Parks Sausage Comes to Park Circle

After its sale in 1977 to Norin Corp, which sold it to a Canadian firm a few years later, Parks Sausage no longer fit the agenda of its owners. In 1980, facing a number of management and strategy concerns, Parks Sausages was ready to be sold again. A group of investors led by Raymond Haysbert stepped up to do the deal which included an ESOP – Employee Stock Ownership Plan, and the historic Black owned company was back in the hands of Black ownership.

(left) The late Raymond Haysbert, former head of Parks Sausage (right) Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell who would lead the company in the second half of the 1990's

(left) The late Raymond Haysbert, former head of Parks Sausage (right) Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell who would lead the company in the second half of the 1990's

The 1980’s would bring about a number of changes and challenges for the company. Parks Sausage was seeking to expand into new markets and increase its product line. The company would also have to wrestle with the idea of moving from its location on W. Hamburg Street in South Baltimore where it was located since 1967. Both of these issues would be resolved. Sara Lee Corporation made a significant investment in Parks Sausage in the late 80’s, which left the company with at least 51% so-called minority ownership that would still allow it to benefit from that status.

The Baltimore Orioles were getting a new stadium and Parks Sausages would be forced to move from its Camden Industrial Park location. In what seemed like a sweet financing deal, its South Baltimore facility was bought out by the Maryland Stadium Authority and with federal, state and city financing it built a new multimillion dollar facility at Park Circle.

"In spite of sales approaching $30 million and customers like Pizza Hut and Dominos, the move to Park Circle would prove to be the final years for this legendary company."

In 1990, the company set up shop at its glistening factory which was now located in an Empowerment Zone. Empowerment Zones were federally supported urban or rural areas that were economically depressed and in vital need of a turnaround. The program officially ended at the close of 2013.

In spite of sales approaching $30 million and customers like Pizza Hut and Dominos, the move to Park Circle would prove to be the final years for this legendary company. Facing increased competition, employee strikes, consumer changes and losing contracts from Pizza Hut and Dominos Pizza would be major obstacles. But the biggest obstacle seemed to be handling the increased overhead and expenses from building a new facility.

Ironically, Parks Sausage dealt with the same issue Provident Hospital – another Black institution - had to face when it moved to Park Circle. Provident Hospital built a state of the art facility that opened in 1970, at 2600 Liberty Heights Avenue after operating for decades on Division Street. But after years of fundraising in the Black community, coupled with civic investment, Provident’s new location saddled it with tremendous debt and within a few years it was trying to fight its way out of state receivership.

Former Parks Sausage plant at Park Circle. Now Dietz & Watson

Former Parks Sausage plant at Park Circle. Now Dietz & Watson

Haysbert had expected the move to Park Circle to add 100 plus jobs for the company that was already employing more than 200 at the time. According to records, the company had received $9million from the sale of its Camden site. Operating in a Black community with significant history was certainly motivation to build there. But for some reason Haysbert and management were convinced to build a facility that was much larger than it needed, thus more costly. As sales dwindled, the company would eventually file for bankruptcy in the second half of the 90’s, just after Haysbert would buy out Sara Lee’s interest at a very substantial discount.

When Parks Sausage was looking to sell the company or merge with a larger company in the 1970’s, a fellow Baltimore talent named Reginald F. Lewis(see related article) attempted to purchase the company. Parks did not sell to Lewis but as fate would have it one of Lewis’s protégés – Kevin Wright - was heading an investment firm (Michu Corporation) which included Lewis’s brother Jean Fugett, and Haysbert made a tentative agreement with the firm to purchase Parks Sausages. However, the deal did not work out.

In an effort to save the company, keep jobs in Baltimore and keep it Black owned, two former football players turned businessmen stepped in to purchase the company. Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell were teammates at Penn State and while Harris would later become the Hall of Fame running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mitchell would be a star running back for the Baltimore Colts.

But success on the football field would not hold true for this particular business venture. A changing business climate, poorly received products like its ready to eat chitterlings, and the sheer skill required in reviving a once robust brand, would prove too much for Harris and Mitchell. The Park Circle facility was sold to Dietz and Watson in 1999, and the Parks Sausages brand was preserved.

Raymond Haysbert passed May 24, 2010, at the age of 90. What he accomplished in those 90 years is nothing less than book worthy. He also owned the Forum Caterers on Primrose Avenue and was involved in many other business, political and philanthropic initiatives. And, long before his business accolades, he was fighting in World War II as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Henry Parks may always be remembered as the face of the brand. Willie Adams may always be remembered as the face behind the scenes. But Haysbert was always on the scene and spent more time with Parks Sausage than Parks and Adams.

Today, the Dietz and Watson operated facility almost looks out of place. Just imagining the lost potential of a Black business district is depressing. Think about it. Take a virtual trip to Towanda Avenue and Druid Park Drive. Look in one direction and one will see the plant that use to be Parks Sausage. In another direction one would see what use to be Provident Hospital. Directly across the street which is now an eyesore, one would see a night club, bakery, and rental hall. And, at Druid Park Drive and Liberty Heights one would see The Palladium. Today, it’s all gone with the lone survivor the Park Circle Business Center, which was formerly Franklin D. Roosevelt, school #18.

Yes, as in the School 18 Project.

(copyright 2014) C.Green/School 18 project