Stop by Ricci’s Italian Sausage in McKees Rocks this holiday season and you might be served by an orthopedic surgeon or an attorney.

The lawyer is Ernest A. Ricci, 30, great-grandson of Ricci’s founder, the original Ernest Ricci, while the surgeon-in-training is Gianni Ricci, 27, Ernest A.’s younger brother.

The two sons’ presence at the tiny shop in Kenmawr Plaza on Pine Hollow Road may be all the explanation necessary for why Ricci’s Italian Sausage thrives when an estimated 70 percent of family businesses either fail or are sold before the second generation takes over.

“We don’t have titles here. Everybody just pitches in,” said the boys’ father, Ernest B. Ricci, 61, a third-generation self-declared master sausage maker and owner of Ricci’s Italian Sausage.

While the special seasoning recipe is kept locked away, the reason for the durability of the business may be no secret, suggested Kelly Hunt, Pittsburgh district director for the Small Business Administration, which named Ricci’s “Family Owned Business of the Year” in 2010.

“The No. 1 thing I have found is that there has to be someone in the family in each generation that shares that passion, and not just the passion, but who has the skill set,” she said.

Since its founding in 1945, Ricci’s Italian Sausage has survived four moves, landing at its current location in 2014. What hasn’t changed is the seasoning recipe — a secret mix of pork, paprika and various spices that has been handed down from Ernest to Ernest since 1945. While consistency is good, Ms. Hunt said, one pitfall that family businesses can fall into is a reluctance to change the way things are done.

“If you look at businesses that survive over generations, there has to be some innovation. There has to be an evolution in the company.” For Ricci’s, the big evolutionary step was launching a prepared food business selling hot sandwiches over the counter and catering holiday and other special occasions. That now represents nearly half of its retail sales.

The Ricci family will tell you their secret is that special seasoning mix used in their hand-mixed, preservative-free sausage — a creation of founder Ernest Sr. after he and wife Sylvia migrated from the Abruzzo region of Italy east of Rome. The recipe is known only to family members and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After more than 70 years in business, outsiders may wonder if the Ricci’s Italian Sausage family legacy is in jeopardy with the latest generation consisting of Ernest A. the attorney and Dr. Gianni, both pursuing their own high-powered careers.

A succession plan, Ernest B. admitted, is “a question we wrestle with every day.”

“They said, ‘You can always come back to the business,’” Ernest A. said.

But will they, even if it means managing the business while keeping up a busy legal or medical practice?

“I’m not sure,” replied the elder son, saying such a decision is still years away. “Part of me would say, ‘Yes, maybe.’ It’s something in your blood and it’s something I’ve known my entire life.”

Then the young lawyer, who is engaged to be married in the spring, added: “One of the reasons I would want to keep it is the thought of not being able to share with my children that this is what my family makes.”

Source: Twedt, Steve, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 24, 2016;