For many food and drink companies, success is winning national — or even global — distribution. But for others, particularly privately held and family businesses, there's no place like home.
In the first piece in our series on great regional brands, we looked at some of the food and drinks that are tied to their birthplaces in the eastern half of the United States.
In part two of the series, we offer our picks for the best regional food brands sold west of the Mississippi. If you were raised out West, you know these brands. And if you've moved to the East, you miss them terribly.
You think you've eaten sausage. Most people think they've eaten it. But unless you happen to be from around Milwaukee, according to many residents of that proud city, you've never really eaten sausage. Because, in their opinion, the best sausages on earth are made in a little family-owned factory on North Old Street.
Usinger's has been making German-style sausages in Milwaukee since 1880. And they are extraordinary. If you've ever tasted the bratwurst, for example, then you too will wonder how it is that Milwaukee got famous for beer and not sausage.
Editor's note: Yes, as several of you have noted in recent emails, Milwaukee remains east of the Mississippi River. However, Usinger's is also sold in bratwurst-loving locations west of the river.
Brassica and Brine
Our idea of the greatest taste combination on earth would be a meal of sausages from Usinger's and sauerkraut from Brassica and Brine.
Unfortunately, that's not an easy meal to make. Los Angeles-based Brassica and Brine, which makes remarkably good kraut and pickles, limits its sales to California and a handful of specialty retailers. Artisanal pickles have become the punch line of many a joke about hipsters, but trust us on this: What Brassica and Brine does with vegetables goes beyond artisanal and well into the realm of fine art.
Waialua Soda Works
As a general rule it's safe to say that Americans drink too much soda. But that's because, as a general rule, they're not drinking Waialua sodas.
Karen and Jason Campbell only started bottling sodas on the north shore of the Hawaiian island Oahu in 2003. But in a little more than a decade, Waialua sodas have developed a reputation as among the best sodas ever created in history. Ever. In all of history.
Maybe it's the old-fashioned, real-glass bottles with the picture of the girl in a hulu skirt. Maybe it's the use of real fruits and pure cane sugar from Hawaii. Or maybe it's because Oprah featured them in her magazine. What ever it is, we can't stop thinking about these sodas. Unfortunately, they're only available in Hawaii, the west coast...and around Washington, D.C.
If you were to list the greatest regional food brands in America a while back, you started with Ghirardelli Chocolate, the candy maker that gave its name to San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square. But that was a long time ago, before Ghirardelli became part of the global chocolate empire run by Switzerland's Lindt & Sprüngli (which just days ago bought another old-time chocolate maker in the U.S. -- Russell Stover) and became available everywhere.
Today, the epitome of a West Coast chocolate company is TCHO, the high-end candy maker that is closely associated with Silicon Valley. TCHO is a sort of hipster/techie/foodie/fanboy vision of what a candy company can be: Owners of vintage machines from Germany, users of stunningly pretty boxes and lettering from designer Erik Spiekermann, and pretentious enough to call themselves the "new American chocolate."
But machines, design, and terminology aren't what make TCHO so good. It's the taste, which is so amazing that the desire to never be too far away from the factory helps explain the soaring rents in San Francisco.
In America, there are two kinds of people — East Coast types who eat Twizzlers, and West Coast folks who prefer Red Vines.
Both candies are called licorice by their fans. But both Twizzlers and Red Vines are something else entirely: sweet, red, tubes of chewy something or other.
But that's where the similarities end. Twizzlers are just something you can find in a convenience store; Red Vines are a cultural institution.
Red Vines are made by the American Licorice Co., which traces its roots to Chicago in 1914. But Red Vines themselves debuted only in the 1950s and were first made in California.
The candy rapidly developed an association with movie theaters. If you went to the movies in California in the 1960s and '70s, you ate Red Vines in the same way that folks in the rest of they country ate popcorn.
But over time, Red Vines became popular both in and out of theaters. And today they are the top-selling, non-chocolate candy in the West.
But if you try to buy a box anywhere east of the prairie states, most likely you're going to wind up with a pack of Twizzlers. And as anyone from California can tell you, no one ever felt strongly enough about those things to write a mysterious and haunting song about them.
Think we've missed one? Tweet us at @FoodDive your picks for foods that would make any Westerner nostalgic.