Bangers and Cash
How Uli Hoeness became a sausage magnate
I don't know what broccoli-loving dieticians might think of this, but they serve sausages at Bayern Munich's canteen. Heaps of them. Christian Nerlinger, the former central midfielder who's risen to the rank of general manager of the club, is just ahead of me in the queue, busy transferring what looks like a whole ring of the stuff on his plate. But these sausages are not just any sausages: they're the Nürnberg kind of Bratwürst, smaller than those served in every train station and every cafe in Bavaria, almost chipolata-sized, in fact, small enough for McDonald's to cram three of them in the würstburgers they've been serving in their 1,310 German restaurants since last year. They're also quite tasty and, judging by Nerlinger's svelte figure, remarkably low in fat.
They're made by the HoWe company, to whom the government-funded consumers association Stiftung Warentest recently awarded a silver medal in their annual review of the nation's best sausages. This is yet another title for the 'Ho' in 'HoWe': Uli Hoeness, one of only two living footballers whose likeness has appeared on a Deutsche Post stamp, and yet further proof that a player who won multiple Bundesliga titles and European Cups with Bayern, and was European and world champion with West Germany — all feats achieved before an injury sustained in the 1975 European Cup final more or less put an end to his career at the age of 23 — is one of the businessmen of the age.
He became Bayern's chairman when only 27 years of age and transformed it into one of — if not the — best-run and most profitable clubs in European football, dragging an umming and ahhing Bundesliga into something resembling modernity in the process. And he, the son of an Ulm butcher, also found the time and the energy to become one of his nation's foremost charcutiers, before handing his son Florian the control of a flourishing sausage-making business on a plate. Atavism, cheek, genius? Only the great Uli himself could tell the tale, which he did on a balmy November afternoon on the terrace of his favourite restaurant, just above the Tegernsee, a truly wonderful place where glasses of beer seem to re-fill themselves by magic, and truffles are shaved with abandon on home-made pasta shiny with melted butter. Happy days.
"I played for six months for FC Nürnberg at the end of my career, and in Nuremberg there is a regional specialty, the Nürnberg sausage, which is quite small," Hoeness said. "Some 35 years ago, a friend of mine asked me: 'do you have connections with the Aldi chain?' He was a butcher, but didn't make Nürnberg sausages himself, more things like Leberwürst [liver sausage] and so on. So I helped him. But one day, this buyer from Aldi came back to ask him: 'can you deliver original Nürnberg sausages?'
"He said: 'No — to make genuine Nürnberg sausages, you need a factory in Nürnberg, otherwise you can't call them "original".' And that stuck in my mind. When I came to play there [Hoeness took part in eleven league games for FC Nürnberg in the 1978-79 season, which was to be his last], I got to meet another friend, Werner Christoph Weiss, who owned a small butchery... and in the early eighties, I finally put the question to him: 'do you make original Nürnberg sausages?'
"He said, 'Why, yes, of course, every day!'
"'About 50 kilos'
"'You'll soon have to make tons! But first, give me a sample!' Which he did, and I sent it to Aldi. The third or fourth sample was ok.
"Then they said: 'That's all right, that's what we're looking for. Do you have a factory?'
"I said 'no'.
"'A production facility?'
"'No, but if you want us to, we'll create one.' "So I was invited to meet the big boss of Aldi, who told me: 'Mr Hoeness, we've never ordered anything from somebody who couldn't produce it yet!'
"'Well,' I replied, 'if you give us a chance, that's exactly what we'll do.'
"At the time, Bayern were at a training camp not very far from here [the Tegernsee], before a European Cup game against AS Roma1. I remember the date clearly: 6 March 1983. At 6 o'clock in the evening, I got a phone call from the Aldi guy. 'Ok', he said, 'we'll give you your chance. You'll have to deliver sausages to 120 of our stores for six months. When can you start?'
"I thought for about 20 seconds, and said: '15 April, in six weeks time'.
'Good luck with that,' he said.
"So, on 15 April, which was a Sunday, my wife Susanne and I were in a refrigerated warehouse, packing up the last of the order. And now we have 200 employees in the winter months, and 300 in the summer, because it is a grilling sausage, perfect for barbecues. We make five million sausages a day, and our revenue is about €50million a year. We sell them all over Germany, all over Europe and, from November 2010, also in America, where we've just closed a dealer with Trader Joe's. It took us one year to get them — but once you're with Trader Joe's, you can be with anyone. I'll soon be off to New York and Boston to find new customers.
"But it all happened by accident. If I hadn't got injured and hadn't played for Nürnberg, I wouldn't be making sausages today."
The king of the sausage-makers has just celebrated his 58th birthday, and remains the capo di capi at Bayern, despite passing on the chairmanship to Karl-Heinz Rumenigge; as president of the club's board of control, it is still with him that lies the responsibility of saying Ja or Nein to every question that affects the champions of Germany, from extending Bastian Schweinsteiger's contract to choosing the caterers for the Allianz Arena. No prizes given for guessing who the club's official sausage supplier is.