Keep it simple

by Steve Krut
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With a few simple words, Terry Kerns captures the essence of Edgewood Locker and explains why his Edgewood, Iowa-based business just keeps flourishing. “We work hard to be the best locker possible, but that doesn’t mean that we are ready to be a great packing plant.”

Terry, the company president, explains. “We try to offer the best service and let our customers know how important they are to us. We’ve tried to simplify what we do and sell our attitude that we will work hard for those who walk through that door.”

This simple philosophy seems to be paying off for the enterprise that began in 1966 when his parents, Tom and Joan Kerns, left farming to rent an old building in Edgewood, population 800. Their plan was to start a custom locker and processing plant.

Years ago in rural agricultural areas like Northeastern Iowa, most of the population were farmers who needed a place to bring their animals in for processing. And, before the home freezer came into vogue, these facilities rented frozen food-storage cabinets in a freeze room…thus the name, lockers.

Unbelievably, Edgewood still rents lockers, down from 350 in the past to 150 today. And, they are all full of customers’ meats. That, as well as a strong work ethic and astute business management, is one of the few vestiges of the past in this 18,000-sq.-ft. facility.

Growing business

The bustling, family owned business still does what it did in yesteryear, but the numbers have climbed to about 3,000 head of hogs and 1,500 head of beef a year that are slaughtered and processed, still mostly for home consumption. A work force of 48 full-time and 60 part-time and seasonal workers says something about this small-town business.

“Our customers come in from Cedar Rapids, Dubuque and Waterloo, all about an hour’s drive away,” Terry notes.

For those who make that drive to Edgewood, there is a state-of-the-art processing plant, complete with vacuum stuffers and rollstock machines and first-class smokehouses and a retail storefront that resembles an older western town. The diminutive retail area is just 30 ft. by 30 ft., but boasts a knotty-pine décor, a cathedral ceiling and a display of smoked and cured meats that has earned the company 156 competition awards for the quality of their products.

Ironically, there is no cutting service counter, just pristine modern display cases of fairly priced meats, cheeses, spreads, sauces, rubs and even a selection of wines.

The variety is plentiful, with 29 versions of brats, ranging from whiskey/peppercorn, sweet dill, Cajun, cheesy hashbrowns, sauerkraut and cheddar to blueberry maple. There are five flavors of bacon. This is a selection haven so large that customers return to ask, “What new flavor do you have today?”

The custom-cut service counter may not be there, but the full-service catering department is thriving. Edgewood catering is top-shelf in these parts. They cater about four to five events weekly and have done fully prepared meals for as many as 2,700 at one sitting. They offer a la carte pickup for meal functions or will travel up to two hours out to serve complete sit-down service functions. The catering division of the plant has its own manager and assistant manager.

Last year, they opened the Edgewood Locker Event Center, about 10 blocks from the plant. The catering center is a former bar they renovated that can seat up to 400. It is complete with the latest audio-visual equipment, a dance floor and a sit-down bar.

“We really did not plan on getting into the event center business, but it is something that our town really needed. It also fits in really well with our catering business,” Terry explains. The full catering kitchen is still located at their main plant in Edgewood.

What’s this about a “main plant”? Actually, the Edgewood Locker operates a third facility called Edgewood Locker West in Arlington, about 20 minutes away. It is managed by Terry’s daughter, Kaitlyn Anderson, 28, who represents the third generation of the Kerns family in the business.

The Arlington location serves as the site for custom slaughter and processing and has a small retail area that features meat items produced at the main plant.

Processing venison

Terry and his brother, Jim, started in business right out of high school, became partners with their parents in the early 80s and took over for their parents when they retired 10 years ago. The driving factor behind their growth has been, and remains to be, their commitment to the venison processing part of the business.

“That’s what really enabled us to build and equip the new facility, which was erected in the spring of 1997,” Terry reflects. “We did 3,000 whole deer and over 135,000 lbs. of boneless venison were brought in last season. It totaled almost 350,000 lbs. of our specialty venison sausage and cured products.”

That staggering number of game animals is no fluke. For the past 23 years, Edgewood has staged an “open house” that provides samples of the dozens of specialty products they can make from venison. Terry says 1,000 people attended the event last year.

He points out that the deer-processing business enabled the company to grow and they let those customers know that “we want to do their deer and they are not an inconvenience for us.”

Successful publicity

Edgewood is huge on its fundraising program that provides products to school, agricultural and community groups for resale. They price the products low enough for the groups to make significant money and regard the exposure they get as the least expensive form of advertising around.

“One part of our business feeds and grows the others,” Terry emphasizes. “The fundraising program exposes more people to our products. The catering does the same thing. We also do some private labeling for farmers, but we had to cut back on the number of accounts when we understood that some were just too extreme for us because of the labor-intensity and commitment of available space needed to do the job right.”

The company website, www.edgewoodlocker.com, effectively promotes the enterprise, and while it is not equipped to handle orders, it does the job in getting viewers to call in with their orders and explains everything from catering policy and menus, to deer-processing choices, features, specials and the vast array of award-winning cured meat products.

Edgewood does some HRI sales, but largely to smaller grocers and convenience-store operators who come in once a week to pick up orders.

Juggling three separate business locations is a daunting task for partners Terry and Jim, who note that things can get extremely busy and crowded during the deer and fall holiday seasons, when party trays and gift box orders also start coming in.

“Sometimes the employees get a bit shaken when we talk about cutting back in certain areas,” Terry points out. “But they see the effort we make to keep things simple.

“We’ve looked at some businesses like ours that have undertaken new plants or expansions that can cost a million or more, but although we have steadily grown for over 30 years we believe we are at the point that bigger is not always better,” he says. “It makes more sense for us to stay on our path and put the greatest effort into what we do best and keep our customers pleased with what we do and the products we make.”

And like that fabled baseball diamond in the cornfields, Edgewood Locker isn’t the biggest, but it’s where discriminating meat fans prefer to come, and they keep coming back.

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