Starting young

by Steve Krut
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On what was once Chippewa Indian land sits the heart of a small town founded by German missionaries in 1845. The descendants of one of those original 15 colonists still live in this South Central Michigan community of Frankenmuth and ply their meat processing trade.

“My son, Nathan, moved into the original family home, the sixth generation to live there,” says Phil Bernthal, president and owner of Bernthal Packing Co.

It’s a proud Bernthal family heritage and a tradition of doing basic things well that has sustained this classic small business over the years. Even though much of the family history has been lost, their known meat industry lineage goes back to 1949 when Phil’s father, Herb, started working in the small custom slaughter and processing plant owned by his father-in-law, Erwin Bickel, before buying it in 1965.

“Dad worked for his father and I started working for mine at the age of 12,” Bernthal recalls. “That gives me 32 years in the business with only 30 more to go.”

Phil and his wife, Dawn, bought the majority interest in his father’s small shop 15 years ago when Herb turned 65.

“Dad still comes in and helps trucking cattle and doing the banking,” Bernthal adds. “We still use many of the original German recipes the family developed over the years, it’s kind of like the whole Bernthal family is still involved in this business.”

The firm made a successful switch from being about 80 percent custom to one in which retail sales have boomed to become more than 50 percent of the volume. This is not to downplay the custom aspect, which still involves slaughter or processing three days a week, compared to the one day a week when livestock are processed under federal inspection.

The Bernthals are popular in game-rich Michigan, processing about 1,200 deer and antelope carcasses for sportsmen last year, and about 50,000 lbs. of boned-out game meat brought in by hunters.

With 19 employees, including family, the company is a sought-out processor for its summer sausage, ham, bacon, brats and Old World items like blood sausage. This year their hot dogs took top honors in the annual competition hosted by the Michigan Meat Association.

New product experimentation also seems to be a win-win for the firm, which recently rolled out a new Philly Steak & Cheese brat.

Word of mouth growth

What is perhaps most remarkable about the Bernthal enterprise is that they have never advertised.

“People come here because of our quality products and honesty,” Bernthal comments. “Most of our meats are locally grown and in a small agricultural community, people know the farmers. I honestly can’t think of anything we do that is amazing or fantastically innovative. We just strive to do the right thing and give our customers what they have come to expect from us…top-quality meats.”

Frankenmuth has tapped into its German roots to become a tourist Mecca. It’s a Branson, Mo., without the big-name entertainment, but including the fun. Thousands come for what seems to be a weekly festival of some sort, be it Oktoberfest, Snow Fest or ice sculpture carving displays amid a town whose architecture could easily double for a small village in Bavaria. It is named for the German province of Franconia, where Bavaria is located, and the German word “muth”, which means “courage.”

Still, the Bernthals shy away from heavy wholesale trade to vendors at the local festivals or others who could market their products. “We don’t go after them,” Bernthal continues. “Those [wholesalers] who want our product seek us out and deal on our terms. Life is much less complicated that way.”

Their small retail section measures 40 ft by 120 ft and beats vibrantly as the heart of the company. A clean and tastefully stocked service retail counter and display cases dole out the fresh meats and cured meats while three freezer bins are available for self-service customers. There are some poultry and seafood lines available, which the Bernthals offer for sale at retail along with some snack items like potato chips, but sales are 90 percent meat.

In addition, the retail area features a respectable beer and wine sales area.

But lest anyone think this family-owned Saginaw Valley business is missing the boat on the heavy tourist trade Frankenmuth generates, Bernthal says he is moving slowly but plans to deliberately tap into that potential for extra sales.

“We like to think of ourselves as a work in progress,” he notes. “We want to take better advantage of our Southern Pride cooker in the outside entrance area where the traffic is strong. We envision a table area and grill serving up our ribs, chicken, brats and sausages and pulled pork for great casual dining and on-the-go purchases. The summers in Frankenmuth are what we call our ‘gold time’ for opportunity.”

He says while the family owned business has no plans to advertise in the future, it is in the process of developing a website that will open the door to not only locals but tourists who are coming into the area and could be persuaded to try their products. However pragmatic they may seem, the Bernthals certainly possess the attitude and the tools to approach every challenge in a deliberate manner. Dawn, who works from home, handles the bookwork and accounting, and Nathan, 27, works full-time in the business and isn’t out shopping for new digs.

Bernthal says he would like to ramp up and expand the sausage production but feels confident that his employee base can handle anything:

“Many of our employees have been here 20 to 30 years and they are extremely competent. We do have very little turnover,” he says.

That bodes well for this fall when Frankenmuth area residents push Bernthal Packing Co. into their busy season. Folks there still buy carcass beef and pork and lay in their supplies for the winter and the game season is at hand.

As for Phil, he still has those 30 years to go, even if he exaggerates when he started working for his father: “It seems I always worked here ever since I can remember. But I do remember being 12 years old because that’s when I started getting paid,” he concludes.
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