It’s not listed on the label, but love is a critical ingredient in every one of the 250-plus sausage varieties produced at Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale, Minn.
On Jan. 29, 2013, this small family owned business will celebrate its 40th anniversary. This is the story of a sausage-maker’s legacy that lives on through his family. In reality, it’s the story of legend.
Founder Steve Eaker learned to become a master at the craft from the farm up. He learned about butchering on the family farm. When he was just nine, his family went away for the day and Steve took the initiative to slaughter six hogs and dress them. He soon learned about smoking and curing and at the age of 13, when his grandfather was ill, he took over all the meat-related chores, becoming the neighborhood butcher.
Steve went on to graduate from the meat-cutting program in Pipestone and later cut meat in the Twin Cities area. In 1973, he and his wife, Donnavon, established their small retail market in Ellendale.
Together, they put their focus on meats and sausage, using a small stuffer he borrowed from his uncle. When he over-stuffed his first batch of summer sausage and the stuffer blew up, he had to purchase a new one, but he was reluctant to spend money on a linker. Instead, he kept hand-tying sausage until 1990.
Things were on a roll at the small shop in Ellendale, with Steve the perfectionist expanding his line-up to more than 250 smoked and cured meat products, winning awards at state and national competitions and being regularly called on to go out teaching the craft and helping others get started. He never turned anyone down.
His prowess earned more than 370 awards for cured and smoked meats, and Steve was inducted into the Cured Meats Hall of Fame in 1996. He also was awarded the Annual Achievement Award by the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) in 2005.
But a week after Christmas 2005, Steve was diagnosed with cancer and succumbed to the disease on April 1, 2006.
Since Steve ran the production to his own exacting standards, Donnavon enlisted their daughter, Rachael Lee, who had worked with her dad for 10 years, to work as the full-time sausage-production manager. The two began writing down Steve’s recipes. Donnavon continued handling the business end of their enterprise and Rachael, a marketing and business graduate of Augsburg College applied her father’s techniques and tricks of the trade to maintaining the equipment and the finer points of sausage and meats production.
Not sure they could make it, Donnavon contemplated selling the business.
“There were people interested in buying us out,” she recalls, “but they really didn’t want to pay what the business was really worth. The economy was down. We were the largest employer in our town of 671 people. We knew we had an obligation to those 18 employees to try to make it work.”
By all standards, the business was elite for its size; the 5,000-sq.-ft. operation boasted an enchanting retail area, the most modern processing and packaging equipment and a reputation that reached nationwide.
But it also had the true grit of a mother and daughter determined to carry on the dream of a meat legend.
“I always questioned Steve about whether he was married to me or the business,” Donnavon reflects. “Now I find myself married to the business.”
Donnavon and Rachael have forged ahead to not only carry on Steve’s Meat Market, but have seen it flourish in new directions.
Donnavon still handles the financial end of the business and has worked to private-label their meat products for the upscale Byerly’s & Lunds supermarket chain. She does weekly radio ads and says her voice “is becoming known to most folks” in the 75-mile area surrounding the Ellendale location just off Interstate 34.
Three, one-truck Vortron smokehouses, mixer grinders, four tumblers, lifting systems and a gleaming processing area are testaments to good planning of the production area.
“Dad took the original blueprints and made changes to keep things flowing in one direction,” Rachael says.
The USDA inspected plant serves accounts throughout Minnesota and in nearby Iowa and does spiral slicing of hams for numerous other processors. Radio ads, two billboards along the interstate and word-of-mouth serve as their only advertising.
The “Smokey Acres” in-house label on many of their products is also creative, with the word “acre” rhyming with the pronunciation of the last name Eaker.
The business slaughters one day a week, usually eight to 14 head of cattle and two-dozen hogs, these days a rarity for a downtown, landlocked establishment. In addition to the custom slaughter, the firm has a good reputation for game processing, offering sportsmen a full variety of summer sausages, fresh sausage, bratwurst, snack sticks, jerky and other offerings.
Rachael has not only held true to her father’s winning recipes, but has continued his winning tradition, garnering three awards in last spring’s cured meats competition of the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors.
This past summer, the firm took home a grand championship for non-fermented, semi-dry summer sausage. Steve’s also earned a pair of reserve grand championships for wieners and ring bologna in the American Cured Meat Championships.
She has also developed some new products, including a turkey, sauerkraut and Swiss sausage called the “Turkey Rachael.”
The innovative shop offers retail customers sausages of nearly every stripe, wild rice, sauerkraut or mustard brats, Thuringers, Cajun and European varieties and smoked hams, bacons and turkeys.
Taco, pork and pizza patties are displayed alongside spinach and feta cheese and smoked mango jalapeño chicken sausage. The attractive retail area also features 85 varieties of cheeses and gourmet private-label condiments, sauces, spices and seasonings.
Emulating perfection is a formidable task. But for Donnavon Eaker and Rachael Lee, the lessons taught to them by an extraordinary meat processor remain their guiding light.
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues.