‘A Cut Above’ in Kansas

by Steve Krut
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A kid in a candy store is one thing, but put John Suman in an unfinished building in a newly built retail strip and he can turn a dream into reality. Suman is a life-long meat man who knows how to earn a dollar and have a blast in the process.

His fledgling retail meat store, A Cut Above Natural Meats, is located in a not-so sleepy suburb of Kansas City in the growing community of Shawnee, Kan., and the shop’s rapid growth is nothing short of dazzling. His concept is very basic: quality, allnatural meats and an eye-popping array of quality sausages.

Instant hit
Growing at a clip of up to 33 percent monthly, the concept has been well accepted since the company opened in late November 2009.

“We offer what people want, not what we want to sell,” he says. “Our philosophy is to offer a great variety but put out a little of everything, but not too much at one time. We might make over 100 different sausage products, and at any time there are at least 35 on display. This also helps product turnover and keeps things fresh.”

When John and his wife, Diane, were on vacation in Colorado four years ago, they were sitting around an openpit fire when he threw out the idea of opening his own meat store. Diane told her husband, who has 31 years of meat experience under his belt, that working for others was not good enough.

“That was until we were about three minutes from home and she said let’s think it through and write out a business plan,” John recalls. “We both had a belief in all-natural, no-growthstimulant, no hormone-treated meat and no sub-therapeutic antibiotic programs. We liked the idea and spent a lot of time thinking it through.

“Not too long after that, we found a newly built, unfinished building three minutes from our home. We realized that this was in a great area of potential growth and went ahead. Diane chose the décor and I handled the layout and design. Things were all set to open by Thanksgiving of last year. But contractor delays, coolingsystem problems and other scheduling problems pushed us back at the start. We finally opened the doors near the end of the month.”

John’s background includes working for no-frills box stores like Food 4 Less in the San Francisco Bay area, Dahl’s Foods, Price Chopper, Hen House Market and even five years as a manager for Whole Foods in the Kansas City area. He knew the demographics of his hometown area and targeted his offerings to middle- to upper-income, middle-age to elderly families.

The store specializes in natural products, including high-end, Choice grade vintage beef, Wagyu Akaushi Kobe, grass-fed buffalo, New Zealand spring lamb, Canadian veal, free-range chickens carrying label claims like “source-verified,” humanely raised and animals fed a strictly vegetarian diet.

“This decision was based on the fact that while growth stimulants may result in 25 percent greater efficiency, it wound up as meat that was not as tender or tasty as we wanted to offer,” John says.

This precept is so instilled that in the store’s 1,800-sq.-ft. retail space, most of which is sales area, even the charcoal they sell is of the “all-natural lump” variety.

Successful sales
“We wanted to be competitive on pricing,” he continues, “and I think we’ve accomplished that with the hand-cut fresh meats. But the sausage area is where we offer our customers a real experience. Most have never tried a black bean lime and tequila chicken sausage or seen a roasted chipotle pepper pork sausage with cherries product, or even our Philly Beef cheese steak sausage. That’s where the sampling comes into play and we educate them on foods they will love if given the chance. Our best-selling sausages now tend to be the ones we put fruits, vegetables and cheeses in.”

By many standards, the shop is very small with only John and two younger employees on duty. This is possible, in part, because he employs educated quality personnel. He recruited both young men while they were seniors at the local Olathe North High School where they were in the top of their class studying culinary arts. That year, the school finished second in the country in culinary competition. This year, the two employees helped out at the school and their guidance led the institution to the national championship.

He refers to his employees as “very well versed” on what they sell out of the 36-foot display case. He adds that an educated customer is the difference between a one-time buyer and one who is back for the fifth or sixth time.
The firm’s exemplary Web site (www.acanaturalmeats.com) delivers the message about the offerings with their motto “Let your eyes and taste buds do the talking!” Specialty holiday bundles and assembled sides and quarters are available and promoted heavily. Products featured include 35 grill-ready items, such as kabobs, flank steak roll-ups and more. Their exotic meats line-up includes alligator loin, elk and venison, rabbit, kangaroo and wild boar. The poultry selection lists quail, pheasant, ostrich, Peking and Muscovy duck. From mahi-mahi to wild salmon, crab legs and orange roughy, the seafood department has its own customer-pulling power.

While 99 percent of the retail products are meat, poultry and seafood, a small area offers customers a selection of local barbecue sauces, marinades and rubs, all-natural, of course.

Even bacons and hams presented to shoppers are among the lowest in sodium content available with no nitrites, nitrates or MSG being used during processing by their suppliers.

Magic of marketing
Product mix aside, it’s still John’s zest for having fun in marketing that drives the business.

On Wednesday afternoons, the shop sponsors a local radio show called Extreme Grilling and provides free meat for the announcers and hosts to cook on the air, sending enticed listeners flocking through the their door.

“We give them the meat and they give us a lot of love over the airwaves,” John confides.

So contagious is his enthusiasm that one of the local radio personalities prompted a call from the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., showing interest in selling their specialty sausages at the sports arena. And it doesn’t end there. A Cut Above Natural Meats sponsors a local barbecue team, Holy Smoke, that recently won a cook-off in Osage City. The store is adorned with trophies, photos and ribbons from its support of the barbecue circuit.

Awards in competition might be a badge of honor for some, but John Suman says that his biggest reward is seeing customers, particularly the older ones, come in and tell him that they love his products because they taste like meat they remember eating as a child.

Even more remarkable for this newbie meat-business owner was a pre-Father’s Day feature in the Kansas City Star ranking the shop as one of 35 places in the Kansas City metro area that “make us drool!” After the article appeared, shop sales went up by onethird and then hit a 38 percent increase.

John also has a great payback and plenty of fun with his Facebook page that shares customer comments, offers guests a pair of free sausages of their choice for a birthday or promotes holiday specials.

“It’s a way to let our satisfied customers talk to their friends about us,” he notes. “When someone comes in and says, ‘I ate one of your steaks or a sausage at a friend’s house and came in to get some for myself,’ that is really the word-of-mouth advertising that you just can’t buy.”

If having fun at selling meat had a poster boy, John would be the guy, and he even smiles when mentioning the fact that he typically works two shifts a day and that the store is also open on Sundays.

But not content to rest on his laurels, John has a vision of where he needs to go from here.

“We would like to open a second store near the south end of town, once we get things rolling here,” he confides. “That would put it around the time of our second year as business owners. Maybe then my wife could leave her job and come in and help manage things.”

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.
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