Few things say summer in Maine like red snappers from Bangor’s W.A. Bean.
By Elizabeth Peavey / Photographed by Jason P. Smith
There’s a certain crimson-red treat that signals summer in Maine like no other food. You can prepare it any number of ways, but some purists insist it must be either boiled or steamed. And sure, the meal can be messy depending on the embellishments you add, but that’s half the fun.
No, we’re not talking about lobster. The object of our attention is that other iconic Maine staple that expats crave and locals devour by the case: the red snapper hot dog — the one in the flaming-red skin.
To be fair, not everyone knows the red snapper by name, but there are few Mainers who can’t conjure at least an image of these reds devils: for sale at high school basketball games, thrown in with a clambake, sidling up to a plate of bean-hole beans, sitting in a steam bath at a convenience store, and, of course, getting the grill-mark treatment at backyard barbecues. I know one old-timer who claims these dogs are good for trolling because they don’t break up easily with the first few hits.
Red snappers have been around for the better part of a century and are the signature product of W.A. Bean & Sons, a family-run company based in Bangor for over 150 years. In addition to the in-house production of hot dogs, sausages, cured bacon, and hams, as well as such exotica as headcheese, mincemeat, and pickled tripe, it is also a purveyor of products ranging from fresh produce and dairy items to prosciutto and duck breast. But they are best known for the red snapper. You can find other red dogs on the market, but W.A. Bean is the originator and the last mass producer. Summer in Maine wouldn’t be the same without them.
The company’s Maine roots run deep, and the branches of its family tree spread wide. It was founded in 1860 by Albert Bean as A. Bean butcher shop in downtown Bangor, and a slaughterhouse and wholesale division were soon added. In 1891, Albert was joined by his son, Wesley, who took over the reins in 1899, and the company became known as W.A. Bean. Today, six of Albert’s great-great-grandchildren run the show, including Dave Bean, 58, who is the company president.
The first question that comes to mind is “Why a red hot dog?” Did something get spilled or mixed incorrectly? Is there a family secret, a great mystery? “No,” says W.A. Bean sales manager Sean Smith, seated in his office at the company’s headquarters in an industrial park on the northern outskirts of Bangor. He explains there were as many as 30 butchers in town around the time the company produced its first hot dog, in 1919, and it needed a way to stand out. “It was a marketing gimmick,” he says, “plain and simple.”
A casually dressed and enthusiastic man of 35, Smith sports a heavy dark stubble and represents the fifth generation in the Bean legacy (Dave is his stepfather). When he was in high school, he had his first job at the company in the packing room and was convinced he would not follow in his family’s footsteps. Yet two years ago, after career in marketing, he came back on board to form, as he puts it, “a sales force of one,” when the decision was made to expand the company’s market share. “For a century and a half, W.A. Bean has been doing this.” He lifts his hand and makes a lateral plane in the air. “I came back because the company is ready to do this.” He tilts his hand and continues its trajectory at an upward angle.
W.A. Bean & Sons has been at its current facility — a modest, corrugated-metal building with mismatched exterior panels — since 1968. A sign with faded red lettering announces the company’s name on the front of the building. There is no street number posted. First-timers could easily drive by the building without noticing it.
The company employs approximately 20 workers, although Smith says that number goes up in the summer. The red snapper, like so many other Bean products, is made by hand. The company locally sources as much beef and pork as it can, but there isn’t enough to keep up with demand, so much of their USDA–approved meat comes from the Midwest. All employees who work on the production side of the facility, including the president, must wear a white coat and hardhat. A USDA inspector is on site — his office is just off the aromatic spice room — to make sure all things are in compliance.
Production is reached via a series of heavy, walk-in–style doors that lead to a warren of refrigerated chambers, including a holding room for shipping, a packing room (also done by hand), and a spotless butchery. One might brace at the sight of a door opening into a hot dog-production room (you know what they say about legislation and sausage — neither are pretty to watch being made), but the scene at W.A. Bean is more “Willy Wonka” than anything else. Gleaming tubs and vats and contraptions grind and churn, while three white-coated workers man the main machine. The lights are bright and the air is surprisingly un-meaty smelling. Pure beef and pork — absolutely no fillers are used, Smith stresses — are put through a grinder and turned into strands of pink-and-beige-striped ground meat. This mixture is next fed into a machine called a chopper — a giant mixing container with a circulating paddle — to form the “batter.” The batter is then fed into a stuffer, a big metal box with a hose leading from it into the linker. At the linker, a worker applies a ribbon of natural casing onto a metal tube with a hole in the end. The batter is forced through the tube into the casing, then fed into the linker box, and from the other end emerges a chain of beige hot dogs, each one separated from the next by a little twist in the casing. They are then hung on cooking racks like curtains and put in an oven. The last step is a cooker, where red dye and food coloring is infused into the 185-degree recirculating water shower, as the dogs are brought up to their final temp and gain their rosy glow. The company makes on average 400 pounds of red snappers at a time, and 500,000 pounds per year.
Aside from its wholesale branch, the company also does a healthy business in its retail shop. Smith says their loyal customers feel a sense of community shopping there, but he also notes the public is taking more interest in where their food comes from. “People are buying and butchering whole hogs, making their own bacon,” he says. “Customers’ tastes are changing and expanding.” He says the company is keeping pace. It is looking to expand into the organic market and is partnering with local businesses. One of their most popular chicken sausages — Geaghan’s Special Reserve — is a collaboration with Bangor’s Geaghan Brothers Brewing Company. W.A. Bean is even making haggis — a savory Scottish pudding made from sheep pluck (or heart, liver, and lungs) — when they find a call for it. Their haggis was served at the Disney Pixar movie premiere dinner for Brave in Hollywood.
“We’ve never been busier,” says Smith. On the wall behind him hangs a map of Maine. “Before I got here, this was our target sales area.” He makes a small circle with Bangor at its center. “Now,” he gestures to a map showing major New England cities, “that is our target.”
But no matter how W.A. Bean & Sons continues to expand and grow, for many they will always be the home of the red snapper. “Some might call our red snappers a novelty item,” says Smith, “but to us, they’re a source of pride. We ship them all over the country, to all 50 states.”
They mostly go to former Mainers who are looking for a taste of home. “They’ll request the split-top hot dog buns to go with them, and, if we have time, we’ll go out and get a bag of Humpty Dumpty BBQ potato chips to throw in.” Smith smiles. “Now that’s a real taste of Maine.”