Trial and error
Jon Frohling defines his passion for experimenting with spices and flavors to come up with new meat products and taste ideas with a simple statement: “Just lock me in that room for a week at a time!”
The owner of Frohling Meats & Catering in Hecla, SD, is a natural-born genius when it comes to understanding what it takes to create a taste profile for processed meat products, but it is his maestro abilities to put new ideas to the casing that leaves most others awestruck.
In 1962, his dad, Norman, bought a Jack & Jill store he had managed and used his farm-learned skills to do slaughtering in the back of the store. Jon says it was his dad who admitted him to the meat industry at the age of 14 when he came in to help with the slaughter and cutting after high school.
“Dad was definitely ‘old school,’” Jon recalls. “He did the killing and cutting, but there was not much else except fresh meat cuts. There was no sausage or cured meats. I had decided to become a paramedic.”
Those plans changed drastically when he came on board to manage the family grocery store in 1990 and bought the business in 1999. To help boost sales for custom processing services beyond the small community of Hecla (population 300), for five years the business also operated a satellite store in Aberdeen…which Jon calls “our big town”…just a few miles south of the North Dakota state line.
To better understand how this grocery-store manager became one of America’s premier sausage designers, it’s important to realize that Jon never went to any type of formal meat school or college. It was self-motivation and an innate ability to create that led him to erect a new store next to the old one in 1997. And, yes, with this store Jon insisted on getting a smokehouse.
From that launch date, the young proprietor and his wife, Stephanie, went on to develop products that have earned more than 300 awards in cured meats competitions, including 70 plaques from the American Cured Meat Championships operated by the American Association of Meat Processors.
The awards speak volumes about the quality of Frohling’s products, but underlying the story is the fact that Jon has broken new ground in dreaming up new products.
In his 40-ft. by 40-ft. retail store area, Frohling Meats offers unsuspecting customers such delights as a breakfast brat with the eggs inside and a black bean salsa, cheesy hash browns and a macaroni and cheese brat. But that’s not all, arrayed beside them one will find a pineapple, dill pickle, green onion, sauerkraut and spicy mozzarella brat.
Jon has even experimented with gummy worm, jelly bean, ice cream and spaghetti brats, concept bratwursts that came from his “think tank.”
Jon’s wife, Stephanie, was formerly a school teacher and the Frohlings annually invite the fourth-grade class to tour the plant and retail store. Jon regularly invites the students to think of ingredients they might like to see. He then will make a brat or sausage from nearly every thing the class suggested, even bubble gum.
“Some of those ideas led to actual products that I make today,” he explains. “But the real deal is that these kids learned about meat products and we’re excited to see their ideas become something they could eat and enjoy. It is a blast and no one enjoys it more than us.”
Stephanie became more involved in the business when the Hecla school closed, and now tackles the bookkeeping, catering jobs and she even cuts meat.
Jon has served two terms as the president of the South Dakota Association of Meat Processors and is the current president of AAMP. Jon had never made a sausage prior to his opening of the shop in 1997, but tells his counterparts that the easiest trail to travel is the one already blazed by other small processors.
“I got many great ideas from the folks I met at state and national meetings and conventions,” he says. “They are a breed of people who are proud of what they do and have no hesitation about sharing their successful ideas. I feel compelled to give back what they’ve helped teach me.”
Jon has taught at the South Dakota State Univ. Sausage School and conducted a variety of seminars and workshops at various processor programs. He also feels he’s on top of the game when it comes to equipment. He operates three Vortron smokehouses, a roll stock machine, a stuffer and a new emulsifier, and boasts he’s “as automated as any plant.”
But getting good equipment and using it most effectively are two different ball games. Jon notes that jerky is a big item for him, and he took steps to boost production from his horizontal two-truck smokehouse by going from seven screens for the product to a more efficient, 28 screens.
It’s not that everything he touches turns to gold. When the new store was built and he took over an adjoining restaurant, Jon realized the potential of value-added products and expanded the retail area. But he also used his restaurant experience to move into catering. He says he worked his tail off in the restaurant for about $100 a week for five years, but doesn’t count it as a loss.
Can you imagine catering several events a week in a town of 300? Jon tapped the customer base from his former satellite store in Aberdeen to promote and capture catering business that has served as many as 2,000 people in a single weekend.
The company has developed a quality website (www.frohlingmeats.com) that touts its great variety of products and services.
The Frohlings cater one big event once a week, usually 200 to 400 people, but have six to eight functions in which the customers come in and pick up the ready-to-go food for the events. Jon and Stephanie have four children, Devin, 16; Tyson, 14; Kyle, 12; and Madisson, 9, who like to help out with the catering business.
Jon started using Aberdeen as a pickup point to take advantage of a phenomenal game-processing trade. Customers drop off their deer, elk and even moose for further processing at the Aberdeen location, which is 45 miles from the main plant. The Frohling shop handles about 1,200 to 1,500 big game carcasses a year and processes boned-out game meats for another 1,000 customers each year. A refrigerated storage trailer is used to take in the carcasses in Aberdeen.
Jon admits that the logistics of traveling between locations is tough but it is a trek he makes three days a week. He calls it “a rare negative in God’s Country.”
The family realizes its limitations. When the Native American Natural Foods company came to them and asked them to make their Tanka Bars (a 70-calorie energy bar made from South Dakota raised buffalo, Wisconsin cranberries and peppers), the Frohlings agreed to develop and produce the Lakota Sioux product. Jon performed the research and development for the Tanka Bar, which proved so popular that he outgrew his production capacity for the product within two weeks.
Jon was honored with the title of “co-creator” for his artisanal version of the legendary product, which has been featured in the New York Times and on Star Alliance airline videos.
The Tanka Bar was named the 2010 new product of the year by Backpacker Magazine and is sold in 500 stores in all 50 states. It is their second-most popular product. They are now produced through Western’s Smokehouse & Meat Market in Greentop, Mo.
Jon’s been recently experimenting with other ingredient variations of the Tanka Bar, which is the first nationally branded buffalo product.
Operating under South Dakota state meat inspection, the firm is restricted to marketing within the state. But it makes a no-nitrite lean buffalo hot dog (called Tanka Dogs) made from plate meat and ships them across state lines. The product comes in two sizes and about 3,000 lbs. a week are distributed from Florida to the Pacific Coast.
Jon defines his business as about 60 percent retail and custom, with a wholesale volume of about 30 percent and growing. Catering makes up the balance for the 14 employees.
Jon describes the Hecla operation as a “hodge-podge” of three buildings used for retail, processing and dry storage. But over the horizon he sees his time demands holding up better design and flow.
He refers to himself as too “hands on” and says he is “very personal in every decision” and that not being in control bothers him.
Still, he is reflective about the present and future. Jon says he would like to consider interstate shipment to expand his business. He has already been approved in a preliminary review, but says state meat inspection budget issues may not make this option possible.
“The way the rule is written makes it too cumbersome for the small plant and the hoops the state program people have to jump through is a big impediment,” he says.
He prefers to focus more immediately on the poor economy and how it has impacted his custom business.
“Farmers who brought in seven beef a year before are bringing in maybe two now,” he says. “I have to adapt to these changes. I see the need to make adjustments in the products I offer. People who come in can’t afford steaks like before and need more affordable options. That means I have to make changes in my product line-up to stay on top.”
Success takes time and it takes a toll. But for Jon Frohling, the meat business is in his blood and he will not sit still.
Given a wish, he would still opt for time to go behind that door and be left to his own devices to conjure up new product ideas and have time for “that wild and crazy stuff.” He contends that customers love his products but get tired of the same thing on a regular basis, meaning for Jon Frohling, it’s always show time.