Mark and Belinda Gentert met while serving in the U.S. Air Force at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco. While she continued in the service after a transfer to Texas, Mark went to work on the kill floor at a nearby processing plant.
After about six months, a foreman at the plant showed him an ad for a small custom meat plant that was for sale in Holstein, Neb. Ironically, it was the same plant Mark’s father, Elton, had built in 1977 with a Small Business Administration loan. After his father died from cancer in 1983, the plant sat idle for nearly five years.
In July of 1988, Mark bought the facility. A month later, he and Belinda were married. Waiting for them after their honeymoon was the daunting task of getting the fledgling 40’x60’ Gentert Packing Company up and running.
“All I knew how to do was kill cows,” Mark recalls. “I knew nothing at all about processing them. But I decided I wanted to buy the plant. I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into at that time. It was all new to me.”
After opening the business, he hired an employee at $12 an hour to teach him the post-slaughter processes.
“It was something I learned to do real fast for myself because I couldn’t afford to pay that kind of money,” he said.
“There was no equipment,” Mark, now 46, says. “The cooler was OK and the compressor system was intact. I bought a used table saw, a small cutting table and a grinder and went to work and opened the plant in November. I guess we just had high hopes, but in reality we were totally blind.
“It wasn’t long after that I went to an equipment sale in Superior, Neb.,” he adds. There was a guy from Oxford Locker in nearby Oxford, Neb., who had bought some equipment and had to get it loaded onto his truck. His arm was in a sling so I helped his wife load the stuff into the truck.”
Sharing friendship, knowledge
That sling soon turned into a wing. The Oxford Locker owners, Cappy and Sue Pinkerton, became fast friends and took on the Genterts as under-studies.
“They taught us everything,” Mark explains. “They guided us into processing and stayed with us to find a used smokehouse, vacuum stuffer and a bowl chopper. The only thing we ever bought brand new was a hot-dog peeler.”
The “new” smokehouse replaced an old brick oven in the diminutive facility. Mark is about as lean and lanky as a limb of hickory and has the tough mindedness to match his physique.
Holstein is a small South Central Nebraska town of about 250 people and operating a custom plant six days a week is hard work. Since the return on custom-cut meats was a hard dollar earned, the Genterts thought about going into more value-added products. They later tried their hand at entering the cured meats competition at the Nebraska Association of Meat Processors to see how their finished products stacked up. “It took us six years to win the first one, a plaque for a bone-in ham,” Mark remembers.
By 1993, Belinda came into the business full-time and six years later they built a 24’x 40’ expansion onto the plant, half devoted to a retail area and the other half for a sausage kitchen. They explain how sorely the expansion was needed by pointing out that they had acquired a used roll-stock machine that was kept in storage until it could be brought into the expanded facility.
Again, the Pinkerton’s came to their rescue and taught them how to make sausage using the equipment they had purchased. Things sprang to life and the product quality took off. By the next NAMP cured meats competition, the Genterts garnered eight awards and added their first “Best of Show” plaque for frankfurters. Since then they have won four “Best of Show” honors and earned the “Innovative Product” top award at the prestigious American Cured Meats Competition, for their specialty cinnamon bacon. They have now brought the award count to 90 and boast that all of their smoked products have earned at least one.
It is Belinda who makes the sausage products and handles the paperwork and accounting at the plant. Mark does the custom slaughter and processing work.
A growing reputation
Their reputation for custom processing and the quality of products has grown tremendously and they average about 10 head of beef a week in their plant. They offer a polyvinyl wrap and outer butcher paper wrap that guarantees products a one-year freezer shelf-life to customers.
Beef reigns supreme in Nebraska and although they handled hogs as well, the declining pork market forced them to forego hog processing altogether three years ago.
Like many custom shops, the Genterts ventured into the world of game processing with high hopes.
“I let everyone know I was going to custom-process deer and elk and then sat in my lawn chair in front of the shop to await the crowd,” Mark confides. “I did a total of 15 deer that first year.”
But perseverance and a vast lineup of specialty game products made the difference. Gentert Packing this year pulled game processing customers from as far as 400 miles out! The firm includes the pork trim in the prices they post for their array of game sausage products. This year they processed more than 400 game animals and another six tons of boneless game meat.
As their game-processing reputation grew, so did word of their other services. They are even getting custom farm animals from Kansas.
They’ve since added a catering operation featuring cooked beef and pork, along with pulled pork and smoked brisket, as the mainstays. A full line of deli and sandwich trays and an assortment of side salads for pickup round out their catering options.
The Genterts have two daughters, Heather, 21, and Brianna, 16. The youngest works in the retail area on Saturdays. Heather, who completed studies at Central Community College, has proven to be a marketing goldmine with her graphic arts skills. She has developed a striking company logo, new product labels and has designed a Web site for the business (www. genterpack.com) Heather also works on the frontlines, at the retail counter.
Gentert Packing has only two other part-time employees but offers a wide variety of meat products in its retail area, including a restructured “deli dried beef” that is sweeter and less salty than others on the market.
Also offered are the “Potsie Polls,” an all-pork hot dog with cheddar cheese and a distinct ham flavor,
named after Heather’s nickname, “Potsie.” Other featured products include red-pepper sticks, Americanand Southwestern-style meat loaves, chili cheese dogs and their 2009 grand champion Bloody Mary Jerky.
Nineteen varieties of cheese and a dazzling array of specialty seasonings, sauces and mustards complement the retail area selections that offer 18 types of smoked meats and 25 not-ready-toeat meat and poultry items.
If there was ever a classic tale of learning the ropes from the bottom up and building a meat facility with sweat equity, this is it.
Gentert Packing offers a wide selection of products in its retail area: 18 types of smoked meats , 25 not-ready-to-eat meat and poultry items , 19 varieties of cheese and an array of specialty seasonings, sauces and mustards.