The Past is your lesson;
The Present is your gift;
The Future is your motivation.
— Zig Ziglar
These are fitting words for Tony and Heidi Paskewitz, owners of Prairie Meats, Inc. — Olivia, Minn.’s newest business enterprise.
What led to the creation of this bustling, inviting new meat store on U.S. Highway 212 in Renville County? “I grew up in the Vesta, Minn. area where my dad fattened cattle, my grandpa fattened cattle,” explained Tony, 46. “My first beef experience was when I was 14. I finished out a Red Angus beef heifer … just fattened it up and hauled it to market.”
The Paskewitzs’ business card sets the stage. It reads, “Prairie Meats — Federal Inspected — Retail Meats — Custom Butchering — Traeger Grills — Whole or Half Beef/Pork/Lamb Available — Private label.”
“Follow me!” Tony said as I entered the store. We walked a few steps outside the west wall of his north/south building, then inside to his cubicle office. From there I could see Tony’s crew actively engaged in the incredible variety of work — commencing at 7 a.m. and continuing until 4 p.m. (The retail store closes at 5 p.m.) I asked Tony how he and his wife got into this very demanding business?
“I just got tired of doing the same old thing,” Tony admitted. “Now days with major packers pretty much controlling the meat industry, it’s harder for us small guys. Getting into private labeling became my ambition. We started out with a butcher/locker service in Danube — mostly doing just quarters and halves (both beef and pork).
“We wanted to get into USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) status, which demanded considerable remodeling of our Danube facility. But that was going to be too much work. So instead we ended up moving to Olivia and building a new plant.”
Was it difficult to get USDA certified and obtain “federally inspected” status?“Very!” Tony quickly replied. “The government makes it sound a lot easier than it actually is. It takes a lot of dedication and hard work. My wife did paper work for probably two-and-a-half years; then about one-and-a-half years to build our facility. Suffice to say, lots of work; but I could sense family excitement pulling our ambition into reality. And here we are!”
According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota is one of 27 states currently operating USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection programs. These establishments can slaughter animals and process products to sell, distribute and wholesale to any entity within the state of Minnesota.
And that mean retailers, restaurants, distributors, schools, food shelves and other entities can buy and serve meat and poultry from any Minnesota establishments participating in the E2 program. Products from a Minnesota E2 plant contain a State of Minnesota symbol with the phrase, “inspected and passed,” and the establishment number.
The Minnesota E2 program allows smaller slaughter and processing establishments to expand their marking potential, work with smaller business within their community, and provide a service to the farmers in their area. It is also a very important part of strengthening and diversifying local food systems, local economic development, and helping consumers learn to know their local farmers.
Tony said maintaining the business and serving customers requires a lot of help. “That’s why the commitment of my son, Kyle, 23, and daughter, Tami, 21, were so vital. If it wasn’t for their dedication, we wouldn’t be here today. I pretty much manage the overall business; but day-to-day operations are Kyle’s responsibilities. And we have managers of each work area handling their daily accomplishments. Teamwork is the essence of this entire operation.”
Prairie Meats employs 15 workers. “The USDA start is 7 a.m. till 3:30 p.m.,” said Tony, “so we have to be done cutting and packaging all private label products by that time. After that, it’s clean-up work and getting ready for the next day. We never know on any given day how many USDA guys might be here; but on slaughter days, there’s always a USDA inspector on hand. Other days they might just stop by for a shorter time and move on. We never know their schedules … we just consider them an important part of our total team. They’re checking paper work, procedures, sanitation, cleanliness and labeling. There are many, many details when your products carry the USDA label. And that’s okay with us — and our customers too.
The USDA inspectors show up for slaughter three days a week. Prairie Meats does beef on Tuesdays and Thursdays, hogs on Wednesdays. They will typically process six beef and 10 to 12 hogs per processing day. Private labeling for a given customer takes a bit longer due to vacuum packaging, private labeling, etc.
Tony gave a quick rundown on private labelling. “Our niche marketing provides opportunity for local producers to sell their own critters into their own market,” he said. “I recall my Dad’s cattle feeding days. Take pride in what you do; then get whatever the packers decide to give you.
“We like to line up our critters three to four weeks ahead of actual processing. This means booking animals from specific producers for their own customers. Yes, this ‘private label’ business for specific customers gets a bit complex. But we don’t mind. Customers appreciate the service and it’s key to our growing business too.
“Our biggest challenge is using the whole animal,” Tony went on to say. “For example, if we’re filling a big order for a restaurant wanting only steaks, we’ve got lots more carcass to handle. And that’s one big reason for the retail counter up front. Bridget Engstrom and Cassie Zamerron manages that end of the business. We’ve got about 160 different products up there.”
“However, for special orders — such as restaurants, community feeds, or special family events, we can also purchase direct from an area packer — then package as needed. So combined with our own in-house processing, boxed beef from area packers enables us to fill virtually any demand.”
For the most part, Red Angus beef reigns at Prairie Meats. “That’s what we mostly feed out on the farm,” Tony said. “But we do Blacks too because there are lots of them around. But I like the Red Angus. They marble well, are calmer cattle and just nice to work with.”
Lambs and goats might soon be added to the agenda of Prairie Meats. “We’re always looking at other options,” Tony stated. “We could slaughter and package on Monday without interrupting our regular beef and pork schedules.”
With a chuckle, Heidi added, “Tony says he lets his mind rest occasionally, but it seems he’s usually got something cooking up there too!”
“Most of what I learned has been from the school of hard knocks … learning from mistakes as they say. But it’s been rewarding too! If I were asked ‘would I do it again?’ I’d probably say no. However I enjoy this work. I’m proud of our team. We have fun together. And we’re so pleased with the growing amount of highway traffic that now makes Prairie Meats a regular stopping place.
“We have goals each month. Reach our goals and everyone shares the goodies. As you can see, great employees are the life-blood of our business. That’s why spiffs are important to each and every employee. I view Prairie Meats as their business too.”
Heidi shares the ‘total team’ joy of this operation. “I’m very satisfied. It’s going good. We’ve got a great team. Each one of them and their families are important to us. There’s lots of comradery and that’s what makes coming to work each day a treat!”
“Customers start showing up just as soon as we open our doors,” commented Cassie Zamerron of the retail counter at Prairie Meats. “We’re not open on weekends — that’s Tony’s way of being fair to all of us employees … weekend family time for us too.
“And if we don’t have a particular product that customer is looking for, we recommend a substitute and that usually is okay. Once folks get into the store, they are amazed at the variety of products — be that fresh meats, frozen meats, and our always-popular smoked barbequed beef sticks. Ground beef and ground pork are versatile….you can readily intermix the two. Like for graduation parties, if you want the most bang for your buck, I often suggest ground pork. Its cheaper and tastes just as good.”
Zamerron definitely agrees meat shoppers — especially ladies — are getting more particular about their meat purchases. She also thinks seeing so many different meats once they step inside the store impacts their decisions. “We women simply want our meals to taste the best. And that usually starts with the meats.”