Old traditions fuel success
September 01, 2009
It’s a fast-spinning world out there, replete with never-ending changes, suffocating competition and hectic pacesetters. That’s why life tends to be a lot more pleasant and laid back in the Shenandoah Valley community of Tom’s Brook.
One local meat company has adjusted to that rural setting and has used it to be successful for a long time: the 47-year-old firm known as Crabill’s Meats.
Founded in 1962 by Eugene Crabill, the company started out with and still adheres to the "old traditions" of the setting. There is nothing fancy about it, and certainly nothing any Madison Avenue advertising and marketing guru dreamed up. Yet, it’s remarkable in the way the small meat operation treats and respects its rural-minded customers.
When Gene Crabill began his new enterprise, he had gained a lot of meat experience at Shen Valley Meatpackers, where he served many years as a foreman. The most valuable lesson he learned was that faster line speeds don’t keep customers coming back as much as his philosophy of "treating them like family."
He still lives in a quaint and rustic home he built himself between the future locations for his processing plant and the retail store. Indicative of the company’s down-home marketing, Crabill’s offers summer barbecues in the home’s front yard, featuring specialty ribs and chicken cooked on an outdoor pit. Folks don’t eat there, but pick up their delights and take them home. But they’re back each Saturday it’s featured and most wouldn’t think of missing this quasi-social event any more than they would miss their own family dinner.
One of a kind
With only eight employees, the Crabill family is one of the last in the entire northern end of the Shenandoah Valley to offer inspected and custom slaughter, full processing services and personalized retail sales.
Grandson Nick Crabill is the retail manager and carries on the bulk of the family business activities. At the age of 28, however, he is never caught up in his role too much to remember every customer’s name and all details about their order.
"Interruptions are the business," he relates in an acumen that belies his age. "These customers are our friends, family and neighbors. We have folks who might drive 100 miles to get here, too, and we treat them like we want to be treated ourselves."
Nick’s father, Larry, has the role of running the slaughter and cutting facility that operates under federal inspection, in addition to seasoning jerky and cooking other products that seem to complement the full line of bacons, hams and sausages. Larry added many of those cured products to the Crabill line-up, and still is in charge of other items that were developed from grandfather Gene’s original recipes.
Nick says that years ago, his dad and grandfather often unloaded packer trucks all night long. He doesn’t miss those days in the least.
"We’re too small to interface with the packers directly and work through distributors for the specialty processed items we buy from outside," he says.
"But it also means that we’re customer driven and tailor our operations to what they tell us they want and how they want it. We’re never really pushing anything, but regard our role as one of helping feed our customers at their pace."
Nick actually came on board when his father was on active military duty in Afghanistan and seems to have realized that the family business presented a much greater opportunity than the studies in computer science he had taken at Radford Univ. He started thinking like a meat man right away. The summer barbecues took off well so he’s changing the retail area by adding salads and other deli items that round out the table for those customers.
A growing family business
The operation is very small by most standards, and even in the heaviest slaughter weeks the operation handles as few as 15 cattle and perhaps 15 or 20 hogs. It features the added-on design concept so frequently followed by growing family businesses. Many of the company’s featured items can be found on their Web site (www.crabills.com).
"We operated under Virginia State inspection but transitioned to USDA in 2003," Nick explains. "But we do all of our custom work under inspection as an added value to our customers." Slaughter is normally done only two days a week.
Crabill’s presents customers with specialty offerings ranging from scrapple to sides and quarters of beef. Several years ago, they acquired the right to the recipe for "cloth bologna", a netted smoked and cured product they often refer to as "offal bologna, because it includes heart and spleen meats." They did away with the offal materials and began using ground beef and ground chuck in the formulation. It’s got an old-fashioned look and its popularity resounds through the region. Many of their products are sold at Food Lion grocery stores and other retail supermarkets.
Nick and another employee take on game processing at the plant after normal business hours in the fall and typically handle about 150 deer per year. They also do a consistent business in summer roaster pigs throughout the area. It could best bedescribed as a company that doesn’t do anything spectacular, but does everything very well, a rare trait indeed for firms of this size.
Yet, the personalized service for orders continues to steal the show at Crabill’s. Watching cutters process meat selections almost eyeball to eyeball with customers lined up at the service counter, it becomes evident there is a great deal of showmanship in progress. Customers seem to know and appreciate that everything is expressly cut and handed to them and it’s not just another commodity to be pulled out of a box from some mysterious packer or a pre-packaged cut they yanked from an open meat display case.
Hard work pays off
With an even mix of retail and wholesale business, Crabill’s has earned a strong reputation for handling only beef graded Choice or higher. Restaurants in about a 50-mile radius feature their steaks and roasts. Nick explains the rewards of doing things well consistently are paying off.
"We get folks coming here from miles around to fill up their coolers with meats to take home," he explains. "And we are in a great area for tourists and somehow the word of mouth has gotten around to the recreational vehicle enthusiasts who make this a favorite stop for their provisions."
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for MEAT&POULTRY, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.