There’s something very upbeat about Elburn Market, a meat-lover’s paradise in the rural town of Elburn, Ill., located 40 miles west of Chicago on Highway 47. Maybe it’s the fact that owner Randy Ream and his musically inclined family have orchestrated the ultimate revival of the small town butcher shop.
The two-story, Main Street market may look like your typical local meat shop on the outside, replete with striped awning, big windows and colorful signage. But step inside the door of the market and you’ll quickly realize you’ve entered the very special abode of a true meat professional.
“I like to call it the shotgun approach,” Ream explains. “When you walk in the door, you are overwhelmed by so many meat selections that you don’t know where to go first.”
The 2,000-sq.-ft. store layout is a true-to-life Christmas catalog of all things meat. Ream’s parents, Robert and Phyllis, bought the vintage meat market in 1954 and maintained the location as a high-quality, fresh meat retail shop that also processed meat for farmers in rural Kane County. Little did they know that when they put Randy to work as a child sweeping sawdust for 15 cents a day, a major transformation was looming on the horizon.
Indeed, Ream’s avocation was music and he went on to graduate from nearby Waubonsee Junior College and Western Illinois Univ. in that major and played the saxophone with a traveling band all around the country. He’s still quite proud of a carefully guarded photo of himself with Bob Hope on stage in Hilton Head, SC.
His wife, Janelle, played the harp and later sons, Joel, now 23 (guitar), and Stewart, 19 (sax), came into the family, along with daughter Jackie. They still “jam” in the makeshift, third–floor studio above the shop. But make no mistake, the Ream family’s greatest performances and talents are to be found two floors below.
Ream admits that his introduction into the meat business was basic training on a broom. With fresh-meat sales and a two-car garage that had been converted into a custom slaughterhouse in the alley to the rear, the family managed the business with little change for nearly three decades until around 1980, when Ream wanted to learn sausage-making and curing of meats.
He went to the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors convention in Lake Geneva and quickly found the Badgerland champions starting “to take pity on this flatlander” and sharing some of their processing ideas. He also credits Illini processors Larry Schubert and Jim Hankes and equipment and ingredient suppliers with helping him along with curing tips.
Randy says he soon became conversant in “sausage kitchen German” and readily the curtains opened on what has to be one of the most successful performances by a small town meat processor in American history.
“Better equipment enabled us to make better products,” Ream emphasizes. “We started entering our products in state and national competitions. We tried new products based on what we had learned and recognized that when we wanted to try something new, there was a process we could follow.”
If the proof of the pudding lies in the taste, the test of a meat product is how it fares in competition and in how it sells.
In the competitive meats arena, Ream hasn’t excelled…he’s exceeded. He has directed Elburn Market products to grand championship awards in 15 separate product classes at the American Cured Meat Championships (ACMC), something never done by any processor. His small shop has garnered an incredible 235 awards in cured meat competition!
Ream was the first winner of the Clarence Knebel Best of Show Award at the 1994 ACMC for his beef jerky and in 2000 was inducted into the prestigious Cured Meats Hall of Fame.
As for having product that sells, last Christmas Elburn Market had 1,000 customers in the store in a single day. The firm’s decision to give up slaughter in 1967 allowed it to convert that precious space to smoking and curing and a sausage kitchen that turns out about 6,000 lbs. of product per week.
Ream says the booming deer processing trade that once handled 850 carcasses a year allowed the profit to be reinvested in better equipment. He also recognized that as the shop’s reputation grew, he was increasingly tapping into the Chicago market, and the need to keep the store open seven days a week became apparent.
Elburn Market now employs 36 part-time and six full-time workers and does a booming business in meat and cheese gift boxes, party trays, roasted pigs for pick up, deli salads and sandwiches to-go. As a traffic-stopper and sales niche, the store also has an outdoor hotdog cart that serves up 20 lbs. of their prize winning wieners daily.
Their website – www.elburnmarket.com – lists most of the products and services. For a Midwesterner, the tastes of summer sausage, breakfast links, cheddarwursts and a boatload of brat flavors are at hand. For those seeking a step above the expected, there is the Cudghi Italian sausage, knackwurst, bockwurst and Cajun boudin. But where else would the true meat enthusiast go to find such delectables as South African boerwors or biltong (beef jerky), Romanian sausage, Munchner weisswurst or even a hurka or gutshofeberwurst? It’s all in that little shop on Main Street.
While the website lists their products, there is nothing like a walk inside the Elburn Market to appreciate the meat displays that reach out for your palate from all directions. A seemingly endless fresh-meats case sparkles with well-marbled beef and pork offerings from fresh to marinated, seasoned or stuffed. Poultry displays astonish with geese, pheasant, capon, local Ho-Ka turkey and chicken that’s dressed up to meet you.
In the maze of counters, bunkers and displays customers uncover such in-store-made delights as jerky dip and cheeses of every stripe. But beware, everything else is just a mood-setter for the massive cured meats counter, the real throne room at Elburn Market.
And to think when Randy and Janelle took over the store, it only had an 8-ft. fresh-meat counter and a dime-store that took up the other half of the current retail area.
Putting so much meat manufacturing and meat-marketing display muscle into such a compact land-locked space has been a challenge, but Ream continues to make strides in innovation and in rethinking best usage.
“We put in a 20 ft. by 14 ft. outside freezer for retail products so we can move things by the pallet load and eliminate unnecessary rehandling,” he notes. “We did the in-store bakery thing but had to give it up because we just didn’t have enough room. We opted to not do catering but will prepare nearly anything in quantity for pick-up here.”
He points out that he operates under a county retail inspection program and has groups like the Rotary Club and others come in to buy items for fairs and festivals.
“But no matter how overwhelming the selection of quality products we have in the store, we really pride ourselves the most on our quality of service,” he says.
“We have a very diverse customer base and go out of our way to make a trip to our store a pleasant experience,” Ream reflects.
Ream, 56, served as president of the Illinois Association of Meat Processors from 2011-2012 and is frequently called upon to do product demonstrations for other processors at state and national meat conventions, and is often asked to help judge product show competitions.
Elburn Market remains a family business. Janelle tackles accounting and retail counter management responsibilities and the Ream children are competent beyond their years in making superior meat products.
Today, the music-loving Reams still take time to jam in the third-floor studio that once housed Robert and Phyllis and the fledgling meat maestro they once rewarded with 15 cents a day and his own sawdust broom.
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat & Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.