January 6, 2010
by Steve Krut
Maybe they’re coming for the meat! Elmwood, a town of 800 in West Central Wisconsin, has long touted itself as the UFO capital of the state. It even has its own three-day UFO fest each July. But those alien visitors are not alone if they’ve made the journey for some of the country’s finest brats.
Sailer’s Food Market & Meat Processors has a reputation for its line-up of 36 different brats. The Sailer family itself has come a long way…from Austria, to be exact, and has steadily moved itself into the ranks of the elite in American meat craftsmanship.
Yes, Jacob (Jake) Sailer admits to featuring a UFO brat…one stuffed with green olives, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, but says he’s more interested in catering to folks from a 60-mile radius of Elmwood.
Jake, who along with his wife, Leslie, represents the fifth generation of Sailer meat processors. They co-own the business with his parents Ric and Mary.
An inspiring saga
"My great-grandfather, Frank Sr., came to Wisconsin in 1923 at the age of 17 and settled in Elmwood because the hills reminded him of home in Austria," Jake says of his family’s settlement in the area. "He opened a Jack Sprat grocery store and meat processing business that later evolved into a full-service locker plant."
In 1995, when Jake and his parents took over the enterprise from Jake’s grandparents, Frank Jr. and Lorena, they had some hard decisions to make. They opted to give up the grocery trade and turn their efforts on meat processing.
"But the tougher challenge was the lack of space to continue the custom and sausage-making business with an eye to the future," Jake said. "It was either quit or build a new facility. So we built.
"The road was a hard one for many years and we worked our tails off," he adds. "My grandfather, Frank Jr., had been more of a storekeeper, a trade he learned in the U.S. Navy, but he was self-taught in meat processing. But then things were different. My dad went to a meat school held in a church basement in 1971. He learned to be a meat cutter and worked too hard to find time for much else, except making some sausage."
Jake says he remembers his grandfather taking him to the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP) when he was just 5 years old.
"After that, we almost skipped a generation of education until I went to the WAMP show in Madison," he recalls. "I came home from the show and told dad we needed to buy an injection machine. I told him it would eliminate the artery-pumping of the hams by hand and he liked the idea. He didn’t like the $17,000 price tag.
Similar reluctance surfaced when Jake encouraged his father to buy a commercial oven and give up the old gravity smokehouse. And then came the challenge of talking him into buying a tumbler and then a stuffer. But the business continued to grow steadily and the Sailer family began realizing that keeping up meant investing in an even newer facility.
Jake, now 37, said the demand for more space become more apparent over a three-year period as he began visualizing what was needed in a newer plant.
"I traveled to other plants to see what they were doing and got to see a lot," he explains. "There were things I liked and things I didn’t. But the small processors in our state were amazing in the way they opened their doors and said ‘come on in and we’ll show you what we do and how we do it.’ I designed the new 10,000-sq.-ft. plant we built three years ago based on the ideas those great people shared with me."
The new Sailer shop is located just a block-and-a-half from the old one and a masterpiece of customer-friendly accommodation it turned out to be. The neat appearance of the 1,200-sq.- ft. retail area is finished in warm colors and features about 70 percent fresh meats and 30 percent frozen. Jake says if he had to name a signature item offered from the new facility, it would be the bacon. His mind races back to the days when he and the other generations of Sailers rubbed and brine-cured bacons and hams. He recalls them as being a bit too salty. Another favorite product is their Ring Bologna, still using the same recipe that Frank Sr. used many years ago.
"We’ve always tried to improve our products and the best way to do that was to enter them in head-to-head competition at WAMP," Jake emphasizes. "The first year I took two products to the show, our wieners and ring bologna and came in the top 10. We would help out in the product judging, and were able to pick-up on a lot of valuable information from doing so."
Getting it right has meant winning awards, expanding the product line and selling more of those championship meats. In 2004, he took home the Grand-Champion plaque for smoked beef and Reserve Grand Championships in restructured jerky and coarse-ring bologna. A year later, his honey ham stix were the grand champion and his bacon was the best at the Wisconsin State Fair.
By 2007, he garnered five Grand-Champion awards and another five championship-level plaques plus earned the R.W. Bray Award of Excellence, along with being the winner of the Governor’s Champion smoked ham.
This year, he blistered the WAMP competition with 11 award-winning products, including four Grand Champion awards and he again earned the prestigious Bray Award. At the AAMP competition in Omaha, Neb., he took home two Grand Championships, one Reserve Grand Championship and the Best of Show Award, which is the Clarence Knebel Memorial Award, for his smoked beef.
This is the story of an up-and-comer who has arrived! In fact, he has taken off. Last year, the American Association of Meat Processors honored him with their Accomplishment Award, presented to a rising younger star in the industry.
Jake and Leslie, who tackles the billing and accounting department, recently introduced their sixth generation of Sailers, with daughter Morgan, age three, and this year’s addition, a new son named Sam. The Sailer business does a steady trade, processing 800 head of cattle per year, and well over 2,000 hogs. They also process about 125 buffalo a year, and about 150 farm-raised European red deer, along with the regular deer processing activity. They process a few whole deer for hunters when time permits, but the bulk of deer season means making venison sausage, sticks and other cured products from already-skinned deer that hunters bring in.
They operate under state inspection and have 22 employees, including 16 full-timers. Each spring, they mail out post cards to their customers featuring their whole and half-hog sale, and turn that pork into award-level cured meats, as well as fresh and frozen cuts. That six-week promotion has climbed to 400 hogs this year.
The firm's web site helps generate traffic and promotes the business. They have also established a great reputation among 4-H and FFA groups by working two county fairs and purchasing many top-award animals.
It may be difficult for a younger meat man to be truly philosophical, but Jake leads from the heart: "Sometimes after work, driving home or lying awake at night, I think about why I’ve done these things. Why am I taking on more responsibility and spending more on my business? Then I think about my family and my employees, and I look at those awards and reassure myself that I’m doing some good for a lot of people.
"I owe so much to the industry and other small processors and want to be in a position that when some-one comes to me for information or help, or ideas, I can give back what was so generously given to me by my fellow processors," 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.