Goals

From Microsoft to the Garage: the Story of a Start-up Sausage Biz

On a recent site visit, David Pearlstein’s USDA inspector suddenly turned serious. “This is not a garage,” the inspector told Pearlstein. “We’re not going to use the G-word anymore. This is a federally inspected meat processing facility.”

True. It’s a federally inspected meat processing facility in the residential part of Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood that last year was home to the Pearlstein family car and his wife’s bicycle. This is the headquarters of Link Lab Artisan Meats, which produces 100 pounds of fresh sausage per week—over two dozen varieties—and sells it to restaurants, farmers markets, and small grocery stores in Seattle.

Sure, a lot of businesses start in garages. Apple. Hewlett-Packard. Google. But those guys had it easy: they didn’t have to deal with health inspectors. Meanwhile, Pearlstein’s garage has five sinks in a one-car space smaller than a McMansion bathroom. The huge triple sink was a freebie, rescued before it went to the junkyard. He thought he was saving a bundle. It turns out a big sink requires a big-ticket grease trap. “It’s my bitchin’ camaro that I never owned,” says Pearlstein, indicating the mess of pipes and hoses.

Pearlstein, 41, doesn’t have a food business background. Until 2007, he was working for Microsoft as a librarian and a help content producer, saving money for some unspecified future project. “I’ve had business ideas for many, many years,” he says. He quit to be a stay-at-home dad for his daughter, who was then 2. But he never stopped thinking about sausage.

“As a hobbyist, I’ve been making sausage for about 12 years,” says Pearlstein. “During that three years I was away from Microsoft, that’s when I really got into the science of it.” His daughter is eager to help. “When she was about three, she was sitting on the floor with some legos and putting them into a sock. I said, what are you doing? And she said, ’I’m putting some meat in a casing.’”

Building Link Lab

In 2010, Pearlstein decided it was time to go for it. He took a librarian’s approach to learning what would make the USDA happy, reading documentation, making lots of phone calls to Washington. Converting the garage took a year and cost under $20,000, funded from his savings. The project stayed under budget. “I bartered meat for some electrical and construction services,” he says.

He got final USDA approval in February. And as easy as it is to make fun of big government bureaucracy, Pearlstein likes working with them. “USDA has been really supportive—none of us are playing games with each other,” he says. “I have a pretty good sense of what they expect right now, and they are satisfied with how I’m following the rules.”

Two days a week, a USDA inspector is on site, checking hazard control points and fridge temperatures. Pearlstein is required to provide the inspector with an office, which in this case is a filing cabinet labeled FOR USDA USE ONLY.

“My paperwork is less cumbersome than someone who’s making prosciutto,” says Pearlstein, opening a notebook containing a 17-step hazard control flowchart.

The stereotype about the USDA and about the US food safety apparatus in general is that they work for the big processors and snarl small artisans in red tape. But the agency maintains a special office for “small and very small” plants, which constitute 75 percent of its 6,000-plus inspected facilities. “There are lots of people in his situation,” a USDA spokesperson told me.

Pearlstein at work in his USDA-approved packing facility (also his garage)

A niche for sausage

Hanging over Link Lab is a clock with a pig on it, and a question: isn’t it crazy to start a small sausage business? It’s not like there’s a shortage of sausage in America. Here in Seattle, we have the national brands, plus a big local brand, Isernio’s, which makes pretty good stuff. How can a guy in his garage compete? He certainly can’t charge lower prices.

The answer, for Pearlstein, is that his sausage has a story. “There’s this emphasis on food with a true, compelling story about it. That’s something I can do that a big company can’t do.”

Link Lab uses only high quality, humanely raised meat. Pearlstein gets his pork from Tails & Trotters in Oregon, which feeds its pigs on local hazelnuts. His lamb comes from Martiny Livestock in Concrete, Washington. In a time where everybody claims to be all about local products, Pearlstein is obsessive about it. “Is the meat from someplace local?” he asks. “Is it local because it happens to be within 300 miles or is it really local?” Link Lab just got certified for poultry, so chicken and duck sausages are coming soon.

If you’ve read this far, you’re presumably not a vegetarian and are wondering how this stuff tastes. It’s terrific. I’ve been writing about food for over a decade and love sausage, and Link Lab’s is among the best fresh sausage I’ve ever had. Pearlstein’s obsession with good meat, fat-to-lean ratios, and proper seasoning comes through in the flavor. I’m especially fond of his jalapeño-pork sausage, his Vintner’s Bratwurst (made with white wine), and his iconic Italian link.

The meaty future

The USDA considers your meat business “very small” if you have fewer than ten employees or less than $2.5 million in annual sales. Link Lab is one guy selling 100 pounds of sausage a week. The business needs to grow.

“When you go from hobby to business, you have to be careful,” says Pearlstein. “Are you losing all the fun?” For now, he’s still in the honeymoon stage. “Making sausage is physically fun to do,” he says. He’s been painstakingly figuring out how to scale up from hobby to business. He pointed out a large plastic tub that holds 60 pounds of sausage—too much for Pearlstein to carry without making a worker’s comp claim on himself. Now he only carts around 30 pounds at a time.

“It’s a healthy business,” says Pearlstein, “but it needs to get bigger. It’s a lot more than a hobby. I wouldn’t be doing this if it was just a time-consuming hobby.”

I ask him if he has any advice for office drones who want to bust out of their cubicles and into the artisan food business. “Be really clear about what is the scope of the business you want to build,” he says. Opening a restaurant is the most obvious and most glamorous way to start a career in food. But it’s far from the only way to do it, and it’s one of the most risky. You can start small in sausage, but you can’t open a restaurant without a staff.

Link Lab offers another lesson about launching a startup. Pearlstein is following his dream—a pretty crazy dream—but doing so in a methodical, by-the-book way. We think of a startup business as a wild leap off a cliff, funded by credit cards, where the whole thing could go IPO or bankrupt at any time. Pearlstein’s budget and paperwork are in order, and this lets his creativity run wild.

“I’ve got about 50 recipes which I’m going to unroll as it’s seasonally appropriate,” he told me a couple of months ago. But the roster is mushrooming. Literally. He’s working on a shiitake mushroom link.

Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.

Photos: Matt Wright