There was a time when a trip to the local meat locker was part of a weekly routine. The butcher often knew every customer by name and could offer help with a selection or two.
Centralized meat cutting all but eliminated the service in many communities. However, as producer Colleen Bradford Krantz discovered, the local locker has never been completely cut-out of the picture.
For decades, small butcher shops and meat lockers were a staple of American life. These mom-and-pop establishments began disappearing, however, as more families began to buy their meat at one-stop grocery stores.
Chris Cramer, Elmwood Meat Plant, Elmwood, Neb.: “We’ve seen a fair amount of them disappear. They are older facilities and when the current owners retire or move on - or through lack of interest in doing the work or the building being old or maybe not up to date with its equipment, the standards the government likes to see in a building - they close down.”
But that downward trend may be slowing or even reversing. Last year, Midwest grocery chain Fareway Stores opened a brand-new, old-concept meat shop in Omaha, and expects to open another in the fall in Lincoln, Nebraska. The stores, considerably smaller than its typical grocery, aim to capitalize on both the company’s reputation for quality meat and nostalgia for old butcher shops.
Reynolds Cramer, CEO, Fareway Stores: “I hope the customer coming to this Fareway Meat Market has the experience of once again the old-style meat markets from back in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s - the way the old Fareways were from the standpoint of seeing their butcher at the meat block. But …we’ve taken that feeling and we’ve modernized it.”
Omaha’s Fareway Meat Market, the company’s first, has a meat counter that is 16-feet longer than those in its typical store. It also features fresh seafood and grass-fed beef.
And while larger metro areas such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have new shops where the meat cutters like to call themselves “artisanal butchers,” there are others scattered throughout the nation where that kind of work never went out of style - even if those butchers don’t apply trendy lingo to what they do.
Chris Cramer, Elmwood Meat Plant, Elmwood, Neb.: “Hey, Mike. You can edit this out, right? Artisan butchers? ... Guess I better Google that.”
Although Chris Cramer – not related to Fareway’s CEO – would never consider labeling himself this way, he is about as much an “artisan” – a marketing term that hints at a craftsman cutting by hand - as a butcher get. Cramer is a fourth-generation butcher who has run his own shop in Elmwood, Nebraska since 1981. His great grandfather was a butcher in Denmark. His grandfather, who owned a horse-slaughter plant in Papillion, Nebraska, told stories of how some ate horse meat – normally used in dog food – during the lean years of World War II. Cramer’s late father ran several butcher shops in his lifetime, in both Nebraska and Kansas.
In the late 1920s, the first meat lockers were opened in the U.S., and farmers, or others, rented frozen-food storage to preserve the meat they had butchered.
Chris Cramer, Elmwood Meat Plant, Elmwood, Neb.: “From the early days, the settlers so to speak, did the butchering on the farm. They would cut ice from ponds and take it into their cellar, cover it with hay and they would have cold meat until July in the right conditions. And it moved on from there with electricity and you had your small locker plants like this start up.”
By 1940, almost half of U.S. homes had a refrigerator. Eventually, demand for the lockers fell off. Many of the surviving shops diversified by adding butchering services.
According to Census data, a large decline occurred between 1992 and 2012, when 45 percent of remaining U.S. meat shops closed their doors.
More than 300 miles to the northeast, in southern Minnesota, is another meat locker that survived the decades when so many others shuttered. The 81-year-old Conger Meat Market was opened in 1935 by a Czechoslovakian immigrant and butcher named Ray “Butch” Bohonek. An area farmer had convinced Bohonek to leave the Lake Mills, Iowa butcher shop where he was working to open his own in Conger, Minnesota.
Milford Bohonek, who ran the operation with his wife, Beverly, from 1959 to 2000, says his father built the shop on skids, thinking he could have the building dragged to a new location if Conger let him down.
Milford Bohonek, Conger, Minn.: “There wasn’t a basement put in there until I don’t know how many years afterward when they finally lifted up the building and put a basement under it.”
The Bohonek family ran Conger Meat Market for 70 years before selling it 13 years ago to current owners, Jeremy and Darcy Johnson.
Darcy Johnson, co-owner, Conger Meat Market, Conger, Minn.: “What we originally talked about was to leave everything the same. We didn’t want to change anything. We didn’t want to change the recipes, or the tried-and-true traditions of the Conger Meat Market. They worked for 80 years so that’s not something we were going to change.”
The couple has tried to keep the big things - like “Butch” Bohonek’s traditional recipes from Czechoslovakia - and little things - like handing out samples from the meat smoker to kids – while making plans for future expansion.
Darcy Johnson, co-owner, Conger Meat Market, Conger, Minn.: “We thought it was a great opportunity to buy an established business and be self-employed.”
Currently, the meat sold in their small retail shop comes from larger federally inspected meat-packing plants that are scattered throughout the nation. They, like many smaller state-inspected meat lockers, are limited to connecting livestock producers with buyers looking for a custom-cut quarters or halves of beef, pork or venison. They also are restricted to in-state sales.
Darcy Johnson, co-owner, Conger Meat Market, Conger, Minn.: “Our job is easy because we are surrounded by so many successful farmers. And the quality of meat that’s coming in is just second-to-none, and the customers are happy when they walk through the door because they know they are going to fill their freezer with locally raised, good-quality beef or pork.
This fall, Darcy and Jeremy Johnson hope to open a small, federally inspected meat-packing plant in an old creamery next door. Because they will be federally inspected, they will be able to sell locally raised meat in smaller amounts directly to customers. The designation further allows for sales across state lines.
So far, the creamery they are renovating for the Conger Meat Market expansion does not appear to feature any skids.
Darcy Johnson, co-owner, Conger Meat Market, Conger, Minn.: “I think the Conger Meat Market will be here for another 80 years.”
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