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From COVID-19 takeout option to full-fledged business

Sheboygan Pasty Co. brings Upper Michigan cuisine to nearly 100 Wisconsin stores, with more plans heating up

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March 20, 2024

SHEBOYGAN — Sometimes, what starts as a side dish can start to resemble a second main course.

Such is the case for brothers Tony and John Ranieri, who said they started selling pasties to supplement their bar and grill amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but now find themselves running two full-time businesses: Ranieri’s Four of a Kind and the Sheboygan Pasty Co.

Tony and John, vice president and president, respectively, of both entities, said they have a lot on their plates these days.

“We are at the point where it’s increasingly difficult to manage the time it takes to do both, and we’re doing our best to keep up,” Tony said. “Our customers have been amazing all along.”

Those customers, the Ranieris said, have expanded from local to statewide.

The Rainieris said what started as selling pasties for pick-up from Four of a Kind in 2020 led to the founding of the Sheboygan Pasty Co. in 2021.

Now, they said, after entering the wholesale frozen food market, their pasties are available all across Wisconsin.

Next up, the Ranieris said, is the possibility of serving their brand of the braided-crust cuisine from coast to coast.

A bridge to the past(y)
Tony and John Ranieri have been running the Four of a Kind Bar and Grill — an establishment central to Sheboygan for nearly 50 years — since 2013 and said they describe the atmosphere “like ‘Cheers’ with really good food.”

Like so many business owners during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ranieris said they were forced to think outside the box to stay profitable.

Tony Ranieri, left, and John Ranieri are the co-owners of Sheboygan Pasty Co. Submitted Photo

Most of Four of a Kind’s food is prepared in a cooking area behind its bar, they said, which left the building’s larger, and largely underutilized back kitchen with untapped potential.

“During COVID, we had started a ghost kitchen essentially out of what was before our prep kitchen, so we were running a small delivery and carry-out-only Italian food restaurant, which wasn’t taking off as fast as we were hoping it would,” Tony said, “So we were brainstorming different ideas we could easily do along with the Italian food — and came up with pasties.”

Both the Italian menu and the pasties, Tony said, were inspired by family recipes drawing upon the Ranieris’ respective ties to Southern Italy and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (U.P.).

Tony said in both cases, their goal was to offer cuisine uncommon to the Sheboygan area.

“If everyone else has the same thing, why bother?” he said.

Tony said the unique Italian menu was well received, and Four of a Kind customers request a revival to this day.

However, he said, the grab-and-go nature of the pasties proved a more convenient offering in light of the time’s social distancing concerns.

John said the pasties were the hot seller from the moment they were offered.

“Three days later, we stopped doing the Italian restaurant because it was too busy with the pasties,” John said.

“We sold more than 1,000 pasties in three days, at which point we figured, ‘all right — that’s what we need to do,'” Tony said.

The Ranieris said they attribute the instant popularity to several reasons, starting with the interesting history of pasties and their connection to the region.

“Pasties originated in Cornwall, England, with the miners over there,” Tony said. “They were popular with the miners for a couple of reasons. One, you could bake them in the morning, wrap them in a towel and throw them in your toolbox and they’d still be warm around lunchtime for those guys.”

The other reason, Tony said, was because of the braided crust on the pasty.

“It was easy for them to hang onto,” he said. “Because of the different toxic chemicals that get on your hands through the mining process, they could eat the filling and everything out, and then toss that edge crust out and not have to worry about washing their hands while they’re down in the mine, or eating that toxic stuff.”

The Ranieris said pasties originally had a braided crust because early miners used the crust as a handle. Submitted Photo

He said as mineral deposits were discovered around the world, miners emigrated from Cornwall and brought their partiality for pasties with them.

“The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is where we know them from, just from living so close, but anywhere there’s mining, there are pasties and you’ll find pasty shops,” Tony said.

John said Wisconsin and countries around the world also love their pasties.

“Mineral Point, Wisconsin, is a big pasty area,” he said. “And there’s a small town in Mexico that has the world’s largest pasty festival, about an hour away from Mexico City.”

South America, Tony said, took (the recipe) and changed it a little bit.

“Empanadas are really South American pasties,” he said. “They make them smaller and deep-fry them. Really, it’s meat and potatoes — it’s comfort food.”

The consensus filling for traditional, Upper Michigan “Yooper” pasties consists of beef, potatoes, onions, rutabaga and carrots.

The Ranieris said their traditional pasty recipe was handed down from their grandparents on their mother’s side.

They said their grandfather was from Baraga, Michigan, and their grandmother was from “a tiny, itty-bitty little town called Kenton.”

Though the Ranieris grew up near Milwaukee, they said they remember eating pasties early in life, made by their grandparents or bought during frequent camping trips to the U.P.

John said it was always clear to him pasties were a culinary delicacy more or less exclusive to the U.P.

He said when people in Wisconsin have a negative opinion of pasties, it’s typically because they’ve eaten frozen ones with poor flavor or, more commonly, which have become too dry when cooked.

“People argue whether you should eat (a dry pasty) with gravy or with ketchup — it’s mostly because you have to add something like that to it, to be able to eat it,” he said. “(With) ours, we specifically put the recipe together so you don’t necessarily have to have any sort of condiment with it. It enhances it, but you don’t need to add it.”

The Ranieris said they’ve sought to repair any distasteful reputation for pasties by making theirs with locally sourced ingredients and foregoing any artificial fillers or preservatives.

“Our crust recipe is simple,” John said. “Our filling recipe is meat and vegetables. We’re not adding any extra garbage to it.”

Tony said the process of improving their pasties’ whole-food ingredients is ongoing.

“We’re starting to use straight butter from some of our local creameries and dairies in town,” he said. “We are working on getting anything that is any kind of chemical or anything you can’t pronounce off the label as much as we can.”

As part of their quest for improvement, the Raineris said they made an expedition in 2020 to the U.P. to buy and learn from a dozen different local pasties.

“There are good ones and there are bad ones, so when we first started this, we decided we needed to make something better,” John said. “We set out to make the best ones you could ever buy.”

Tony said because times have changed, so is the need to change the makeup of the pasties.

“People aren’t bringing them into the mines anymore — they’re eating them at a dinner table, so you don’t have to have the super thick, dry crust to it,” Tony said. “And it’s not the (Great) Depression anymore, so you can have flavor and other things in it.”

From the mines to the masses
By January 2021, the Ranieris said the enthusiasm for the pasties from Four of a Kind convinced them to found the Sheboygan Pasty Co.

They said they began packaging and selling their frozen pasties at two local meat markets, then began with some trepidation to explore additional regional wholesale partnerships.

Sheboygan Pasty Co. pasties are available in nearly 100 Wisconsin stores, the Rainieris said. Submitted Photo

“We would go into a store and see a brand of pasty and say, ‘well, they’re already selling a pasty, so they’re not going to want ours,'” Tony said. “Then we were walking through a Piggly Wiggly down the pizza aisle and looked at the pizzas, and said, ‘hey, there are 20 different brands of pizzas — some of them are three for $10 and some are $10 (apiece).í”

Tony and John said Sheboygan Pasty Co. pasties are more like the latter due to their premium ingredients.

“We don’t have a $3 pasty — we have a $7 pasty, and it makes a big difference,” John said. “In the store, your usual choices are beef with or without rutabaga, for the most part. And it’s not exactly a full-on beef pasty as it’s labeled. It’ll be ‘beef flavoredí or a ‘pasty with beef.í”

Tony said to have the meat on the label, it has to be 25% or more of that particular meat.

“We’re the only pasty on the market that can use ‘beef,'” he said. “We also make a brat pasty, an Italian pasty and a breakfast pasty, and we can put on our labels that it’s the meat in it.”

Those core flavors, the Ranieris said — as well as seasonal flavors such as a Reuben pasty in March, a turkey pasty in November and an Oktoberfest pasty infused with beer from Sheboygan’s 3 Sheeps Brewing Company — are now for sale at nearly 100 locations throughout Wisconsin.

They said this was achieved through their determined sales and marketing efforts.

“We hit the road and went from business to business trying to get our product in there,” John said.

The Ranieris said offering samples at grocery stores has greatly helped to spread the word about Sheboygan Pasty Co., as has participating in various events — even, they said, at the risk of upsetting pasty purists.

“We were up in Calumet, Michigan, for a pasty festival in August, and we were the only vendor there that wasn’t from the U.P. — that’s ever been there from outside the U.P.,” Tony said.”We were the only vendor that was selling a variety. Everyone else just had their beef pasties. We brought our brat pasty, our Italian pasty — we even brought our summer seasonal that was a chorizo pasty which was probably my favorite one of any of the (seasonal) ones we’ve done.”

Tony said they got some “sideways looks” at the festival — but that eventually passed.

“Until people started trying them, and word started spreading about how good our beef pasties were — and then how good our other pasties were,” he said. “We sold more than 1,000 pasties in less than four hours.”

Though selling their frozen pasties across Wisconsin has made it less common now, John said, pasty fans have also been known to drive hours to Four of a Kind to try the Ranieris’ recipe fresh from the oven.

“When we first opened up, we knew we were doing something right,” he said. “We had people from the U.P. driving down here to pick up pasties and bring them home.”

As Sheboygan Pasty Co. continued to offer new recipes in more locations, the Ranieris said they had to purchase another nearby building in 2022 to devote to pasty production.

“We’re about to outgrow the space we’re in,” John said. “We’re looking at another location because we don’t have enough freezer space there.”

Tony said the company is anticipating even greater demand as it begins to expand outside of Wisconsin.

He said in the coming months, Sheboygan Pasty Co. products will be available throughout the Midwest, with larger distribution plans to follow.

“Our goal is to be the first frozen pasty company to go nationwide,” he said. “We want to try and get ours coast to coast.”

Tony said once the company secures a larger production facility, they’re also planning to produce their own version of pasties’ southern cousins — empanadas.

However far — literally and figuratively — the Ranieris’ business model gets from its Upper Midwest roots, they said, they’ll always stay true to themselves and their high standards.

“We said from day one, we’ll put our (pasties) up against anybody else’s — any day, any time,” John said.

The Ranieris said they’re also motivated to honor their ancestors with the integrity of Sheboygan Pasty Co.

“Our aunts, and mom especially, have told us how proud our grandparents would be seeing us doing it, and selling a really good product they grew up with and introduced us to,” Tony said.

Then, of course, the Ranieris said, they are motivated by gratitude for the friends, neighbors and family members of their city — the very namesake for their pasty company — for “promoting us and supporting us since day one.”

“I can’t say enough to express our appreciation for their support,” Tony said, “We’re excited to share all the big things we’ve got planned as they start to happen.”

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