From start to sandwich
Tim O’Flarity is a self-described “foodie” with a particular liking for linked meat.
“I love sausage,” he said. “I’ll try sausage anywhere. I’ve shipped sausage home from New York to California just to try different sausages. That’s just me.”
The native Louisianan was with his wife and two friends to attend the recent University of Texas-Louisiana State University football game in Austin. While they all wanted to visit nearby wineries, O’Flarity searched online for local sausages and learned about Opa’s Smoked Meats in Fredericksburg. Lunchtime one day brought the four visitors into Opa’s market and deli on Washington Street.
At the counter, O’Flarity ordered up a Jalapeño Smoked Sausage sandwich with pickles, brown mustard on a toasted hoagie roll, no cheese. To his pleasant surprise, he noticed the sausage was sliced at an angle and stacked instead of placed whole atop the roll.
“Yes, ma’am. Thanks,” he said as the worker behind the counter handed it over, wrapped in butcher paper. Opening it up, he inhaled the aroma and said, “Looks nice.”
“So it’s all done here on the property?” O’Flarity asked the man standing nearby. “Do it all? Grind your meat here and everything?”
Michael Schandua, Opa’s chief operations officer, smiled and nodded.
On workdays very near the geographic heart of Fredericksburg, more than 50 employees gather inside buildings on a triangle of land bounded by Washington and Ufer streets and Granite Avenue.
There, they make one of the items (along with peaches and wine) that has made Fredericksburg most famous.
Founded in 1947, Opa’s meats now are sold in grocery stores across Texas — thousands of pounds annually of products ranging from sausage links to hams, tenderloins to turkeys.
Nearby restaurants such as Fredericksburg Brewing Company, The Ausländer, the Old German Bakery & Restaurant and the Hangar Hotel’s Airport Diner not only prepare and serve the meats, but some note Opa’s brand on their menus because the name makes a difference to many customers.
But as the smiling German holding a string of links in Opa’s logo indicates, it’s the sausage on which Opa’s reputation is largely built.
From the longtime favorite Country Blend Smoked Sausage Links to the best-selling Jalapeño Cheddar Smoked Sausage Links, Opa’s has won thousands of fans — many of whom will seek out Opa’s links at Fredericksburg’s upcoming Oktoberfest, Oct. 4-6 in and around the downtown Marktplatz.
“Oktoberfest is the largest Fredericksburg event of the year for Opa’s,” said Doug Edwards, the company’s top executive along with his sister, Beth Redix.
In addition to Opa’s own food booths, other Oktoberfest vendors sell the local smoked sausages nestled in buns, wrapped in tortillas, skewered on sticks or placed on plates with German potato salad and red cabbage. (Opa’s turkey legs “are also a big hit,” Edwards noted.)
Sausage-making starts with the delivery of pallets stacked with large, heavy cardboard boxes filled with slabs of beef and pork.
Pointing to one open box, Schandua noted, “That’s premium black Angus beef right there.” During peak times, Opa’s will process 12,000-14,000 pounds (6-7 tons) of meat a day, he said.
The meat is placed in a designated cooler, workers keeping a careful eye on expiration dates.
The slabs are destined for the grinding room, where the meat is unwrapped, weighed and inspected for bones “and anything else that doesn’t belong there.” They then are placed on a conveyer belt, heading to the grinder, Schandua said.
Grinding occurs daily for hours, the stainless-steel blades getting a serious workout. Schandua said the blades need to be resharpened “every couple of weeks or so.”
The ground meat drops into a large tub, where flavorings, seasonings and ingredients are mixed in, depending on the type of sausage being made. (Small cheddar cheese cubes, for example, go into jalapeño cheddar variety).
The “stuffing room” is the meat mixture’s next destination, arriving via large gondolas pushed by workers. There, other employees utilize a marvel of mechanical engineering that portions the mixture into designated sizes.
(Opa’s machines operate every workday, running from as early as 7 a.m. and late into the evening, Schandua said.)
Each increment of meat is stuffed into all-natural, hog casings. Links come out twisted together in long strands dangling from the machine’s hangers.
Workers use stainless steel sticks to move the strands onto a rack. Once a rack is full, it is placed in a cooler. Once the cooler has six racks of sausage links, all go into an oven to be fully cooked.
Cooking takes about 3½ hours. After that, the sausage strands are “showered to keep the casing from wrinkling,” Schandua said. The racks of links cool and dry off for about 45 minutes before going back into a cooler for rapid chilling.
Originally, Opa’s processed individual hogs, cattle and sheep brought in by local residents to provide meat for private consumption.
Before it became Opa’s, it was called Fredericksburg Lockers. Each customer’s personal meat was stored in a refrigerated locker “like a safe deposit box in a walk-in freezer,” back before refrigerators and freezers were usual household appliances, Edwards said.
Local residents could easily walk in and access what they needed as they needed it (including Schandua, who recalled accompanying his rancher father about every week to get meat from the family’s locker when he was a child).
The iron door leading into where the lockers used to be located still stands. Visitors to the Opa’s market and deli can see it within a wall behind the checkout stand.
Sausage-making didn’t start until 1968, when Edwards’ father graduated from Texas A&M University. Edwards has run Opa’s for 15 years, the past eight as president.
The next day, the cooked strands of links go into the packaging room with another amazing, 22-foot-long mechanical contraption. Here, they are placed in one end, a sensor directing three spinning blades where to cut the links apart in just seconds.
“We used to have to cut the links by hand,” Schandua recalled.
The links are placed in plastic wrap bottoms, sealed on top, labeled top and bottom and marked with expiration dates. Each package is put on a scale to ensure it weighs at least as much (usually a little more) than the label indicates. Then it’s placed in boxes, stacked on pallets and sent to another cooler.
Every hour, 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of sausage are cut and packaged. Up to about 34 packages a minute, Schandua estimated.
Along with other Opa’s meat products, some sausage goes to a special room where web site sales are transacted. Edwards said about five percent of all sales are made on the company’s website, with Opa’s products shipped throughout the U.S.
“Our busiest season for internet sales is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve,” Edwards said. “Hams, smoked turkeys and smoked tenderloins are the most popular items as holiday gifts.”
That’s the same time as football and deer season, Schandua said. Summer sausage slices are popular items for game day snack trays and also are handy for hunters to pack for the field.
Overall, Opa’s business spikes as soon as the weather warms and “people fire up their grills,” Schandua said.
Most of the meats are delivered by Opa’s trucks to grocer distribution centers for H-E-B stores, Walmart Supercenters, United Supermarkets, Brookshire’s and Affiliated Foods. Stores across New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado offer Opa’s meats, Edwards said.
Recently, a special order awaited shipment in one of the coolers. Throughout the 22 years Schandua has worked at Opa’s, it has supplied sausages on sticks to the Texas State Fair.
This year, about 36,000 of them will arrive in Dallas in time for fairgoers’ enjoyment, he said.
Some of the meats are sold in Opa’s market and deli in Fredericksburg, where Tom O’Flarity took a sizable bite of his sandwich.
“This is excellent,” he concludes after swallowing. “I love how it’s sliced. I never would have thought to make it this way.”
“I got to tell you — love the sausage, love the bun, love the texture of the bun, love the spice of it. It’s not an overpowering spice. Mustard’s good, I love the pickles,” O’Flarity went on.
He sounded somewhat like Guy Fieri of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” TV fame, when he reviews a dish after giving it a taste.
Turns out that’s no accident.
“That’s my show right there,” said O’Flarity, laughing before he finished off his sandwich.
Steve Taylor is a Fredericksburg-based writer and contributor to the Standard-Radio Post and Rock & Vine magazine.