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State meat markets see explosive growth as pandemic fears rise

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
The Lodi Sausage Company and Meat Market has been a fixture on the main street in Lodi for 90 years. It is among the 200 or so local meat markets that have seen a surge in business since the pandemic and its effects hit. Co-owner Mike Clark says his business is up about 50%.

LODI - While stay-at-home orders and coronavirus quarantines have been bad for large swaths of agriculture, they haven’t hurt Wisconsin’s local meat markets, where sales have grown explosively. For some local butcher shops the demand has been almost more than they can handle.

Mike Clark, owner of Lodi Sausage Company in Lodi figures that sales through his retail meat market are up 50% over what would be normal.

“We feel very lucky because we’ve been very busy. People are eating at home and shopping less often so they are buying more at any one time,” he told Wisconsin State Farmer.

The local meat market has 10 beef on order where they would normally have one or two on order and are currently booking out into September for custom slaughtering. Their business processes beef, lamb and pork as well as venison and he hopes this marketplace helps provide local farmers with an outlet for their livestock. “We’ve been running seven days a week for five weeks now.”

The Lodi meat market has been a fixture for 90 years on the main street of the Columbia County village. Mike’s dad Larry Clark ran the business for 30 years and Mike came back into it 12 years ago; now they operate it jointly.

They are known for their sausage kitchen, which is still busy making deer sausage right now. They have also moved into online sales. “We are doing more of that as people are stuck at home,” says Mike. “It’s not huge and one part of our business — catering — isn’t active at all. But our retail business has been super busy. We are usually not very busy this time of year.”

Luckily, he said, the state’s many local meat markets are considered “essential” under the state-mandated quarantine. Clark is so busy that he’s had to take on a couple extra workers. “I’ve got two college kids that are home and a nephew coming in to help us with some of the extra work.” One of his regular workers decided to stay home to stay safe from possible exposure to coronavirus.

Mike Clark

Mike said his dad, who is 74, recently returned from Florida and Mike won’t let him come in to help. “He’s very frustrated but we have people in and out of here and I want to keep him safe.”

The Lodi business has seen a big uptick in people who are buying halves of beef or hogs. “Some people are scared that plants will shut down and they won’t be able to get what they want. I think another part of it is that they don’t want to go out as much and they just want to have the food at home,” he adds.

For Terry Prem, who co-owns Prem Meats with his brother Marty in Spring Green, the recent months “have been a roller coaster” and their retail shop on Highway 14 has never been busier. “It has been tough to keep up.”

Terry recently got an email from someone in New Jersey looking for meat because they told him their butcher shops are cleaned out. “It’s a weird market. I’ve never seen anything like it. We’ve been lucky to keep enough meat in the market.”

They are fortunate, he said, to work with a number of local farmers who raise livestock and it’s a win-win for both sides of that equation.

“Typically April is a really slow month in our business. Last year we tried to run specials and it didn’t really increase business all that much. This year, we can’t keep up,” Terry said. “Our business is four times what it normally is.

“Our regular customers are buying their normal things but we’ve had new customers from Madison and even Milwaukee come out and buy a lot,” he said. From their location in southwest Wisconsin they can get customers from a 150-mile radius and often have consumers from Illinois and Iowa.

The business was started by their parents as a second income with a small shop in the 1980s. After the sons took over, they built a new facility in 2012 and have since added on twice. They sell fresh meat, seafood and liquor and have invested in a mobile slaughter truck because they don’t have a slaughterhouse as part of their brick-and-mortar shop.

Terry said they worked to get state food safety officials to certify their mobile-slaughter truck. It’s a 28-foot refrigerated truck that was customized to their specifications and meets the same ventilation, hand-washing and food safety requirements as other state-inspected shops have in their stationary slaughterhouses.

The Prems schedule the harvest of animals where the meat will not be for sale — because it’s going back to the owners of the animal — for certain days of the week and in those cases state inspectors aren’t required. When they are doing cattle or hogs from which the meat will be sold in their store, they schedule them together. State inspectors meet them and supervise the work. They work with inspectors three days a week in various regions of the state.

He admits it “was a process” to get the state to certify the truck, which happened three or four years ago. But now, because they have that truck, they do not have the limitation of other small state meat plants. Some of them only slaughter one day a week. At some of those shops, customers may now have to wait up to a year to get their animals slaughtered. “With our mobile unit, we can go seven days a week if we need to,” Terry said.

The owners of Lodi Sausage Company have had to pick up extra help to handle the high demand from customers who want to buy local and buy larger quantities of meat to have on hand at home. It's a trend seen all over Wisconsin since the pandemic hit.

Once the animal is harvested at the farm, the Prems take it back to their facility for aging and cutting. “This is the way they do it in a lot of places out West,” he said. “We had the idea because it can be difficult for people to round up a trailer and load their meat animal to haul it in somewhere.” They have used their truck to process the usual livestock but also elk, bison and goats.

Today, with most restaurants shuttered due to quarantines, it is almost an “upside down” market, he said, with higher-end cuts of meat going into the grinder. “I never thought I’d be putting top sirloin into hamburger, but hamburger is what people want and that’s what we’re doing. It’s all about supply and demand. There’s no market for beef tenderloins right now.”

Their current customers are placing high demand on what are normally the “cheaper cuts” and are purchasing thousands of pounds of hamburger every week from the family’s shop.

Terry said the Spring Green area experiences a lot of tourist traffic during the summer months, with visitors coming from Chicago and Milwaukee to attractions like American Players Theater and House on the Rock. He isn’t sure what will happen this summer — if there will be tourists or if those attractions will be open.

Same all over

Jeff Swenson, the Livestock and Meat Specialist with Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said that the picture is pretty much the same all over Wisconsin. He’s in charge of programs that affect Wisconsin’s 200 or so state-inspected meat plants.

“Initially we saw consumers were really after ground beef, so much so that butcher shops had to suspend almost everything else to grind beef,” he said. “People seem to be comfortable cooking with ground beef, sausage and chicken breasts.

“The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association found that most people don’t know what they’re having for supper at 4:30 p.m. but ground beef is something they can take from a frozen state to a meal in pretty short order and they are comfortable with it,” he added.

Many of the small butcher shops in Wisconsin are finding that people like shopping there because they can get questions answered and the crowds are smaller, Swenson said. “Some of our butcher shops have instituted curbside pickup or ordering outside the door to keep customers and employees safer.”

The Lodi Sausage Company has built a reputation for fine meat products and has won many awards over the decades it has been in business in this Columbia County community.

Swenson feels that another reason there’s more traffic in the local butcher shops is an increasing interest among consumers in knowing where their food comes from. “Our local meat markets were advised a couple of months ago by the American Association of Meat Processors that they would be seeing customers they’ve never seen before and that they would be wise to take the time to develop a relationship with them and build a customer that’s going to come back. It’s very different from a grocery store.”

Typically, he said, April is a pretty slow month for local butcher shops and owners generally use that time to plan ahead for the grilling season. They aren’t seeing anything like that kind of down-time this spring.

Rick Reams, who owns and operates RJ’s Meats in Hudson, said “it has been a whole new business the last six weeks.” Besides already being “notoriously” clean in their processing facility and retail shop because of constant inspections, they have taken cleaning to a whole new level.

New retail practices

His store has instituted online ordering and curbside pickup and is limiting the number of people who can come into the store at any one time. “Overall we are stepping up to keep our customers and our most valuable asset — our employees — safe,” he said. “When I’m holding back customers to keep a limited number in the store I’m talking to them and answering their questions.”

Reams is also president of the American Association of Meat Processors. He’s been in the business for 40-plus years since he started working at the Hudson butcher shop in high school. When the owner wanted to sell it, some 30-plus years ago, he bought it and now operates it with help from his wife, sons and a nephew. “It’s really a family business. Just like farmers, we do it because we love it,” he said.

Reams said he knows from talking to other state butcher shops that they are booking out eight to 10 months for custom slaughtering — some are close to a year out.

In terms of recent weeks’ business, he has had to limit customers’ purchases of ground beef and shorten the store’s business hours to give employees the rest they need.

One innovative way to serve customers has been a meat vending machine outside the store where people can buy products like snack sticks and smoked brats. “We’re trying to find innovative ways to serve our customers. We have seen people use the vending machine even during business hours simply because that limits their contact with other people.”

Some safety protocols have been implemented — Plexiglas shields between customers and workers and face masks and gloves for his employees. He was able to source the masks but is limited to purchasing 30 per day. When a hand-sanitizing station he wanted was backordered by three weeks, he found one that wasn’t being used in a shuttered business and brought that one on board.

“I really spend 25-30 percent of my day trying to scrounge those kinds of things for this new reality in our business,” Reams said.