Strategic thinking

by Steve Krut
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Most any meat plant owner will agree: "Giving up" is one of the most difficult decisions to contemplate. But for managers of Winesburg Meats Inc., giving up meant developing more efficient processing practices and techniques and parlaying those changes new growth.

Located in the central-northeastern region of Ohio, Winesburg Meats has defied a lot of the traditional thinking and is reaping the rewards of smart change.

When Walter and Katharina Pacula came to the U.S. from Germany and opened a meat and grocery business in 1959, their small shop in a very small town featured plenty of groceries and Old World meat products. He was, after all, a metzgermeister (master butcher) trained at the famed Augsburg Meat School. And being located in the center of the largest Amish population in the world, a key part of the business was custom slaughter and processing to complement his fresh beef and pork and sausage products.

His son, Marion Pacula, was only five years old when he began hanging around the shop and learning the ropes. His familiarity with the meat business and his clear thinking led him to purchase the shop in 1984 and a New World of change got underway.

"The first thing I did was close the custom business," Marion explains. "It was labor intensive and not really the revenue generator for a small plant that could do so many other things – but only had a small number of folks working there."

Celebrating 50 years

Fast-forward to 2009 and the 50th anniversary year of Winesburg Meats. It’s easy to see what practical thinking has done for this establishment. Marion and his wife Linda capitalized on the personalized customer service and Old World recipes that had earned the business a sterling reputation.

He took a variety of courses in meat processing at Ohio State Univ. and began expanding the inventory to as many as 69 different processed meat products. A glimpse at the24-foot retail case reveals 15 styles of fresh brats and a bevy of smoked meats. There are eight varieties of snack sticks and three types of jerky.

"People love flavors," Marion philosophizes. "We wanted to give them a nice variety, but also keep offering them new taste and flavor profiles. It is a constant challenge but a constant reward when you provide the customers with something new and they try it and keep coming back for more."

But making those new varieties in their 4,000-sq.-ft. plant meant processing equipment improvements were essential. "We gave up the grocery trade and focused strictly the meat business," Marion recounts. "And to do it right and efficiently, we invested in the equipment that kept our costs of production low and improved efficiency.

Whether it was a Tipper-Tie or rollstock machine, we invested heavily in automation, the area where we felt the return would be the greatest, and it worked well."

Maintaining a booming business in a town of fewer than 200 people comes with some inherent challenges. However, the products and personalized service featured at Winesburg Meats paved the way for five counter workers in the 1,000-sq.-ft. retail area, which is a separate building. Saturday morning typically finds customers lined up out the door and waiting to get inside. Eighty-five-years-young, Katharina still works behind the retail counter every day and bubbles over the family’s accomplishments.

Signature sausage

So strong has the firm’s reputation become that wholesalers have asked for nearly all the company’s products to be available to them. "We had some tough choices there," Marion says. "Our premier product is our summer sausage. It is not a shelf-stable formulation. We could process it differently to make it shelf-stable, but I did not want to put my name on anything that didn’t satisfy me.

"If it came out too tangy or too dry, I did not want to sell it and thus the decision to keep the one recipe for summer sausage," he adds. "It seems to be the one people liked the most, and when we ventured into wholesale that was the only product we offered."

The old expression "the proof is in the pudding" was never more salient than when talking about Winesburg’s summer sausage, which earned firstplace honors at the Ohio Association of Meat Processors competition this year, making that product a six-time winner of that honor. Their summer sausage has also won top innovative product recognition at the American Association of Meat Processors’ American Cured Meat Championships.

So vibrant was the demand from out-of-state customers, in 1988 the firm gave up state meat inspection and began operating under U.S. Dept. of Agriculture inspection. Their products can now be found in all states east of the Mississippi River.

But with only four employees in the processing area, Winesburg has limitations. "We actually made cold calls on wholesalers and distributors," Marion recalls. "We gave them samples of our summer sausage and said we felt it was pretty good and that they might want to try it and sell it. They tasted it and agreed. We even private-label our product for three other companies."

Although they are developing a Web site, Winesburg Meats does no advertising or marketing and is thriving on word-of-mouth generated by new and old customers. The retail store growth is a comforting 8 percent a year.

An obvious outside-of-the-box thinker who is never one to become complacent, Marion Pacula bought out Meat Packers Outlet, a HRI, retail and wholesale processing company located in Massillon, about 17 miles away.

"This gave us the opportunity to introduce products from our retail area into their retail arena," he explains. "It gave us a two-way flow in products between the plants. And our HRI trade at Massillon gave us more volume buying power…and that helps price

"Taking on a second business was quite a challenge and it proved rough for the first 18 months," he adds. "We target the small mom-and-pop grocery stores with our product line-up. It gives them a proven, quality selection to feature in their shops. We stay away from the chain stores. It’s unbelievable the calls we get in Winesburg from folks in other states who want to know where they can get our products. That proves to be a natural lead to get new accounts in their area."

Juggling businesses

Juggling two businesses has its rewards but pushes family time to the limit. The Paculas have hired a general manager for the 20-employee Massillon plant, but it requires Linda’s presence in the accounting department four days a week. She spends a fifth day at the Winesburg operation. Currently, the family is working on a home-based computer system that will improve efficiency for wholesale orders and billing and reduce travel time.

The Paculas have two sons. Anton, 30, is heavily involved in the business and has taken numerous training courses at both Iowa and Michigan State Universities and has even attended the International Meat Trades Fair (IFFA), held in Frankfurt, Germany. Another son, Taras, is serving in the Marine Corps.

"I’m not much of a book person," Marion admits. "I just see what needs to be addressed and go ahead and do it. There is kind of a flow of seasons for our business. I watch the gardens. If it’s tomato season, we nearly double our bacon production for the BLTs. When green beans are plentiful, our smoked ham hocks get major play. In the fall, we focus on cottage hams and smoked turkeys. The Christmas and Easter holidays are the big ham times for us, along with kielbassa. When you’re around it long enough, it becomes like a symphony where you just know how things should be coming together."

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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