Trailblazers

The Unseen Champion

How two brothers from Wisconsin conquered America - with chicken

Ever wondered where your chicken wings or fillets come from? Well, if you’re in the U.S., there’s a good chance they come from a family business hidden in the rolling hills of Wisconsin. Unknown to most, Brakebush Brothers have provided America with high quality chicken for 90 years. They prevailed in a complex market, thanks to strong family values, bold innovation – and Linde’s cryogenic freezing technology.

Otto & William – the founding Brakebush brothers

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to make you feel at home. Lieutenant James Wastart experienced this in the most unlikely place: on an aircraft carrier deployed to the Middle East. He had served 22 years in the Navy, travelling the world over, when he made a discovery that suddenly brought back fond memories of days gone by: Among the ship’s food supplies he spotted a box filled with tasty chicken treats. It bore the name “Brakebush”. The Lieutenant was moved and amazed: On this vessel, the Navy was truly serving the crew a taste of home.

As a Wisconsin native, Wastart knew: Brakebush chicken is a genuine American experience, although not many people are aware of it. Whether you’re enjoying a Southern style chicken fillet at a restaurant, grabbing chicken nuggets at the baseball stadium or trying exotic Thai Bites at your college canteen, there's a good chance those could have come from Brakebush. Located outside the tiny town of Westfield in rural Marquette County, Brakebush Brothers, Inc. is one of the great unseen champions of the American food industry.

FROM EGG TO EMPIRE

“It was never imagined that we would be offering our products across the country,” recalls Carl Brakebush, President and son of co-founder Otto Brakebush. “As a family business, we never thought, we’d get out of Wisconsin.” But they most certainly did.

It all started with one Chevy truck. In 1925, brothers Otto and William Brakebush from Westfield began to haul cows, pigs and poultry to major markets in the bigger cities of Madison and Milwaukee. Soon, they also added eggs to their portfolio. “They were farmers, but one day they decided: Farming’s too hard, we’ll do something else,” says Chris Brakebush, William’s grandson, who heads the company’s purchasing team today. “And man, am I grateful that they did!”

What happened in the 90 years that ensued can only be described as the epitome of the American dream. The family’s business grew into an empire of around 1500 employees, a fleet of trucks and two processing plants spanning 640,000 square feet in total.  Brakebush sells their products in all 50 states, from the nation’s biggest food chains to the smallest restaurants in remote places like North Pole, Alaska.

What production used to look like

Headquarters today: Westfield, Wisconsin

200 SHADES OF CHICKEN

The secret to their success? Boundless creativity in adding value to chicken. They have long ago given up slaughtering the birds themselves – and instead specialised in cooking and frying, slicing and dicing, breading and dusting, tenderising, marinating, browning or searing the meat they love. Tuscan style, Sriracha Thai Bites, Cayenne kicker fillets, heart-shaped nuggets for Valentine’s Day - the Brakebush menu comprises more than 200 shades of chicken. “There’s just so much you can do with chicken!” says Chris, and you can feel the enthusiasm.

It’s not just the product, however, that Brakebush takes pride in – it’s also the people who eat it. “Serving those who serve us” might well be a slogan. US troops on remote bases or aboard warships can enjoy Brakebush chicken. In schools, Brakebush helps fight child obesity by providing whole grain nuggets - “and we make sure it still tastes good for the kids,” says Chris, smiling. If you are in hospital you can at least hope that the Cafeteria serves a tasty treat from Wisconsin.

CRYOGENIC FREEZING: THE QUALITY SEAL

To provide the highest quality to all these people, Brakebush relies on advanced technology. Since the chicken is distributed in a frozen state, Brakebush has perfected their freezing process through an intelligent use of Linde’s cryogenic freezing solutions. “Linde has been very innovative with us, always keeping us at the forefront of technologies,” says Chris. On one of their production lines for example, prior to freezing the product, Brakebush runs it through a Linde CRYOLINE® CW  freezer. The cutting edge cryogenic tunnel chills the chicken rapidly, sealing the moisture and flavours inside the product. The result is a strong increase in yield as well as superior taste. Also, the hygienic features of the CW (sloping floors, centre trough drainage, etc.) help Brakebush adhere to the company’s extraordinary standards of sanitation.

As Brakebush continue to seek expansion and invest in high tech, they never lose sight of the importance of family tradition. No less than 14 descendants of the founding brothers, spanning three generations are still committed to the company and a family council continues to set the guidelines. This strong set of values, as well as never shying away from bold decisions, has got them to where they are today: “Our credo is: If you see an opportunity, do it. Don’t be afraid,” says Carl. “Don’t cut corners.” He smiles. “We have never done much of that ‘round here.”

 

* Photo provided by LT James Wastart

Brakebush serve hospitals, colleges, schools and the Military*

Cryogenic freezing from Linde

Linde’s cryogenic freezing solutions help food businesses around the world increase the yield, quality and taste of their product.