Charismatic approach

by Steve Krut
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Some people are just plain fun to be around. Maybe that’s what helps Larry Schubert’s business succeed. Larry Schubert, president of Schubert’s Packing Company in Millstadt, Ill., breathes life into the stereotypical image of what a butcher might look like. His thickly curled handlebar mustache, stocky build and never-sitstill personality belie a much moredeeply ingrained work ethic that has made him a favorite of both customers and fellow processors.

His company’s story actually began in the late 1970’s when Larry had worked for nearly a decade at a packing house in nearby Belleville, Ill. After hearing the plant was going to be closing soon, his entrepreneurial instinct engaged. He seized upon the notion that no one in the area was doing much custom meat processing and, in 1978, decided to try to make it on his own. During his last two weeks of vacation at the packing plant, he bought ground, started to build a small kill floor in Millstadt and opened the doors. In the midst of the business start-up, things were also changing drastically at the Schubert household. Larry’s wife, Marlene, gave birth to their first child, Angie, just a week after they opened for business.

The business, meanwhile, went from a crawl to a sprint faster than the new parents ever could have hoped. Larry’s skills and quality service pleased the local herdsmen so much that he had to expand the new shop each year for the next seven years.

“We worked hard to establish a good reputation with our slaughter and cutting programs and then moved into further processing,” Larry explains. It was when he began experimenting with mixers, sausage stuffers and smokehouses that his fame would begin spreading roots far beyond the town of Millstadt and its delighted population of 4,000. He became so adept at crafting tasty brats, loaves, summer sausages, as well as hams and bacons, that processors at state and national conventions knew he had arrived.

Blue-ribbon reputation
“I really don’t know how many awards we’ve won for our products,” he confesses, “but we have them on walls in our retail store, the offices and a lot more in boxes. I know there are at least a few hundred.”

So accomplished did he become that groups like the Illinois Association of Meat Processors (IAMP) and the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) called on him regularly to conduct workshops on processing and even serve as a judge in competitions. He was asked to judge in six other state and regional competitions, and in 2004 he was invited, along with his son, Bryan, to the Gross Bieberau American Festival in Hessen, Germany, where they demonstrated preparing and cooking brats and pork steaks.

Larry has been the chairman for IAMP’s Cured Meats Show and served as president of both IAMP and AAMP. A few years back, he was inducted into the Hermann, Mo., Wurstfest Hall of Fame, and was one of the consensus selections for induction into AAMP’s Cured Meat Hall of Fame.

Nothing excites a small meat processor more than visiting other plants, but for Larry, such visits are not just for cursory glances. He’ll readily fly into the sausage kitchen and start working, offering advice and sharing tips he’s collected over the years.

Nearly everyone who knows him has seen the famous tattoo he sports on his right hip. Eight years ago Larry was so proud of his inspection number, he went out and got a replica tattooed just below his belt line.

“That way I knew it would always be mine,” he recalls.

All three of the Schubert children, including Angie, Bryan and Christie, have worked in the shop during their college years, and the family has even gotten their granddaughter Alexa into the act by donning the two-year-old with a short apron and a fake mustache to play sausagemaker with Grandpa Larry.

Visitors to the 3,200 sq.-ft. facility marvel at the Schubert’s retail store’s product selection and its charming old European-style atmosphere. Hanging sausages along the walls, cedar-shake shingles and hard-to-find products like authentic bockwurst tell customers they have come to a special corner of processing paradise.

Signature smokies
At 59, Larry flashes a mischievous eye when asked to identify his signature product. “It’s the smokies!” he says, referring to the four-inch long beef-snack sticks that pack flavor that is not duplicated anywhere.

“There was a man who worked for an area plant that made beef snack sticks and he left them in the smokehouse too long,” Larry says. “He thought he was going to get fired because they were all cooked out. But when the owner put them on sale at a reduced price, customers gobbled them up and came back the next day wanting to buy more. I made a good decision by hiring that man.”

Those now-famous products make up about 60,000 lbs. of production per year for the company’s retail sales and another 20,000 lbs. processed privatelabel accounts. The tubular jewels of taste perfection come in five varieties: regular, hot, sweet, cheddar cheese and a cheddar-jalapeño version.

Schubert Packing’s business is about 70 percent retail, and the custom and wholesale accounts make up another 10 percent each of the volume. But a new area of growth, catering, came to fruition about five years ago – almost by accident.

“I was doing a roasting pig for a party and things just took off from there,” he says. “People started calling and wanting us to do one for them. Now we are doing about 125 events like this a year.”

An “event” by some standards is catering a party. But for Larry Schubert, having fun carving and serving guests goes beyond expectations.

“At one party we catered, they wanted a Hawaiian theme,” he continues. “They had a volcano built and had me dress up with a painted face, grass skirt and even a lighted coconut shell bra. They carried me out on a platform to do the carving. I had more fun than anyone there.”

Schubert Packing once operated a bakery, but now leases an outlying building out to an independent company several days a week and sells their goods in the retail store. The Schuberts can use the bakery for their own catered events on other days.

The firm has its own colorful Web site (www.schubertspacking.com) where it details everything from an array of products and services to a history of the operation. In addition to processing about 700 deer per year (up from 15 the first year) and churning out an array of value-added venison products for the hunters, the firm does a brisk business with meat and cheese party platters, steak gift boxes, gift baskets and freezer meat bundles.

But it is truly the taste and theater that sells in this 15-employee operation. Items like head cheese, andouille, award-winning braunschweiger and even duck sausage light up the 25-foot display case. Hard-to-find items like mettwurst, apple-wurst, 13 varieties of brats and picture-perfect loaves give customers ample selections.

They are renown for their brats at Millstadt’s annual two-day homecoming celebration where they cook up nearly 6,000 of the Midwest’s finest. And for the past 10 years, Larry and Marlene have been stalwart sponsors of the local Optimist Club’s fall cook-off that draws more than 200 entries in classes like ribs, chili, pork steaks and even pork snouts. Marlene handles the judging for the six-hour cook-off, which raises about $25,000 annually for local charities.

While Larry’s enthusiasm for everything helps sell the products, he is quite serious about the way customers need to be treated.

“Every employee in our shop knows that they have to sell themselves to the customers first to give them the comfort and confidence to feel they are shopping in a store that really cares about them,” he adds.

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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