James Wittkopp '96: The Sausage King of Portland

By Stacey Wilson '96

First, a movie quiz: In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what name does Ferris use to get a table at the snooty French restaurant? (Hint: The guy he impersonated was the Sausage King of Chicago.)

OK, unlike some people, maybe you’ve actually accepted that the ’80s are over. No matter, because there is a new Sausage King in town: His name is James Wittkopp, the town is Portland, and he’s got the tastiest bratwurst this side of the Rhine.

Since 2001 James has been the resident sausage guru of the downtown scene, cooking up Altengartz bratwurst for the masses. Named for the ancestral German home of the Wittkopp family, Altengartz is the brainchild of James and his Wisconsin-native father, George, who have turned their secret family recipe into the Rose City’s most sought-after lunch-in-a-bun.

All natural, and hormone- and nitritefree, Altengartz pork brats are grilled and served up by James himself inside a non-descript white truck at the corner of 10th and Alder (opposite, appropriately, the Made in Oregon store). They are supremely popular among the 40 to 60 carnivores who stop by daily on foot, bike, bus, street car, light rail, and the occasional scooter.

The brats, made by Dayton Meats in Yamhill County, Ore., are available as singles for only $3, doubles for $5, as a breakfast sandwich for $3.50, or in the garlic bad-breath-for-a-day-version for $3.75. James also offers hearty sides and beverages including sauerkraut, Caesar salad, and espresso. (Where else but in the Northwest could you get a Raspberry Truffle Mocha with a bratwurst?)

James says he couldn’t be happier with his job and doesn’t mind working six days a week, often in extreme heat, rain, or snow. “What can I say? I love people. I love brats. And it beats sitting at a desk all day.”

Born at Duke University hospital in North Carolina in 1974, James grew up in West Linn, Ore. With a psychiatrist father, a pediatrician mother, and the requisite knack for chemistry and math, he planned to take the path of the pre-med student when he got to Puget Sound in 1992. He double-majored in chemistry and economics and, despite the built-in distractions of fraternity life as an SAE, did well enough on the MCATS to be accepted by the Oregon Health Sciences University. But James began having second thoughts. He decided to defer his acceptance to OHSU and reconsider his goals. “After taking Health Economics at UPS, and seeing my parents work over the years, I was a bit disgruntled about going into a practice,” says James. “I was disgusted with the system and didn’t know if I really wanted to invest all those years into becoming a part of it.”

A month after graduation in 1996, James moved back to Portland and found himself in the restaurant world, working at four different companies. His and his father’s dream of selling the family brats on a commercial basis had always been in the back of his mind; they were the most enduring souvenirs of his adolescence. “We had a guy making them for us in Wisconsin since 1977,” says James. “Growing up, our freezer was always stocked with brats for holidays, barbecues, and football games. I would even go home at lunch in high school and grill some up for my buddies.” (As this writer who sat behind the Sausage King in 12th grade English can attest, the legend of the Wittkopp brat was alive and well at West Linn High School.)

After making his bones in the lower rungs of restaurant life, James and father George committed themselves to the commercial business of brats in 2001 and have been slowly but surely earning a reputation ever since. Altengartz are now served on the German-heavy Adidas campus, vegetarian-heavy Reed College campus, and in loads of beer-soaked sportsbars and saloons around town.

This year has been especially busy, with James schlepping his white truck to events from the St. Paul Rodeo to Gay Pride weekend. Altengartz has also become an official Internet destination for online shoppers, with overnight delivery available for all you East Coasters. Check out www.altengartz.com for ordering info, recipes, and vibrant color photos of the Wittkopp wares. (Warning: May cause mouth watering.)

James says he’s targeting Trader Joe’s for possible wholesale opportunities, which he says would be “a cash cow” (or in this case, a cash pig), and in the meantime keeping up with customer trends at lunch time. “We’ve been doing a lot without buns lately,” he says. “That’s cool. I’m glad we’re Atkins friendly. Now we just need to get our vegetarian recipe figured out.”

(Movie Quiz Answer: Abe Froman was the Sausage King of Chicago. But you already knew that.)