Home » High on the hog — Purnell’s has succeeded with popular products, an iconic slogan and a positive company culture

High on the hog — Purnell’s has succeeded with popular products, an iconic slogan and a positive company culture

From left are: Al Purnell, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, Todd Purnell, and Tim Herndon. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo by Chris Aldridge)

By Chris Aldridge
Kentucky Department of Agriculture

More photos below story.

SIMPSONVILLE, Ky. (May 21, 2012) — Agriculture Commissioner James Comer called the F.B. Purnell Sausage Co. “a real success story” after touring the Kentucky Proud company’s plant in early May.

“Founder Fred Purnell moved his wife and children from their native Tennessee to Kentucky 62 years ago with nothing but faith in his sausage product,” Comer said. “And Kentucky and the Kentucky Proud program are sure lucky to have them.”

Purnell’s chief executive officer, Al Purnell, is best known for growling, “It’s goooood!” on the company’s radio and TV commercials. Al said the company’s success should be attributed to the family never giving up when hitting potholes on their road to success.

“Most of it is hard-headedness,” Al said in his booming voice. “Just keep on keepin’ on.”

Todd Purnell, Al’s son and current company president, said being a member of Kentucky Proud, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s marketing program, has provided additional exposure to Purnell’s. He mentioned the company’s products appearing in newspaper advertisements for Kentucky Proud grocers Remke Markets and ValuMarket.

“It’s a good affiliation,” Todd said of Kentucky Proud. “I think people like to support locally owned businesses when they know about it.”

Purnell’s sourced its hogs from Louisville’s Bourbon Stockyards until it closed in 1999. Today, Purnell’s buys as many hogs from Kentucky farms as it can and also buys from producers in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.

“We’d buy ’em all right here [in Kentucky] if we could,” Todd said. “It would save us on freight.”

“We’d like to buy more Kentucky hogs, but they’re just not here,” Purnell’s assistant plant manager Tim Herndon said.

Purnell’s also makes bologna, bratwurst, franks, sausage gravy and souse, as well as chicken and turkey sausage. But its original product, pork sausage, is the mainstay of the company. Purnell’s top-selling products are frozen 2 1/2-pound boxes of 24 sausage patties and traditional 1-pound tubes of sausage.

You may have enjoyed Purnell’s sausage without realizing it. Cracker Barrel has been one of Purnell’s biggest customers for more than 30 years. Purnell’s supplies all the pork and turkey sausage for more than 600 of the chain’s restaurants.

Herndon said Purnell’s harvests not only the pork, but most all parts of its hogs. Several leftover pig organs benefit humanity: heart valves are sold to a pharmaceutical company for use in human heart transplants; the small intestines are used to make the drug Heparin, a blood thinner; the pancreas yields an enzyme to treat children with cystic fibrosis; and the stomach contains the enzyme Pepsin used by laboratories. Pig ears and snouts are sold to companies that make them into dog treats.

Purnell’s has about 275 employees, 66 of whom have been with the company for 20 years or more. One man, Sonny White, has worked at Purnell’s for 47 years.

“That says a lot about the culture here,” Comer told Al Purnell.

“I think we try to be fair [to employees],” Al explained. “Mom and Dad taught us that.”

One of those longtime employees, 40-plus-year veteran Ray Barnes, Purnell’s plant manager, once could stuff 70 tubes of sausage per minute, faster than Purnell’s first bagging machine.

But, technology finally surpassed Barnes.

“This one outdoes him,” Todd Purnell said, pointing to the current machine that whips out 130 tubes per minute.

Purnell’s is proud of its wastewater treatment plant, which at one time was bigger than the city of Simpsonville’s. “The water is cleaner when it leaves than when it arrives,” Herndon boasted.

Purnell’s is also proud of its food-testing laboratory, the only one in the nation certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for trichinosis testing. Trichinosis is a disease caused by eating undercooked pork.

Brothers Al, Bob, and Fred Jr., and their brother-in-law, Tom Lincoln, took the reins of the company in 1967 from Fred Sr., who died in 1974. Lincoln died in the early 1980s, and Fred Jr. retired in 1983, leaving 76-year-old Al, whom Herndon calls “Boss Hog,” and Bob as co-owners of the company for the past 29 years.

This fall will be the 80th anniversary of the first batch of Old Folks sausage that Fred Purnell shared with a railroad co-worker in the fall of 1932.

“To us, it’s the American Dream come true,” Al wrote on the company’s website, “taking an idea, developing it and building the idea into a productive, profitable company.”