By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Apr 25, 2023 at 11:02 AM Photography: Lori Fredrich

When Quinn Schwellinger moved home in March of 2020 after seven years of working in the advertising industry, he hoped to delve into meaningful work that would take his family's business, Badger Ham, to a new level. 

Little did he know that the day he bode farewell to his colleagues at a bar in Manhattan, New York would also be the day that states throughout the U.S. begin to implement shutdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He had been called back home to Milwaukee by his father, Brian Schwellinger, who had joined Badger Ham in an operational capacity in 2016 after years of work in real estate.

“As I grew older it became more important to me to take a role in the family company,” says Brian, “I wanted us to continue to make really good ham, and I wanted to ensure that our employees had everything they needed to live a good life, to make a commitment to the company and make good decisions on our behalf.”

By 2019, he says that he and other members of the family began discussing succession planning. It made sense to include Quinn, who could represent a fourth generation of the Schwellinger family.  

“We needed someone young and talented who would commit to the company and assist us in carving out a vision for the future,” Brian says, noting that they had worked out an agreement with Quinn that he would return to Milwaukee, work to earn equity in the company and, as time moved forward, would eventually take over leadership for the family business.

Quinn and Brian Schwellinger
Quinn and Brian Schwellinger

Trial by pandemic

The decision appealed to Quinn, who saw an opportunity to play a key role in creating the product in which his family had taken pride for over 80 years. But he didn’t expect that his first job would be to assist the company in surviving an unprecedented pandemic.

And yet, the moment he stepped into the family ham plant at 3521 W. Lincoln Ave., he knew his work was cut out for him.

Along with learning the ropes quickly, Quinn says he saw the immediate need to invest in Badger Ham’s employees, ensuring they were paid fairly and had good benefits. As it turns out, focusing on those 25 individuals, many of whom had families at home, was the best thing he could have done.

Employee sorting pork slated for brining
Employee meticulously sorting pork slated for brining.

“Many plants shut down during COVID,” he says. “But we didn’t. Instead, we did everything that we could to fill our orders. We also took every precaution to keep our employees safe, including requesting that they avoid air travel during that first year. Our employees were champions. They came in and worked alongside us, even working on Saturdays. At the end of the year, we gave everyone a huge bonus.”

He admits that his first year resembled nothing he had envisioned. It was one struggle after another. But he and his father kept things moving forward.

“When we got cut off from our meat supply, we called other suppliers and took what we could get,” he says. “Ultimately, we went back to sourcing all bone-in meat and breaking it down ourselves.”

Expert butchers breaking down pork shanks
Expert butchers breaking down pork shanks at Badger Ham.

With his father’s help, he put the need for the company’s survival before all else and he spent his time stabilizing the family business with the hope that it would have a future that he could take a role in shaping. 

“It was rough,” he admits. “But we probably did ten years' worth of work in the last three years. We replaced almost every piece of equipment in the plant. We implemented software and standardized all of our systems. We revamped our food safety programs and upgraded our branding, labeling and packaging. We implemented a new sales team, enhanced our compensation and benefits programs…”  

Hanging whole smoked hams.
Hanging whole smoked hams

“The one thing we didn’t change was the recipe and quality of our ham,” he adds. 

And that’s a very good thing, especially considering the company’s role in shaping – and supporting – beloved Wisconsin traditions like Sunday ham and rolls.

Built on hot ham (and rolls)

The tradition of Sunday hot ham and rolls is as popular as ever. And while the history of the tradition remains somewhat shrouded in mystery, there are ample data to suggest that Milwaukee’s own Badger Ham was a key player in the spread of the weekend ritual.

Founded in 1939 by Jacob Schwellinger, the ham manufacturer was founded on the premise that there was no substitute for quality in the production of the increasingly popular American staple: ham.

Badger Ham signX

At that point in history, ham production had taken a turn. Dry cured hams (country hams), which were salted and cured, cold smoked and hung, were going out of style. In their place, “city hams” began to appear. In the 1930s and 40s, thanks to the advent of refrigeration, hams could be brined for a shorter period before being cooked (boiled or baked) and sold.

These fully cooked hams didn’t require smoking and they came without the risk of foodborne illness. Even better, they could be transported across the country in refrigerated train cars. By and by, Americans fell in love with the sweet flavor of city hams and producers responded to the demand. 

Jacob was among them. He knew there was an opportunity to gain market share with boiled ham, a product that was less salty and easier to use. On top of that, he knew that small grocers and bakeries were looking for ways to stand out in an expanding market. So, he and his partner, Frank Rakowski (who brought sales acumen to the table), marketed the meats to delicatessens, bakeries and grocery stores, all of whom added the product to their deli cases. 

Ham logs for restaurantsX

It was the perfect storm for hot ham and rolls, a Sunday tradition that would carry on through generations.

The American Industrial Revolution had already changed the way many families ate. Large mid-day meals were traded in for quicker modern day lunches and Sunday dinners continued to be popular for families, who saw it as one time they could come together and eat. 

For Catholics, who were required by the Code of Canon Law to fast before taking holy communion on Sundays, quick Sunday lunches became the norm, since the family was hungry. 

Add to that the rise in convenience foods after World War II, and the ease of heading to the bakery on the way home from church to pick up a pound of ready-to-eat hot ham and rolls makes more and more sense.

Local bakeries like Bomberg’s Bakery (70th and Beloit) were likely the first to offer customers six free rolls with their pound of hot ham. The tactic attracted more customers and the bakery sold more baked goods. It was a win-win. And it was a marketing tactic eventually adopted by Bob Meurer who, as he expanded his bakery enterprise, used the lure of their popular butter crust rolls (and hot Badger ham) to get customers through the doors. While they were there, they inevitably purchased other items, including Meurer's Danishes and doughnuts.

By the 1950s, Grebe’s Bakery began doing the same. Other bakeries followed suit, as did grocers. Today, folks can get hot ham and rolls at a wide variety of Milwaukee and Wisconsin-based retailers. 

Baked ham
Baked Badger Ham

A good portion of them carry Badger Ham, which produces a special baked ham flavored with a proprietary blend of brown sugar and seasonings (including cloves), along with a specially designed oven to facilitate the hot ham process. 

“We’ve physically designed the ham for the purpose of serving the hot ham and roll market,” notes Quinn. “It’s a recipe that stands up to being reheated.”

Looking to the future

In many ways, the success of Badger Ham has been a serendipitous feat. Sharp decision-making and an emphasis on quality on the part of his great-grandfather put the company in a good position to move forward. But it was the customers who truly embraced the local brand.

“The customer support and fan base that we have is a phenomenon that even we don’t entirely understand,” says Quinn. “But I do think that there is pride that has been passed through the generations.”

“People can taste the difference,” says Brian. “Other companies add things like dextrose to their hams. But we don’t. We rely on real cane sugar, maple syrup and honey.” 

Smoked honey ham
Badger Smoked Honey Ham

Quinn nods, noting that he tasted through over 75 retail products when he returned home – including smoked, baked and “boiled” products – to ensure that he could stand behind his family’s product. What he found is that he truly could.

“One of the things our company has done for a long time is to look for the best possible products to produce our ham,” he says. “We look to Wisconsin first. When we can’t find it in Wisconsin, we look for a way to source in the Midwest.” 

That means supporting companies like Kallas Honey, MidAmerica Seasonings and The Frantz Company, which supplies the wood chips for their smokers. It also means investing in the local people who handle day-to-day operations and – more recently – gaining a broad view of the local food space and the meat industry to put the company on a continuous road to improvement.

“When I first came on, we simply needed to find ways to survive,” says Quinn. “It’s only within the past few months that we’ve been able to begin looking towards the future.”

The first thing on his list, he says, is to get back to basics, taking a look at the pork that forms the foundation of their business.

“Currently, we’re working toward reconnecting with the food chain,” he says. “We’d like to take a really good look at our sourcing. We'd love to find a way to support local farms by sourcing our pork more locally.”

From there, he says, it’s about envisioning what Badger Ham can do to continue to produce the best product possible while supporting a healthy local economy.

“We’re definitely looking forward,” Quinn says, “But as we do, we’ll also remain dedicated to producing the highest quality products that we possibly can.”

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.