chance of filling a niche in a market that has been all but lost in the Pittsburgh region.
“Good sausage has always been a big part of our area’s food culture,” he said. “So we felt there was still a market for a product like ours.”
Marckisotto, whose father first started selling sausage made with the family’s recipe when he owned the Giant Eagle supermarket in Edgewood, said they wanted to fill a void left by the loss of so many neighborhood butcher shops.
“There used to be butchers all over the area that were known for their sausage or their kielbasa,” he said. “But those places are almost all gone. So now a lot of what’s available is mass-produced.”
In addition to making sausage in hot, medium and sweet varieties, Frankie’s also makes smoked kielbasa using a family recipe crafted by Marckisotto’s Uncle Tony.
“When my dad ran the supermarket, his brother was the butcher,” Marckisotto said. “People always loved the kielbasa he made so we use the same recipe and branded it ‘Frank & Tony.’ ”
The first batch was made at Easter, and they try to produce it several times throughout the year using a meat smoker set up outdoors behind the building.
But the growing demand for sausage has kept them from using it as often as they would like.
“We don’t make it every week,” he said. “But whenever we can find some time, we try to get some made.”
Exceeding expectations
While the tiny store has a steady stream of customers throughout the day, the real growth has taken place on the wholesale side.
By the end of the year, the owners anticipate producing about 1,000 pounds of sausage daily to fulfill the demand of its retail shop and wholesale customers, which now includes Giant Eagle’s Market District stores, independent grocers, restaurants and pizzerias.
Conte said the early popularity of the retail store allowed them to generate the revenue to focus on building the wholesale trade, which is vital to the company’s survival.
“The product has been selling itself, but we still have to go out to meet with business owners to give them a sample and talk about working with them as suppliers,” he said.
“The grocers have been very receptive to us,” Conte said. “They understand that their customers want high-quality food that is locally produced.”
The recipe for Frankie’s sausage differs from traditional -style sausage because much of the fat is trimmed from the pork shoulders they use, resulting in a leaner link that only shrinks slightly when cooked.
In addition to prepackaged, loose link and ground sausage, the tiny storefront is stocked with a selection of Italian foods to pair with it, including buns, cheese, sauce, fresh garlic, onions and peppers.
The store is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Like father, like son
Conte said he and his father had talked about opening an Italian market before he died because they wanted to give people some of the experiences they had while growing up in New Kensington.
“There was big Italian population there and lots of little shops that catered to them,” he said. “So we were thinking about doing something that offered specialty items and prepared food.”
When the weather cooperates, they set up outside the shop on Saturdays to sell sausage and pepper sandwiches to hungry passersby.
“People have told us they smelled the sausage on the grill as far away as the Highland Park Bridge and followed it down to the store,” Marckisotto said. “A lot of them take a few bites out of the sandwich and then go inside to buy some to take home.”
Macrae Conte said they get several inquiries a day from people who are looking for prepared food.
Conte said they hope to meet that demand in the coming year by growing that portion of the business.
“The sausage business has been awesome for us,” he said. “So our plan is to hire some more people and start offering prepared foods, which fits in with the original plan I had with my dad.”
A new product Frankie’s has started producing is a tomato sauce following the recipe Conte’s grandmother used.
Jars of the Conte sauce are sold only at the market in , but they are planning to distribute it to other stores in the area, Conte said.
John Hohman, 63, of said he was hooked on Frankie’s Sausage the first time he tried it.
“It’s delicious, the best,” he said while stopping in recently to pick up some for dinner. “It’s great to have a place like this in the community.”
While Marckisotto and Conte are excited about the upward trajectory of their venture, they are keenly aware of the pitfalls of growing too fast.
“Whether we produce 1,000 pounds of sausage a day or 10,000, the most important thing to us is maintaining the consistency and the quality,” Marckisotto said. “That’s not something we’re ever going to compromise on. It has to be there.”
Conte said while building a successful business to support their families is important to them, what they are really striving for is the creation of a legacy.
“What we want is for customers to remember us as the place they come to get their sausage,” he said. “That’s really why we are putting our hearts and souls into this.”

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony by email at or via Twitter .
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