It could almost be called the military action that saved a meat business.

When his father, Russell, went to work for a small locker plant in the Northern Sacramento Valley town of Chico, Calif., David Dewey was just a kid. The year was 1965 and his father’s employer, who had just bought the business, gave up on it eight months later.

So, Russell Dewey and his two children tried to make a go of it, running a tiny custom shop that killed and processed animals for local farmers and ranchers. Just a teen, David was called in to help wrap meat and bone out a few cuts. But being unable to drive, he couldn’t do much but assist his dad with the on-the-farm slaughter. But at the age of 15, he surprised his dad when he cut and boned out a whole beef himself.

David, now 60, says the business couldn’t sustain paid employees and when he was about to be drafted in 1971, he enlisted for a three-year stint in the US Air Force. It was there that he wound up cutting meat, then moving into the food-safety inspection area, and even microbiology.

“When I got out of the service, Dad wanted me to come to work for him,” David recalls. “I felt I could help him with the skills I learned in the military and in 1981 my wife, Linda, and I bought the business. She had also worked for Dad. Man, was it ever a struggle. About a year after we took over, we were invited to the California Association of Meat Processors convention in Sacramento about 95 miles away. That cost money, which we didn’t have. Interest rates were at 18 percent. It is no exaggeration to say that we probably qualified for welfare and food stamps at the time.

“But we met some folks there who took us under their wing and steered us to transform our business into a deli and sausage operation,” he adds. “They were a Godsend to us and we saw where we needed to change.”

Armed with new friends, good advice and a few shared recipes, Chico Locker & Sausage Co. was reborn.

The days of struggling were overcome with the rollout of innovative, new products, and a Northern California swagger that has put this outpost of quality meat products on every foodie’s “must- shop” list.

With just 10 employees, including daughter, Jennifer, and son, Jacob, the family’s commitment to offering quality products and personal service has made it a nationally known success story.

The small delicatessen features the Dewey family’s products at lunch time six days a week. More than 50 types of sausage are available, from chicken cordon bleu to Mediterranean and maybe the country’s best linguica.

“We recently took a family trip to Portugal and tried some local linguica,” David says. “If I took a bite and closed my eyes, I could tell it tasted darn near the same as mine. In our region, folks are very health-conscious, read labels feverishly and prefer low salt and low fat in their cured and smoked meats.”

The deli business at Chico Locker & Sausage Co. is mostly take-out and the retail area has three small tables for those dining inside. But make no mistake, it is the taste of the products, served with the ever-present sourdough breads, that brings customers back, not just for more sandwiches, but for larger orders of their products to serve at home.

New cuts

In the 1980s, beef tri-tips were discovered in California and the Dewey clan has ridden this culinary phenomenon to the top. Boasting 10 different types of tri-tips, Chico Locker was introduced to the cut when a freezer worker brought in some and asked the Deweys to try them.

“We’ve done buffalo tri-tips, which have gotten too pricey to buy for the average customer,” Dave points out, “actually tripling in price. We even put out some pork tri-tips, but they are too small and we’ve gone to using pork loins. It is the beef product that they come here for every day.”

He explains that most of his sausage products are dried rather than fermented, and that it is the demand for fresh and smoked product that allows him to infuse ingredients such as fruits and vegetables inside the casings to garner rave reviews.

“I’m not an Old World-type sausage maker,” Dave offers, “but we have a variety that sells well, everything from potato sausages, Polish, Italian or German-style, Cajun, cheddarwurst, andouille to a chicken broccoli with cheese.

“We’ve come up with a Chicken Sunshine sausage that pops with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes and our Mediterranean sausage is made with feta cheese and artichoke hearts,” he adds.

Marinated skirt steaks sell well for Chico Locker, as do pork chops, carne asada, bangers, brats and a nice variety of jerky and snack sticks, including pepper, teriyaki, jalapeno and cheese offerings.

David served as president of CAMP in 1998 and believes so strongly in the necessity of small processors working together that he is serving again this year in the same position. He is a past president of the American Association of Meat Processors (1997-98) and was inducted into the prestigious Cured Meat Hall of Fame of that organization in 2001.

His products have won more than 100 top honors with both of these trade groups at their cured meats competitions and his version of Chili Verde has captured national honors for the most innovative new pork product.

Return to roots

But lest one thinks David is now just another gourmet sausage and cured meats guy, he has returned to his roots in the custom slaughter and processing business that he never really left.

At least five days a week, he heads out to farms and ranches in a 60-mile radius with his mobile slaughter unit and brings back carcasses to his “little shop of honors” for further processing. His reputation in the area is storied.

“You’ve got to realize that these are the highest-quality animals you can ever find,” he continues. “They are relaxed in the setting where they were raised, they are calmer and more relaxed by not being transported alive and the meat quality is so much better.”

His custom work also includes processing animals from four area fairs, as well as game animals, such as moose, deer, elk, bear, wild hogs, ducks and pheasants. He custom smokes turkeys, hams and even salmon, too. The Dewey enterprise also has a catering branch, which David foresees as the growth area with the most potential.

“We really don’t have a catering menu,” David confides. “We cook roasting pigs and the customers pick them up. We’ve learned to bone out a pig and use pork shoulders to stuff inside. That way we can serve perhaps 200 people with an 80-lb. hog. We also stuff some hogs with sauerkraut and even mashed potatoes.

“We don’t have a website, although we’ve been looking at the concept,” he says. “I’m a technical dinosaur…a cowboy beans kind of guy who likes to be outside…but my daughter, Jennifer, seems to have a much better grasp on those areas. She is also our sausage formulator and meat-block mixer.”

The Dewey family just recently bought a bowl chopper, tumbling and marinating equipment and is now looking to improve its product capabilities. With rendering costs ever-rising, David recognized years ago an opportunity to smoke and flavor beef bones for pets.

“People know things are tight in the economy, but they absolutely will spend money for their pets,” he says. “You know, I’ve never had a dog complain or come in to say the treats were too salty. It’s just something that can add to our bottom line.”

And adding to that bottom line are smoked pork femurs, pet jerky made from liver, as well as pork skins that are rolled and double-smoked. “When you can get $12 a lb. for a product that you had to pay someone to take away, it makes you think,” he says.

His biggest concerns are the ever-expanding regulations that fall on small businesses least geared to handle them and says it is a “sad thing” to see so many small plants for sale in his area.

Yet, one block away from Chico Locker & Sausage Co. is the site of the first locker plant in the US. Chico Ice & Cold Storage began in 1908 and a few years later provided a processing area where farmers could cut up and wrap meat from their own livestock for frozen storage. It was a business that inspired tens of thousands of others to tap the potential of what was then a new wave.

David’s lament about his fellow processors is almost prophetic:

“Many folks in this business don’t want to push their kids into it. They see and live firsthand the paperwork burdens associated with everything from BSE, to new regulations designed to build firewalls of food safety that is out of proportion to what a small family business can realistically handle. It is a trade that is already hard enough to navigate and the workload of just producing meat products is staggering. When you see health-care costs rise by 40 percent and 30 percent in successive years, it gives you great pause. It comes down to hard work and some just plain get tired of it,” he concludes.

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.