May 7, 2012
by Steve Krut
Nestled in a corner of Big Sky Country, Saco, Mont., is home to one of the most modern small meat-processing businesses in the country –the Pay N Save Grocery & Meat Shop.
“The town says it has a population of 224, but it’s more like 180 people,” confides owner Robert Plouffe (pronounced “ploof”). “The cattle in this area outnumber the people by a long shot.”
But it’s always been home to this former auto-body mechanic, who after years of working in other areas, moved back to his roots in 1982 and bought a 1,700-sq.-ft. grocery store and custom-locker plant.
“I didn’t really know much about the business, but it was priced right and it put me back in the town my heart has been a part of forever,” Plouffe says.
Having never worked in the meat business, he relied on an innate ability to figure things out through common sense and made that 30-year-ago decision the right one.
Plouffe, now 58, and his wife, Betty, took over the locker plant, which in 1914 was a bar that was later remodeled. Saco had been a thriving town during Homestead Act days, boasting three banks and dozens of businesses. But when the Great Depression hit, the cattle and natural gas wells were about all that kept people there.
The town was founded in 1889 when the Great Northern Railroad decided to locate a water tank along its tracks. Its other claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of nationally famous TV news commentator Chet Huntley and that in 1999 the town folk cooked up a 3-ton hamburger and ate it, landing them in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But fortunately for Plouffe, Saco is also located along Highway 2, a heavily traveled road (by Montana standards) and their grocery and meat shop seems to be an oasis for most motorists coming through.
The Plouffes taught themselves the workings of the custom meat business and grew that area of the business from two to three beef cattle a week to a sustained rate of 12 to 14 cattle weekly. They slaughter under Montana’s custom-exempt rules every Friday and in the fall months may process up to 15 hogs, and an occasional buffalo. They service farmers and ranchers within a 100-mile radius of the plant.
“We did a good trade in big game processing, but a few years back the Blue Tongue disease wiped out most of the white-tail deer population and we gave up that part of the business,” Plouffe says. “But in a way, that turned out to be a good thing and we were able to turn out attention to products that made a better return on our labor.”
By September 1999, custom processing of beef had grown so much that the Plouffes had to resurrect their game work and were able to open a new 8,100-sq.-ft. facility on the main street, using the nearby old locker plant for freezer space and storage.
“We didn’t do anything that creative or unique,” he notes. “We just tried to treat our customers the way we would want to be treated ourselves. We always wanted to be fair and honest.”
So successful has been their business philosophy that the company has grown to eight full-time and seven part-time employees. Among the full-timers is son Travis, 31, who handles much of the custom slaughter and meat cutting. Plouffe adds that his mother and father, now in their 70s, come in to help out when needed. Two daughters are not yet involved in the business.
Only game in town
But it is the retail store that has grown to represent 60 percent of their business. In a town where you’re the only significant food game around, it would be easy to relax – but not for the Pay N Save management.
The store glistens with clean meat cases and displays stocked with award-winning meats and value-added items the Plouffe family churns out in their ultra-modern processing area.
They purchased a vacuum stuffer in 2005 and most recent additions include a bowl chopper and ham injector. Their one-truck Smith smokehouse can barely keep up with demand for their products. Their homepage, listed under sacomontana.net/paynsave, advises customers that they often run out of their popular jerky selections.
When asked if they have a signature product, Plouffe pauses and then emphasizes that “we do a bit of everything, but everything we do is the best product we can make.”
Citing his initial inexperience, Plouffe is quick to give credit for the processing guidance he received through the Montana Meat Processors Association.
“Those folks were incredible in helping me out,” he points out. “One year they brought in Ed Woods, from Wood’s Smoked Meats in Bowling Green, Mo., to do a seminar. He really taught us the right way to make a quality ham. He showed us how to make a sweet bologna, which I had never seen before. We sell a lot of sweet bologna, something we would have never come up with on our own.
“In another year they brought in the late Steve Eaker, from Ellendale, Minn., [Steve’s Meat Market] and he was just invaluable in guiding us on so many products. Learning on the job was made so much easier with people like them who came in to share their vast knowledge. It has all added to the bottom line.”
But learning and putting what you learned into practice are two different ball games, and Plouffe has hit home runs in both. His small-town shop boasts 20 different styles of bratwursts, snack sticks in nearly one dozen flavors, jerky galore, summer sausage, fresh and smoked sausages, including steak and potato, Cajun, pizza, taco, pepper jack, and German and garlic offerings. And did we mention those prize-winning hams and bacons, and even a delectable mortadella?
Pay N Save offers an upscale setting for its products in the retail area. Plouffe’s brother, Jason, has a vast collection of big game and fish trophy-class mounts that adorn the walls. In addition, Plouffe’s shop has become Saco’s unofficial historical photo museum, displaying pictures of many of the town’s now vanished buildings and features.
“People like to come in and look around and this gives them something they’ll find nowhere else,” he says.
In one sense, cattle seem to have followed many of the residents out of Saco. The local barley feeding provides a unique beef flavor that is much in demand outside the area, and most of the meat produced in the region is shipped out to consumers wanting something special in taste and quality.
Plouffe feels he’s lucky he doesn’t have to endure the paperwork hardships of federal inspection for now and is content “continuing my learning on the job and making sausage.” With Travis showing greater interest in boosting snack stick and jerky varieties and volume, Robert is contemplating a second smokehouse and perhaps a Tipper Tie machine.
And while the town-owned natural gas wells provide one of the lowest cost fuel sources in the country for the few local businesses, he ponders what government decisions will have in store for the future of his enterprise.
“The Canada-to-the-Gulf Keystone pipeline was supposed to come right through this area and it would have been a real boon to our community. That makes it tough to grow too much unless we get a shot like that,” he says.
So for now, the Plouffe family is content to produce some of America’s finest cured and smoked meat products in the very small town they so love…and do it with a Northwestern flair.