by Kevin Flaherty
Kim Wall had been an accountant, banker, real estate agent, public-relations manager, and spice maker all by her early 40s. So perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised those that knew her that she jumped in — if not the deep end of the pool, then certainly the cold waters of the North Atlantic — and bought a business she knew little about at the time: pickled herring. Wall, who until then had generally marketed services and ideas, was looking for a more tangible business. “I wanted to sell widgets,” Wall says — where a product sale was indisputable, unlike the issues that can arise when billing for service hours. Now, although she doesn’t sell widgets, she does sell tidbits — of the herring variety, that is, packed in either a cream or wine sauce and sold throughout Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. Ma Baensch had been in the same family for three generations before Wall bought the company in 1999. The herring is caught at night off the coast of Nova Scotia, filleted and packed in barrels of brine and shipped, refrigerated, to Ma Baensch’s plant at 1025 E. Locust St. The building was once Patrick Cudahy’s meat locker, with horse stables in the basement (the horse ramp remains). Now the basement contains the tank of water that the workers lower the 200-plus pound barrels of herring tidbits one-at-a-time in order to rinse them. Once the fish is washed, the tidbits to be sold in wine sauce are soaked in a wine sauce blended with special spices, vinegar, and sugar for 24 hours. Then the tidbits are scooped into jars in a stainless steel lazy Susan type contraption that holds around 30 jars at a time. Freshly cut onions diced on the spot are topped onto the herring. Workers put lids on lightly, before a conveyor belt carries the jars through a contraption that tightens the lid and then through a wash tunnel to rinse the jars. As the jars roll through, a machine affixes the Ma Baensch label, before the jars roll off into boxes and then are transported on a track overhead and directly into a cooler where they’ll remain until they are ready to be shipped. The first Saturday after she bought the company, including the building at 1025 E. Locust St., Wall was doing some long overdue cleanup and weeding on the property. She came across two bullet casings in the parking lot and, perhaps wavering in a moment of buyers’ remorse, asked herself in Kim style, “The point is?” Her answer: “I’m here to employ the neighborhood and participate in it, and work with the youth.” The prior owners did not partake in Locust Street Festival; Kim immediately began sponsoring a kids’ booth and joining in the annual neighborhood revelry. Wall’s year-round four-person staff swells to around 14 in September as the company gears up for the busy season: 80% of her annual sales come in the months of November and December. Through Jerry Roberts of the Private Industry Council (the brother of one of her managers), Wall has begun using the REACH program to find her seasonal workers. She’s had more success finding good workers with REACH then she did with the YW Works program. She hopes to teach her young workers from REACH basic job skills like how to show up on time for work, work as a team, and take pride in a finished product. Sharon Smith, the production manager at Ma Baensch, describes the work environment as “just like a family.” Al Heitmann, of the 3400 block of Weil and a serious Germanophile, served Ma Baensch herring for years at his annual St. Nick’s celebrations. Although it has been three years since he’s hosted his annual gala, he can still rattle off the names of the friends who gobbled up the herring on rye bread. “My father loved Ma Baensch’s — whenever he visited Milwaukee he always took some back with him,” since he couldn’t find Ma Baensch in the rural Illinois community he lived in. Heitmann noted that pickled herring is popular along the whole coast of the North Sea, particularly in northern Germany where Heitmann once lived, and he recalled a fast-food seafood restaurant chain called North Sea that served pickled herring. Ma Baensch primarily sells to distributors, although visitors to their web site at www.mabaensch.com may find an order form that can be printed out and faxed to their office. Wall says neighborhood residents are welcome to stop in and take a tour. Ma Baensch can be reached at 414/562-4643.