How the Westerns win
May 29, 2012
by Steve Krut
The day after Sam Western opened his small retail store and butcher shop in Greentop, Mo., his father passed away.
The year was 1978 and the young man who had learned about meats by helping his dad with farm butchering suddenly felt very alone. Then, with little more than determination and his dad’s inspiration, Sam set his Western’s Smokehouse and Meat Market on course to become one of the fastest-growing and successful small meat businesses in the state.
“Dad was so proud that we finally had our own shop,” Sam recounts, “and I wasn’t about to drop the ball.”
Sam’s grandfather had butchered on the farm around turn of the century, peddling fresh pork cuts door to door, and his father had taken over the trade. They never had a brick-and-mortar building…not even a wooden one. Sam learned the trade at the knee of his family.
Once a regional supermarket hired him to work in the meat department, Sam was quickly promoted, becoming the youngest manager at the age of 22. But with a growing, young family of his own and an entrepreneurial spirit, he set his sights on building his own business and opened the doors to the 2,400-sq.-ft custom meat shop in Greentop, population 424. He boasted four pieces of equipment, including a saw “that sounded like a helicopter.” Fortunately, the shop was located along a well-traveled highway traversed by 8,000 vehicles a day.
Four years later, he added 1,000 sq. ft. to house a freezer and smokehouse room, and in 1990 expanded by another 1,000, this time to separate the retail area from the custom and processing area.
It was a plant on its way, but Sam Western had a bigger dream and it was right around the corner.
Sam’s oldest son, Kevin, had worked as a clean-up boy since the age of eight and was interested in the business. Kevin states he has done “every job in the plant” at one time or another.
“I had two years of business school, and came to work with my Dad in a hands-on capacity,” Kevin confides. “It was my hope to listen and educate myself in the business, learning about our strengths and weaknesses.”
The father-and-son team worked to perfect their cured meats recipes and began to focus on shelf-stable products like jerky and snack sticks. With the decline in farm-raised animals to slaughter, their new business plan included moving away from the custom trade, including deer processing. In 2008, Western’s expanded by another 6,000 sq. ft. in order to further separate cutting, processing and curing/cooking spaces.
“We spent a lot of time analyzing the company,” Kevin explains. “We wanted to reduce the risk of potential contaminants. Giving up custom work would ensure eliminating a distraction and allowing the company to focus on what they were doing best, and with the most potential.”
Western’s Smokehouse trademarked all their shelf-stable snack items and devoted time and expense to best practices in packaging, bar codes, clean labels and nutritional information. They say it didn’t happen overnight.
They continued to compete in state and national cured meats competitions, winning grand championships at both levels. In 2007, Western’s competed in the world meat trade show in Germany and added an international gold, silver and bronze medal to their already legendary collection.
Next step: Snacks
Bursting into the snack-food market was the next step and they hit the food trade show circuit.
“We had to knock the doors down at those food shows,” Sam recalls. “We may have had the best products, but we had to compete with some big players who had been doing it for years. They had the resources, flexibility and volume advantages. But we knew we had a program and a plan and a superior product.”
The Westerns contend that the clean labels helped them move into the convenience store and health food market niches. To go deep into this new business territory, they knew it would take determination.
Without using outside consultants, Kevin points out that “the little guy with a good product does have some advantages, but it takes being genuine and committed to follow through.”
Their efforts have been so successful the firm is set to unveil Phase II of its expansion plans with increased technology and more efficient equipment in another 2,000-sq.-ft. expansion. They’re planning additional smokehouse capacity, a pair of packaging machines and an overhead hanger/linker system.
Western’s is trying to be more competitive by increasing the flexibility of their product sizes, offering jumbo versions of their standard line-up in response to customer demand.
In order to handle shipping volumes, Western’s has added a fulfillment company, multiple distributors and UPS to their daily traffic. Where one semi-tractor trailer used to come in for a monthly load, several trucks pick up there each day.
The consumer exposure the firm got for its own branded products swung open the doors for a growing private-label trade. Western’s manufactures shelf-stable products for nearly 30 outside companies, including 12 primary accounts that reach nationwide and into Canada.
Although the former custom processor produces eight different snack stick flavors and three beef jerky varieties, they contend that their private-labeling enterprise gives them great ideas for new products with their own brand.
By narrowing their focus to their most popular products, the Westerns were able to build a strong division around corporate gifts and fund-raising programs and marketing to service clubs, schools and organizations, headlined by their jerky and snack stick programs.
The company’s payroll has grown to 25 full-time and 10 part-time employees. They boast low turnover, using several retirees in their catering business. Western’s offers both pick-up and off-site catering, with everything from a $6.99 boxed business lunch, to specialty meals such as ribeye, prime rib, smoked Iowa pork chops and Memphis-style baby back ribs.
Their popular website (www.westerns-smokehouse.com) even offers details on their $549.95 meat of the month gift collection that ships specialty meat products to recipients all year long. The site features recipes, cooking and handling guides, nutritional data, gift cards, party trays, maps and a virtual meat catalog. It also touts their retail store, where meats and other items account for 35 percent of the total company business.
Western’s wholesale operation does about 10 percent of the volume and catering 5 percent, but it is the meat snacks and jerky, both branded and private label, that ring up half of their total volume. In 2011, they saw an astounding 34 percent growth in the snack-stick business alone.
Both Sam and Kevin admit their idea of narrowing their company focus was inspired by fellow meat processors they heard present programs at the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) and Missouri Association of Meat Processors (MAMP) conventions.
“Building these relationships and learning from the masters has been a tremendous help,” Sam explains.
Kevin, the firm’s vice president, handles production and personnel, and currently serves on the AAMP board of directors. Sam acts as the CEO and oversees retail and catering. Sam served as MAMP president in 1990 and Kevin held that position in 2005. Kevin has two children, a daughter in college and a son in high school, both interested in becoming the fifth generation of the Western family to enter the meat business.