When a smaller processor’s business gets the attention of some of the top meat processors in the US, some uncharted innovation and ideas are usually the lure.

For Richard Reams, owner of RJ’s Meats & Groceries in Hudson, Wis., visits to his business from his industry peers are the ultimate compliment. His 2,200-sq.-ft. retail store and 1,400-sq.-ft. processing shop located just over the bridge from the Minnesota state line celebrated its 25th year in business on Aug. 31. But there were times when he thought his meat industry career would be more infamy than fame.

“I really didn’t think I would make it,” says Reams, known by most as “RJ.” “I started out doing clean-up and customer assistance in a former Tom Thumb store and Jim’s Meats at this location. When I returned from a four-year stint with the US Air Force where I did some meat cutting, the owner offered me an assistant manager job at 50 cents an hour less than I had been making previously.”

When he expressed interest in learning more about meat processing at the technical center in nearby River Falls, the owner promised him that if he came back to work instead, he would restore the 50 cents an hour to his pay. Reams took that offer.

But it was not long after that the store owner announced he was going to close the operations and Reams bought into the shop, renting the space on a month-to-month lease.

“I was working hard cutting meat and before I knew it, I was seven months behind in the rent,” he recalls. “So I thought I’d try making sausage and smoking meats. Boy, was I ever in a state of ignorance. I was stuffing my sausage by hand right out of the grinder when someone suggested I use a stuffing horn. I didn’t know what that was. Later, someone gave me advice about wetting the casings before stuffing. And someone else mentioned a mixer. That’s when I realized how much I didn’t know.”

Reams had a 25-lb. Pro Smoker at his disposal when Ed Daniels, former owner of Daniels Food Equipment, suggested an upgrade to larger equipment. Daniels and several other small processors offered him continuous advice and Reams’ sausage-making began to show signs of a profit.

“When Ed told me how much the improved equipment had helped grow my business, I told him that in reality, it cost me over $100,000, because I just couldn’t get enough of it and had to keep buying more,” Reams recounts.

Working toward success

But the good advice and better equipment soon launched the fledgling business into a world the new owner never dreamed possible. Now, the winner of 212 state and national awards, including 19 grand championships and five top awards at the 2012 American Cured Meat Championships last month, Reams claims, “I am a product of AAMP [the American Association of Meat Processors] and the state meat processing associations.”

This year RJ completed his two-year term as president of the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP) and capped his tenure by winning the Best of Show trophy at their products competition.

He is clearly proudest of the now-yellowing award plaque he won at the WAMP competition in 1994 for ring bologna. He had made 50 lbs. throughout the year but now cranks out a healthy 300 lbs. of this product per week.

When he later won the title of Wisconsin’s bratwurst champion, a statewide newspaper interviewed him and erroneously reported that he made 80 varieties of bratwurst (even today he makes only 50 types of brats). Visitors started coming in to the store, including German wurstmachers in disbelief, and the phone started ringing with calls from as far away as Colorado and Texas. RJ’s was on the map.

For the local boy in his rented meat store, things progressed with regularity as the man on a mission ground, mixed, stuffed and smoked his reputation all the way to the Cured Meats Hall of Fame in 2011.

Extraordinary products

Beyond his products and a misprint-turned-boon in his marketing, it is RJ’s retail shop that will wow the straw hat off any Old-World sausage maker or butcher.

Operating under Wisconsin state meat inspection, RJ’s is a treasure trove for the meat aficionado. In addition to a 24-ft. fresh-meat retail case, are an 18-ft. open-top, frozen display bunker loaded with a giant variety of vacuum-packed cured meats presented with aplomb.

It is also an “open house” where retail shoppers can look right into the behind-the-counter gleaming processing area and see their sausages being made or their meats cut by hand, all to customers’ specifications.

Fresh meats dazzle in variety, everything from steaks, chops and roasts to a litany of kabobs, including a carnivore kabob with beef, pork and poultry and a bacon-wrapped turkey tenderloin. Look closely and up pops a hefty Lumberjack steak. For the past 13 years RJ’s has also operated an in-house bakery and the store offers most of Wisconsin’s best-known cheeses and other dairy items, those inevitable smoked dog bones and various grocery items. But customers visiting this corner of the meat world should expect to find those special spices ready to take home, or maybe a bag of hardwood chips in oak, hickory, cedar, sugar maple or apple. They also sell Smokin Brothers wood-pellet grills.

It is a one-stop shop where the brats on the outside smoker whet the appetite for what waits inside, including 13 types of snack sticks, four jerky options, eight summer-sausage varieties and those 50 kinds of fresh brats. The brat versions intrigue but don’t disappoint the shopper. A few out-of-the-ordinary flavors are a honey-onion, potato-bacon-cheddar, cranberry-walnut, turkey club, Greek with feta cheese and olives and a chicken enchilada. Name a product and it’s probably made here.

RJ and his wife, Anne, who tackles accounting and baking chores, are joined by sons Anthony, 26, the chief meat cutter, who is entering the Master Meat Crafter Course conducted by Dr. Jeff Sindelar at the Univ. of Wisconsin; Aaron, 22, the counter man and night supervisor; and Joe, 17, who is still in high school.

The business actually has 19 employees, eight of whom are related. While sausage is king at RJ’s, representing 78 percent of the volume, the extended services are legion. Game processing is big-league with the firm providing deer hunters with anything from cranberry summer sausage, venison bacon, maple breakfast links, enchilada and beer-cheese brats, to sticks, meatloaf and dried venison, as well as other smoked and cooked-sausage options. Thinking smoked hams? RJ’s does a palate-pleasing 1,000 of them a year. Custom smoking of fish, tasty party trays and gift boxes are some of the options you can find on their website, wwwrjmeats.com.

Roasting pigs and other picnic or party meats are available for takeout in no less than eight varieties, with side salads and several types of in-store made buns – yours for the choosing.

Poster boy for success

The senior Reams still portrays himself as the local town butcher who turned his business around. More to the point is the fact that he has become the poster boy for any meat processor who wants to realize his potential. He is called on to speak and do demonstrations at state and national conventions and is a ready volunteer to assist anyone who seeks help in making their product better.

He professes that he is only doing what makes him happy and living within a budget. Meanwhile, he’s contemplating moving into hot prepared meals-to-go, hoping customers will soon be able to email or fax in their order for pick-up. His shop is located between a KFC and a Taco John’s outlet. And, knowing his reputation as a listener and a quick learner, one can surmise that it won’t be long before there’s a new fast-food king on Hudson’s Coulee Road Hill.

So, until that day comes, customers will have to content themselves lining up at the counter amidst the visiting meat processors who seem to find RJ’s Meats & Groceries a “must-stop” on their travels through Western Wisconsin.

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