Keith (left) and Jason Jennings

“Working in the family meat business was the last thing I wanted to do,” Jason Jennings reminisces. But the president of Jennings Premium Meats in New Franklin, Mo. later learned that there was much more of a role for him than washing walls and scrubbing tubs.

“I thought about going into engineering or maybe business management because all I could remember about working in the meat plant as a kid was the clean-up work,” he continues. “I went to the Univ. of Missouri to earn a degree in food science in 1988 and was going into post-graduate work and came back to the family business to help my dad.”

Today, the 49-year-old Jennings represents the third-generation in his family and has transformed the enterprise into a humming business that has seen 15 percent to 20 percent volume increases for the past three years.

His grandfather, Oscar “Pop” Jennings, worked in and later bought a locker plant in the Katy Trail community in 1954. The Katy Trail was the old line of the now defunct Kansas-Texas railroad that ran through New Franklin, a small town with a population of 1,200. He had been a small- time farmer and took work where he could. In those hand-to-mouth hard times, he grew the business by serving farm families by cutting and curing meats.

When Oscar’s son, Keith Jennings, came on to run the company in 1968, he strongly emphasized the retail potential. Although now retired, Keith still comes into the 15,500-sq.-ft. plant most days to help out where needed. But it’s clear that Jason has become the major domo in running the shop in the day-to-day operations.

Jason took over the reins in 1988 and introduced further-processed meats, including hams, bacons and sausages to the inventory of Jennings Premium Meats, now in its 60th year of business.

Retail focus

With an eye toward efficiency and a sharp pencil that found where better returns for the labor could be found, Jennings moved the business away from a busy game and custom processing bent and put the focus on retail and private labeling.

“Today, about 75 percent of our business is private labeling for wholesale accounts,” Jennings says. “We had to make a decision to give up many of the smaller accounts because of the logistics and limitations on available processing space in our facility.

The meat counter at Jennings Premium Meats features items that have garnered awards at state and national competitions.

“We have about 20 larger accounts that we private-label for and we’re constantly trying to do our best to give them quality service,” he adds. “Moving away from our original base of custom work, game processing and even slaughter…which we gave up four years ago…was hard to do. But we realized that despite how hard we were working to do things the right way, we always had exposure to things like E.coli and other liability issues that were beyond our control, no matter how careful we were handling the product.”

With 25 employees, the Jennings family still struggles with the regulatory pressure of providing health care and other governmental requirements beyond food safety. Jason says it puts greater pressure on a smaller company like his, but maintains he can compete when customers know the people and values of the folks who run the business. He adds that a smaller firm can also react more quickly to trends and changes in consumer preferences.

The retail area was redesigned two years ago and moved away from the knotty-pine country look to a brighter, more modern and colorful décor, complete with track lighting. It boasts a 40-ft.-long service meat case and another 80 ft. of self-service coffin and bin display area.

The 3,000-sq.-ft. retail area features all of the 75-plus meat items the company produces, selections that have garnered more than 60 awards in head-to-head state and national competition with other processors.

Among the biggest sellers are jerky in various flavors and “Pop’s Authentic Snack Sticks,” available in original, bacon, peppered and habañero versions.

Jennings and his father are both past presidents of the Missouri Association of Meat Processors, with Keith being inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame. Jennings earned the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) Accomplishment Award in 2000 and served as president of the national organization for the 2006-07 year.

Jennings’ meat craftsmanship is widely known throughout the industry. He has been called on to lead programs on meat-production issues at more than two-dozen state and national trade shows, including a session on shelf-stable meats at AAMP’s 75th anniversary convention this summer in Milwaukee.

Ongoing expansion

As Jennings Premium Meats has evolved, so has the realization that having the right tools pays off. Under Jennings’ guidance, the family business invested in new Marlen International smokehouses this past year, boosting cooking capacity of the plant by 40 percent. In the coming months the company is taking delivery of a new jerky extrusion system from Handtmann Inc.

He admits the company has seen a major impact on business caused by the spiraling costs of meats, both beef and pork.

“Pop’s Authentic Snack Sticks” are among the best-selling items at Jennings Premium Meats.

“Customers who used to come in for steaks and higher-end items are now picking up more ground beef and cuts they can afford,” he notes. “We have always tried to be moderate in passing along price increases we incur, but this is hurting all retailers and wholesalers alike.”

Jennings’ wife, Stephanie, wanted to spend more time with the family and left her banking job a few years ago. He says she has been perfect for him in a multi-faceted role that takes over advertising and ordering responsibilities for items like the Missouri wines and craft beers that the retail area offers. He contends that the move really freed him up to focus on meat production.

The company’s website ( includes information about products, but is not designed for selling or shipping.

Growth in the family business has also meant finding much-needed space for production. Recently, the company passed on the idea of building a new facility for offices and bought an historic Queen Anne-style brick home (the Fleet House) across the street from the retail shop and converted it to suit their needs, keeping authentic restoration at the forefront.

The Fleet House.

Earlier this year, this major undertaking was applauded by the Missouri Historic Preservation Society, which presented Jennings Premium Meats with a statewide award. Saving the 1895 structure, which had been vacant for six years, gave the community a jump-start on establishing its own historic district and landed the location on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Being community-minded seems to come naturally for Jennings, who has coached youth sports, serves on the local school board and is active in the local United Church of Christ.

“We’ve been challenged for space that we needed to devote to production,” Jennings comments. “We made major changes that allowed us to see and realize the potential of the business with an eye toward the future. We wanted to do things the right way. Moving offices across the street allowed us to expand our retail area. We also had so many things going on we had to take time to think through decisions and options that both helped us simplify and grow at the same time. Sometimes growth just means staying competitive.”