Best of Wisconsins wurst

by Steve Krut
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There are states that boast they are the beef state, pork state, buffalo state or the chicken, turkey or even sheep state. But when it comes to processed meat products, few would dare to challenge Wisconsin’s reputation as the land where meats good enough to win national championships go to be processed. And, there are quite a few industry pundits who claim Cumberland, Wisc. Is the official capital of this processed-meats paradise.

It’s that little island town of 2,200 in Northwestern Badger Land that is the home of Louie’s Finer Meats, one of Northern Hemisphere’s most innovative meat- processing enterprises. But don’t let the small size fool you, the Muench family has the awards and the reputation to prove their wurst.

Being the meat processing top dog in Wisconsin is akin to going to a golf course where everyone playing is a pro. So when Louie Muench II moved there in 1963 after being a meat cutter in Chicago, the challenge of greatness was not even in his mind. He took a job as the meat department manager at The Company Store and seven years later opened Louie’s Finer Meats on Main Street.

In this land of superb brats and summer sausage, processors had better offer something special to stay ahead of the competition, and Louie Muench II pushed to become "the little meat shop that could." By l978 he had expanded the business and moved to Highway 63 at the north end of town, its current location.

Generations of success

The Muench reputation was founded on quality products and a full evaluation of every new item they consider making. Today, they offer the largest selection of ethnic sausage in Northern Wisconsin. Many customers contend they offer the largest selection of "top shelf" products anywhere in the nation.

Three of the six Muench children – Louis III, William and James – came to work in the family business and there is usually one of them behind the meat counter on any given day. Louis II still comes to the shop a few days a week and is the mastermind behind many of the Old World, ethnic and exotic products the store features.

Louis III is the current president and store manager and can be credited with the innovative direction the business has taken. He worked in the store during high school and went on to earn degrees in food science and biology at the Univ. of Wisconsin, River Falls, where he also worked in the meat lab. And, in keeping with the family tradition, his son, Louis IV, has completed his master’s degree in meat science at South Dakota State Univ., while his other son, Eric, is now enrolled at the Univ. of Wisconsin.

"When I was in high school, the shop was just Mom, Dad and me, and when I finished my formal education, they presented me with an opportunity," Louie Jr. recalls. "They would keep the store on Main Street since it could support the Mom and Pop concept. But if I wanted to come into the business, they would buy an old farm implement dealer property north of town and expand to make room for growth in a new store."

Calling Louis III an innovator is like calling Enzio Ferrari a "guy who builds cars." Some of his innovative product ideas take advantage of ingredients from the region and blend them into a casing with a touch of genius.

In 1991, he won his first Wisconsin Governor’s Award with a Wisconsin Summer Sausage featuring cranberries, cheddar cheese, maple syrup and honey. This spring, he introduced a Brewer Brat, complete with blue cheese and beer. Listening to him describe the innovation process is kindred to hearing someone enthusiastically tell how they followed the map to lost treasure.

"Sure, we tried some things sort of off the wall," he explains. "But the key was taking some of our original highquality, tried-and-true products and playing with them. We tried new ingredients to give them a new look and unique taste."

Some of the Muench family recent winners include items like Bloody Mary beef jerky, Minnesota Sausage (a beef summer sausage with wild rice and blueberries) and even a cabbage sausage. On its Web site, www.louiesfinermeats.com , the firm boasts that with proper notice, they will make any sausage for a customer. There is a gigantic list of ethnic and Old World items like Hungarian salami, Kishka (blood sausage), Mettwursts and Weisswursts. In fact, there are more than 400 different products made at Louie’s Finer Meats, not counting the varieties that might be smoked or pre-cooked. That includes more than 50 types of brats.

Business sense

Sales are divided at 50 percent retail and 50 percent fresh meat. Little is frozen and there is no portion cutting for the HRI trade. While they sell beef and pork bundles and do some custom curing and a bit of catering (for pickup only), their eye-popping processed meat case is a place to behold. There are 35 employees, about half full-time and the remainder part-time. The products are sold by about 37 retail stores located in 30 nearby towns.

There is also a good trade in party platters, which they display throughout the 2,000-square-foot retail area. They move about 20 per week and during the Christmas holiday may sell more than 100.

Louis III doesn’t take credit for the company’s innovation. He says he makes it his mission to attend every workshop or seminar he can and gathers concepts to bring back to the shop.

"Some of our product ideas have been very popular and successful," he notes. "Yet, there is a need to bring in new ideas from others as well as to pass them along. We don’t want to be the last caretakers of a dying art. So when we hit on a new-product idea, we have to sometimes follow the trialand-error method to achieve what we want. It also means being patient with our employees and making sure they are patient about and understanding what we are trying to introduce, and that we all work together."

When he speaks about getting ideas from others and sharing his own ideas, Louis III isn’t blowing smoke. He has been called on at the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors and American Association of Meat Processors to conduct workshops and seminars. He is a two-term WAMP president and in May was inducted into the prestigious Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame. In 2003 he was honored as an inductee in AAMP’s Cured Meat Hall of Fame.

In his community, Louis III is a believer that what people get out of life is based on what they give. He served for 25 years as a scoutmaster and the business has a Louie’s Brat Haus, a bright red vending wagon that is offered to local charities and needy groups on summer weekends. They sell Louie’s brats to help their cause but never have to be wary of the quality of what they offer.

The firm has won more than 300 state and national awards and in 2007 alone won nine state awards, four at AAMP’s American Cured Meat Championships, and nine others at the International Meat Trades Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, including six gold medals. Louis III is quite conscious of the downturn in the economy, but he contends customers have changing lifestyles that need to be monitored closely.

"People have always been seeking products that are convenient and easy to cook and serve," he continues. "But they can’t afford to go out to eat in restaurants as often as they did in the past. We try to offer restaurant-quality products and have even come up with some special gourmet items like a Black & Blue Burgers, which feature cracked black pepper and blue cheese. We like to give them a variety.

"And, we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that many people don’t know how to cook. For us, that means giving them good recipes and having our staff fully knowledgeable about our products and helping the customers get the most out of what they are buying," he says.

The Muench operation includes another 6,000 square feet of production area, where three Vortron smokehouses (two single and one two truck) seem to be in perpetual motion. The firm is inspected by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture on a daily basis and the Muench family isn’t hesitant to tell their customers about all the requirements they have to meet to maintain a safe processing environment.

Louis III also keeps a pocket full of business cards that he discriminately passes out. The cards offer a free pound of their flagship product…summer sausage.

"We know they will come in for it and will enjoy it," he advises, "but they will also have their eyes opened to some products they didn’t know existed. It works very well for us. You can spend $200 on a newspaper ad and never know what you’ll get in return. The card says ‘free’ and there are no conditions on it. It is a winning idea."

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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