The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
The next time you stack up some slices of Two Brothers baked ham on bread and slather it with mayo and mustard, spare a kind thought for Joe Heinen – butcher, innovator and founder of Heinen’s in 1933.
Remarkably enough, that ham you’re enjoying today comes from the same recipe that Joe developed nearly 80 years ago.
The History of Two Brothers Deli Meats: Blazing a New Trail in the Grocery Store
The story of Two Brothers deli meats began on Taylor Road in Cleveland Heights. That’s according to Tom Heinen, Joe’s grandson and co-owner of today’s Heinen’s, along with his brother, Jeff. (Two brothers. Get it?) Tom has been intimately involved in the Two Brothers deli meat program since its beginning and is a genial historian of the product line.
“It was the 1940s, and the Taylor Road store was my grandfather’s second one,” Tom recalls. “At the end of the Meat Department, he put in a smokehouse, which was a truly unusual feature for a food market. He hired a German sausage maker, put him in charge, and they produced all kinds of lunch meats, especially ham and bacon.”
That smokehouse remained in service until the 1960s, when a new warehouse and central distribution facility was built, including two large, state-of-the-art Alkar smokehouses. “We only had four stores at that time, yet here we were producing our own hams and bacons,” Tom marvels. In fact, the only deli meat the store didn’t make was dry sausages, like salami.
By 1972, Heinen’s was operating seven stores, supported by 330,000-square-feet of manufacturing and warehouse space. “It was incredibly unique for a small grocery chain like ours to have all this infrastructure in place,” Tom says. “But we believed then, as we do today, that the more you can do for yourself, the better off you are, especially in terms of controlling quality and distribution.”
In the 2000s, the failure of the warehouse’s vintage drainage systems lead to outsourcing some of their lunch meats. Among Heinen’s new partners was Philadelphia manufacturer, Leidy’s. Since that time, Leidy’s has remained a steadfast part of the Two Brothers story, scrupulously maintaining Joe Heinen’s original recipes. “If you taste our hams or our bacon now,” says Tom, “they taste exactly like they did when my grandfather was making them – and I should know: I grew up on the stuff!”
Two Brothers Deli Meats Today: Innovation and Excellence
When Heinen’s built a brand-new manufacturing facility in 2017, many of the deli meats came back in house. Currently, the roster includes uncured corned beef, roast beef, uncured beef pastrami, turkey off the bone, uncured smoked turkey and grilled and marinated turkey.
“I honestly don’t think there’s another grocer in the region that has their own in-house facilities,” Tom concludes. “It’s both the perpetuation of my grandfather’s legacy, and a way for us to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace, with these unique, high-quality products.”
Still, there have been changes over the years, Tom admits. For one, turkey wasn’t an especially popular lunch meat in his grandfather’s day. Now it’s one of the deli’s best sellers. That’s especially true for the pre-packaged, pre-priced “grab-and-go” offerings. Launched during the pandemic, the grab-and-go goods now account for 40% of all Heinen’s deli meat and cheese sales. And thanks to new re-sealable packaging, you can count on your selection remaining fresh and wholesome until the very last slice.
New cooking innovations have also come to the fore, Tom says, including sous vide. “It’s a marvelous process of cooking in a bag, under vacuum, in a water bath. The great thing about it – well, actually there are several great things about it – but No. 1 is that the meat is always cooked in its own natural juices. And No. 2, the temperature of the water sets the temperature of the meat, meaning the meat can never be overcooked. It’s a great way to ensure a consistently moist, tender product.”
Also new – at least relatively speaking – is the actual Two Brothers branding, which emerged within the past decade. “An industry colleague came down from Michigan and wanted to see what we were doing,” Tom recalls. “When we got to the Deli Department, we mentioned that, even though we had been making an outstanding product, we had been really struggling with appropriate branding for our made-in-house deli meats. He was the one who suggested branding them as Two Brothers products – and, you know, I think it has really worked out well.”
This, despite the fact that both Tom and Jeff initially found the self-referential branding to be a little disconcerting. “Don’t get me wrong: We are very proud of our company,” Tom says. “But we would much rather have our associates in the forefront, not ourselves. Still, Two Brothers has been a very successful brand for us, and it’s probably one of the most recognized things we do at Heinen’s. And I really think it has helped set our deli apart.”
What Makes Heinen’s Deli Meats the Best on the Market?
In many cases, quality can be measured by what’s not in the meats. “Uncured,” for instance, means that the meat is processed without the addition of artificial nitrates and nitrites.
Nor do any of the lunch meats contain binders, which are gelatins used to glue one piece of muscle to another. “If there’s a downside to the consumer of not using binders,” says Tom, “it’s that the slices, especially the turkey, can sort of fall apart when they’re cut. But the upside is you aren’t getting an artificial ingredient. All you’re getting is turkey that’s been cooked in its natural form.”
Preservatives, artificial colors, MSG and antibiotics are other things you won’t find in Two Brothers offerings. “There is no Two Brothers product that would not be considered ‘clean,’ as far as artificial additives go,” Tom says. “That’s a big deal for both us and our customers.”
And finally, just as in Joe Heinen’s day, no water is added to any Two Brothers hams, another important point of differentiation between Heinen’s and its competitors. “We are probably the only grocer who sells a deli ham that’s non-water-added,” Tom says. “Ours is just ham and its natural juices. That means you’re getting as good a natural flavor as possible, and a wonderful texture, completely different than a rubbery, water-added ham. It’s just an excellent product.”
These days, while he still loves Heinen’s ham, Tom also enjoys the Two Brothers turkey off the bone.
“Yeah, turkey and Swiss cheese on toasted bread with butter,” he says, “with a little yellow mustard … It’s really, really good.”
Of course it is. You’d expect nothing less from Two Brothers.