Sausage salesman ‘G.I. Joe’ Perl’s decades-long quest to bring meat to the masses

Move over Abe Froman. Sausage salesman G.I. Joe has spent decades slicing and selling his wares to patrons at neighborhood bars across the region, working 16-hour days to bring meat to the masses.

CHICAGO — A few regulars bask under the bar's neon lights, resting their eyes in their drinks or on a TV mounted behind the bar. The conversation is stilted but familiar.

Then the door opens and a burly man in a long, white coat strides in, a metal bucket clanging at his side. Sharing a nod with the bartender, he sets the pail on the bar and sets up shop. Laying down paper towels, he pulls a series of sausages from the bucket, peels back their plastic wrapping, and methodically slices them. Tossing a few slices of each on a paper plate, he passes them on to one customer after another, making easy conversation as he moves down the line.

"You guys ready for some snacks?" he asks one group. "There you go. Share your meat, you know how to do it."

Pick any neighborhood bar within driving distance of Chicago — the kind of place that prefers cash and stocks plenty of Old Style behind the bar — and this scene has likely played out there, as uncommon as it may seem. Over a career spanning more than 40 years, "G.I. Joe" Perl has done this thousands of times.

"My father was Carl Perl, the happy sausage man. He would travel too, all over. That's how I got into the spirit of traveling," Perl says. "I kept the tradition going on."

As a salesman with Perl's All-American Sausage Co., Joe Perl visits bars across the region selling everything from sausages to steaks to hot sauces. If it's on the menu, it's stocked somewhere in the American flag-painted walk-in mounted in the bed of his pickup.

"Charceuterie, whatever you want to call it, these new terms, we call it sausage," Perl said.

After picking up wares from the company's Lake Zurich, IL store, Perl heads in a direction and criss-crosses between local establishments as he goes, sampling and selling along the way. It's a long haul. Working 16 or 18 hour days is not uncommon, nor are stops in Indiana, Wisconsin or Michigan.

"I have an agenda, I try to take care of as many people as I can," Perl says.

He has his regulars, and people who call his "sausage emergency" number to request a special delivery. On one particular day in March, Perl made his way east towards Chicago's Northwest Side, stopping in at a biker bar, a dart bar, a bowling alley and a neighborhood bar before trekking down to the late bars near Midway to sell to some workers he says are expecting him there.

"People are happy to see me, I'm like a breath of fresh air to them," Perl said. "They're sitting in the bar and contemplating things, I walk in and usually brighten their day, unless they're too bombed out of their mind to realize what's going on."

At one bar, a customer recognizes G.I. Joe the second he comes in the door, a familiar face he's seen around the bars for decades. They catch up briefly, as the man asks if Perl has any sausages for Dyngus Day.

"I like to be with these people too because I've grown up and they've grown up with me, some of the older people like that," Perl says. "Now some of their kids have stepped up too and I'm getting to know their children."

Working such long days means Perl also stops into the kinds of places that have patrons during the day. Biker bars. VFW Halls (he's a veteran himself). Dive bars catering to third-shift workers. Like Perl, some of their patrons are a bit rough around the edges. But he says, people are people, and they'll treat you with respect if you do the same in return. Still, working in certain types of places has its own hazards.

"I know the low places, the high places, the places you don't want to be and the places you should be, so I get around all over, I've seen all kinds of stuff," Perl says. "I've seen a few beer bottles broken over people's heads too, almost had that happen to me."

While Perl is carrying on a family tradition, it may be one that ends with him. His kids don't seem to want to work the kind of hours he does. Over the years, he says they've often asked why he has to be away for so many hours in the day. And the "shot and a beer" type bars he frequents seem to be going away as well.

"A lot of transactions would happen in those bars, though. People would bring in things. There was Blind Robins, pickled pigs feet, ham hocks. There was things you don't see anymore. They're all gone now."

A few more samples, blue jokes and (preferably cash) transactions later, Perl loads his knives and sausages back into his pail and heads out to his truck. Time to get back on the road.

"Have sausage, will travel," he says.