Johnsonville Sausage founder, who popularized brats, dies at 92
By DINESH RAMDE
Associated Press Writer
June 25, 2007, 4:57 PM CDT
MILWAUKEE -- Ralph F. Stayer, the founder of a Wisconsin sausage company that helped popularize bratwurst in the U.S., died Sunday in his sleep at a Florida nursing home, his family said Monday. He was 92.
Stayer lived the American dream, buying a butcher shop in 1945 and turning it into the million-dollar Johnsonville Sausage Co., said his son, Ralph C. Stayer.
"He started with nothing, and he had the joy of seeing his business blossom, of doing business in 40 countries," said Stayer, the company's current chief executive officer.
The elder Stayer was born in Ely, Minn., in 1915 and moved to Milwaukee as a teen. He dropped out of high school a month before graduation to support his parents and five younger siblings during the Depression.
"He always had a great sense of responsibility," his son said. "He just did what he had to do."
Stayer's butcher shop was struggling in 1945, when he went to a picnic and saw garbage cans filled with partially eaten brats. He and his wife drew upon their Austrian and Slovenian heritage to make better-tasting bratwurst based on an old family recipe, his son said.
Stayer once said he knew the company was doing something right when a customer who had previously ordered 5 pounds of bratwurst and 30 pounds of hamburger returned six months later and ordered 30 pounds of bratwurst and 5 pounds of hamburger.
Johnsonville Sausage became a multimillion dollar business under Stayer's son's leadership. Its brats are sold seasonally at some 4,000 McDonald's nationwide and in 16 NFL stadiums.
The sausage company is the main sponsor of Brat Fest, an annual Madison event in which participants eat nearly 190,000 of the spiced pork sausages in four days over the Memorial Day weekend.
Despite his success, Stayer never forgot his humble roots, his son said. He gave generously to causes supporting underprivileged kids, including a Boys & Girls Clubs chapter in Sheboygan County that bears his and his wife's names.
Stayer's son described his father's death as bittersweet.
"In one sense, there's a great sense of loss," the younger Stayer said. "In another, there's a great sense of joy, that my father was such a wonderful person, that he had an opportunity to enjoy life. That's what makes it bearable."
In addition to his son, Stayer is survived by his wife, Alice; a daughter, 10 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.