March 10, 2014
You might call it the realization of a dream born of necessity and starvation. That describes how Karl Koslowski escaped from behind the Iron Curtain and went on to found one of the landmark ethnic meat shops in the United States. But Karl’s Country Market in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is much more than the story of someone who pursued and realized the American dream. It represents the saga of one man’s fear and daring.
Karl was born in Hanau, Germany, but the close of World War II found his family separated. His father and brother were in West Germany, working in a coal mine. Karl, his mother and sisters had been evacuated to Poland during the war and chose to go to East Germany when hostilities ceased.
Life in East Germany was difficult and food rationing was a way of life. At age 15, Karl was asked by the butcher what he wanted to do with his life and he responded that he wished “to be a butcher just like you.” The butcher rewarded him with a large chunk of sausage to take home to his family.
The butcher then offered Karl an apprenticeship and gave him a piece of sausage every week. Karl, who spoke German, Russian and Polish, determined to escape to West Germany and on Christmas 1953, took a train westward. When the train stopped near the border, everyone was ordered to get off. But Karl re-boarded and entered an empty train car, which he soon learned was the one used by the police and border guards who were outside checking for undocumented passengers. Without papers, Karl knew if he would have been discovered, execution would be his fate.
When he arrived in West Germany, Karl joined his father and brother working in the coal mines. But due to the low pay and hard working conditions as a miner, he decided to quit and took a three-year apprenticeship in the local butcher shop. He planned to move to Australia, but learned one of his sisters had immigrated to Milwaukee so he decided to join her there.
Karl got a job in a local meat shop and at age 26 married the butcher’s daughter, Ingrid. His dream of owning his own shop moved forward when he leased the meat department at a local supermarket. When the supermarket chain moved out of the area in 1985, Karl purchased the entire store and worked there refining his trade until he relocated to Menomonee Falls, about 10 miles northwest of the city.
Karl, now 76, wanted to learn American meat preferences as well as German, and set up shop in a 14,000-sq.-ft. building he bought in the 40,000 population town of Menomonee Falls.
Change of guard
Two years ago, Karl “handed over the reins” of the shop to his son, Paul, now the sole owner of Karl’s Country Market, but he still comes in several days a week to lend a hand wherever needed, including time behind the retail counter where customers can order their meats in a variety of languages.
“Dad instilled something in me…a realization that the customer has come to us,” Paul reflects, “and we cannot disappoint them. They want our help in meat choices, in preparation of the items they buy, in good service and in product knowledge. It is critical that we give that to them.”
Today, the Koslowski shop devotes about 60 percent of its volume to meat sales, including more than 100 varieties of sausage. German-style meats are complemented by imported cheeses, wines and beers from all over Europe and local micro-brews.
The firm has earned 79 awards in meat competitions from the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors since 1985, 12 awards from the Wisconsin State Fair and 51 plaques from the American Cured Meat Championships.
But among the most highly prized awards on display in the retail area are the 17 medals the company earned in its four trips to the International Meat Trade Fair (IFFA) in Germany. This includes an astounding 10 gold medals as the world’s best.
In addition to a hefty variety of German grocery items, Karl’s has become a Mecca for the lunch crowd. Paul explains: “From about 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., we typically serve between 200 and 250 deli sandwiches a day…and we are open seven days a week. About 90 percent are take-outs, but many people eat in their cars or trucks. In the summer, we have six picnic tables outside where customers can enjoy their lunches. And, from May through October, we fire up the grill and will serve as many as 200 brats a day.”
Karl’s boosts sales with decorative meat and cheese party platters that fly out of the shop during holidays and for office parties. They also do a brisk business in “ready-to-go” catering, which includes whole roasted pigs. They also rent rotisseries for pig roasts, but have convinced most customers that it is much more efficient to let the shop prepare the meat.
Every effort seems to go into following Karl’s service philosophy of giving the customers what they want.
“Most of our lunchtime offerings were sandwiches,” Paul explains, “but now we see a pronounced change with shoppers wanting hot meals. We’ve noticed that they are asking for marinated or stuffed entrées that they can just pop into the oven. We prepare lasagnas, stuffed chicken breasts and other items that are ready to bake.
“Every meat item or prepared meal we sell has complete cooking or serving instructions on the container or package,” he adds. “It’s all part of offering complete service and help in ensuring the greatest satisfaction with our products.”
Much of the deli ordering had been via fax, bolstered by menu specials that were sent out. But as technology has changed, more orders seem to be coming in from their website karlscountrymarket.com. This also saves in-store labor costs of having to man the phones to take the lunch orders.
A big advertising plus is the 5 by 8-inch LED roadside sign featuring specials that can be changed on the office computer. But Paul says that “word-of-mouth” recommendations remains the key method of advertising.
In a state where big-game hunting and fishing is so huge, Karl’s offers the highest-quality products in custom processing for sportsmen. Paul estimates the company turns out between 5,000 and 8,000 lbs. of deer sausage per day during the winter months and in the summer loads the 1,000-lb. smoker to capacity with Lake Michigan salmon and other fish.
Karl’s operates as a retail and custom business and is not subject to federal or state meat inspection.
He acknowledges major crowding in the processing area and sausage kitchen and says visitors can’t comprehend how so many products can come out of such a small area.
Sampling a ‘plus’
Paul says the business is putting together a better product sampling program and looks to expand its microwaveable meal selection in the future:
“There’s something about the word ‘free’ in sampling that introduces customers to a new taste and gives them an opportunity to try it in the format in which it should be prepared. Customers who try the product and like the sample will most often purchase it.”
Bratwurst still reigns supreme in Wisconsin and Karl’s reminds customers of its state championship award in that category. One of the company’s best sellers is the Packer Brat, a cheddar and jalepeño flavor that plays on the gold and green team colors of the Green Bay Packers.
Paul, his wife, Charlene (who handles the accounting department), and their children who help out on weekends, are keeping Karl Koslowski’s small family-owned business on the “must see and taste” list of the American meat industry.
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues.