His mind remains as sharp as the cleaver he’s wielded for the past half century. That, and a consuming work ethic, has helped make Bob Filbrandt one of the most successful small meat processors in the nation.
At the age of 66, the owner of Bob’s Processing, Inc., South Haven, Mich., is nowhere near considering retirement.
“I’m working hard to get to the point where I could slip away from the business to spend some time at the lake…or maybe not having to come in every day,” he confides.
His 3,000-sq.-ft. enterprise continues to bring customers in by ever-increasing numbers. Located in a community of 6,500 residents, which swells to 35,000 over the summer months because of its proximity to Lake Michigan and nearby resorts, Bob casts a net of prime rib, bratwurst, award-winning hams and bacon and innovative products to lure both the locals and the summer visitors, largely from the Chicago area two hours away.
Bob doesn’t actively advertise. He relies on word-of-mouth endorsements and a single billboard he rents just off the main highway. When visitors come in for a look-around at his vast array of basic and specialty meats and his heaping helping of genuine service, it gets them hooked.
“When a new customer comes in, we go out of our way to let them know that their experience with our products will be a step beyond anything they’ve seen before,” he says. “If they ask for a particular product, we want to make certain they know how to prepare it for the best results. Yes, we include cooking instructions on our products, but we also let them know they will get our years of experience with every purchase.”
Meeting the need
Bob remembers fondly the years of watching his grandfather, who was also a butcher working as meat department manager for some larger grocers. He taught his grandson to anticipate what the customer might want and to ask questions about their needs.
It was then he realized that if he could make money for those other markets, he could also do well for himself. When a former glue shed owned by a neighbor was up for sale, Bob bought it and transported it to the shop’s present location and his “new” butcher shop started to grow with add-ons over the years.
He had tried his hand as a mobile slaughterer with a farm truck, but his motivation to open up a fixed location in 1980 came when he realized the talents that could earn him a greater payback were cutting and boning meats. He claims the period of spending hours each day driving to and from farm locations was at an end.
Bob recalls the days when he went from location to location and cut meat on a board he brought along with him, referring to them as the “Have Board Will Travel” era in his life.
His new location allowed him to provide custom slaughter and processing, as well as retail sales. He operated under Michigan meat inspection until the state discontinued its program. He never pursued federal inspection and focused on the custom and retail work.
Today, retail represents about 80 percent of the volume for Bob’s Processing, with smaller percentages attributable to catering, custom work and a small amount of wholesaling permitted under inspection rules.
With Judy, his wife of 45 years, and son Scott, now 43, and three other employees, this diminutive butcher shop has relied on heavy investment in equipment to save on labor costs and maximize its capabilities.
“We have two smokehouses, an Alkar and a Vortron, and went heavily into catering with two 700-lb. Southern Pride outdoor cookers,” he notes. “We got a sausage stuffer, then went to a water stuffer and then up to a Vemag system. Recently, we added a rollstock machine and an Anco slicer that goes through a bacon slab in about 13 seconds.”
Bob says the equipment upgrades were a Godsend and have allowed the business to smoke custom products and make custom sausage for nearby processors, transforming his company into “the biggest little meat market in the area.”
Equipment aside, it has been Bob’s fervor to run the business right that has been the guiding light for the firm. The Filbrandt home is right in front of the shop, allowing him to walk out the back door to check on product that the plant was smoking in a matter of minutes.
The shop has an almost unimaginable line-up of specialty products, ranging from their headliner prime ribs and spiral cut hams, to 15 flavors of chicken breasts, six styles of bacon (plus Canadian and Kelly, made from pork shoulder), to bratwursts that pop with variety and flavor. In the brat category, most of those products are the skinless versions most popular among their clientele.
While frozen meats hold center stage in their small-but-mighty retail area, they also have a fresh-cutting service counter and a deli that numbs the imagination with 22 types of cheese, including temptations such as blueberry cheddar and chocolate cheese.
Bob’s Processing also does a solid business in elk, buffalo and venison sausage, snack sticks, patties and loaves. The company still does custom big-game processing, but requires sportsmen to bring in the raw material clean and boneless.
Their custom service includes smoking fish, from lake trout to whitefish and peppered salmon. Fishermen can drop off their catch in a bag-and-tag drop box 24 hours a day and pick up their smoked fish the following week. They also purvey Norwegian salmon and a hefty amount of smoked shrimp.
Bob Filbrandt has perfected most of the specialty meats he sells at Bob’s Processing Inc. through years of trial and error, a fact attested to by his more than 100 awards in cured meats from the Michigan Meat Association (MMA), a group he has served for years as a director and also as president. The firm has won “best of show” at MMA for its ham, jerky, bacon and chili cheese hot dogs.
He’s also done well at the American Cured Meat Championship, earning 10 national awards. He also served as a director for the American Association of Meat Processors, won their Golden Cleaver Award for membership recruitment and in 2005 landed a spot in that organizations’ Cured Meat Hall of Fame.
The catering arena in South Haven has some competition for the 50 to 75 person bookings, but when it comes to big numbers, Bob’s Processing is unmatched, landing two or three larger events weekly and a host of smaller events where customers pick up their orders. Bob says they will cater nearly anywhere in the region and have beef, pork, chicken, ham, smoked ribs and turkey on the menu.