Dave Sutton thoughtfully retraces his roots from being “a backwoods butcher” to his accomplishments in transforming a former locker plant into one of the most dynamic and recognized family owned meat businesses in North America.
Although his Newhall Locker/Sutton Catering enterprise in Newhall, Iowa, still hangs out the “locker plant” shingle, the business stands as a testimonial to what continued education, good equipment and hard work can achieve.
Now 54, Sutton reflects on his past struggles as a critical driving force that has propelled him and his 15-employee operation to international recognition.
In January, Sutton became the first Iowan to earn the Master Meat Crafter designation from the Univ. of Wisconsin. He is one of only 60 nationally to earn that title after completing a one-year program of meat processing studies at the university’s campus.
Then, he blew away strong competition to earn 12 awards in the cured meat competition sponsored by the Iowa Meat Processors Association (IAMP). And in February, he competed in the German Butchers Association US competition held in Madison, Wisconsin, and racked up an astounding seven awards, including five gold medals that also earned him the prized Butcher’s Cup.
“Flavor and quality matters to me with every meat product we make,” Sutton explains. “After helping with farm slaughter and ‘hunking and chunking meat’ for several years, I took the meat processing program for a year at the Southwest Wisconsin Vocational Technical Institute in Fennimore, Wisconsin. I never realized there was so much I didn’t know. But that training got me on the right path.”
After a few years in the meat department at supermarkets in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Sutton decided to take a huge personal and financial risk and purchased a 2,500-sq.-ft. locker plant, a facility that did slaughtering and processing and had about 60 frozen food storage lockers that it rented to customers. He had some business help from the seller and his wife who worked with him for about a year.
“Man...I had to be good to overcome the reputation the facility had since it was leased to a ‘bait and switch’ operator that drubbed the plant’s reputation into the ground,” he recalls. “They were people who advertised extremely low prices and then switched customers to buy orders that were many times the advertised prices.”
Quality and consistency
While the prices advertised today are very reasonable by any standard, the byword at Newhall is quality... and the consistency of the product lineup rivals a plant of any size.
Name a meat product and Sutton’s operation produces it with aplomb in this community of 900. In the bratwurst department, no fewer than 30 varieties are available. Like most Midwestern specialty meat shops, Newhall Locker displays prize-winning summer sausage, jerky, ham products, bacons, wieners and smoked sausages galore. And in the fresh meats department, the expected line up of steaks and chops is augmented with flavored patties, Amish-raised chicken, smoked turkey and ring bologna. There is even a brief line-up of seafood available in the 500-sq.-ft. retail store.
One of Sutton’s first projects when he bought the locker plant in June of 1983 was to add a sausage kitchen and a homemade smokehouse. He also used an old Zuber water stuffer for production.
“A few years later, I was able to buy a real smokehouse,” he notes. “It was a used Enviro-Pak unit. But it was ‘new’ to me.”
While his original Newhall Locker has long abandoned rental of storage lockers, Sutton has grown the facility to 7,500 sq. ft. and has been on a constant search for additional space.
“I purchased a former pizza shop that was close to the plant and even tried doing pizzas...for one year,” he says. “I thought better of it and used the space and cooler areas for things I knew about.”
He later purchased a former carpet warehouse for storage for a new division that he felt offered promise…catering. Another division he calls Sutton Catering can serve up to 1,000 meals on a weekend. The business does everything from sandwich trays to box lunches for sports teams when they travel, to plated sit-down dinners. Most recently, Sutton took over another building across the street from his shop to serve as a for-rent catering site.
His catering enterprise is thriving, moving beyond events for the local Moose Lodge and Shriners organizations to those like the famed Amana Colonies annual Pork Fest, about 20 miles from Newhall.
While adventuresome in trying new challenges, Sutton still, in the words of former Texas Longhorns football coach Darrell Royal, “dances with who brung him.”
“I feel very strongly that I need to keep up with new things and continue to take short courses from people like Dr. Joseph Cordray at Iowa State Univ.,” he comments. “Things in the meat business are constantly changing and if you are just gliding along, someone with new knowledge and ideas will pass you buy. You cannot sleep at the wheel.”
Sutton, who professes that he sometimes feels like he “lives in the plant,” is always on the lookout for ways to improve the products sells and for ways to keep learning new things. And while 2016 has thus far been award-rich, he has been diligent in his processing for years.
A testament to his persistence are the award-covered walls of his retail area, where no fewer than 130 IAMP Awards, five Best of the Midwest, 41 state fair and 38 plaques from the American Cured Meat Championships are displayed. Not to be overlooked, Sutton also captured 15 awards in the German Butchers Association competition in previous years.
Newhall Locker has gained a prominent role in game processing in the state. In the past deer season the plant handled 1,750 deer for further processing and churned out 125,000 lbs. of venison sausage. Offerings for successful hunters include jerky, pepper and cheese sticks, Landjaeger, wieners, bacon, marinated meats, summer sausage and smoked brats. They even offer a venison product call Willies, which are a skinless snack stick, similar to their Landjaeger. When cooked, they could be considered ground and formed jerky.
In the game processing department, Newhall also handles wild hogs, elk, moose and bison.
Over the years he has received some help from his three daughters: Justine, who is now a dental assistant; Candace a math teacher in area schools; and Melisa, who completed veterinary studies and serves as the state-inspected plant’s HACCP coordinator. (In 2002, Melisa was the recipient of the Stephen F. Krut Scholarship awarded by the American Association of Meat Processors.)
Sutton admits that most of what he has learned through the years when it comes to meat-crafting and business management he has learned from fellow operators in industry trade groups. He served seven years on the board of IAMP, including one as the president of the state organization. He also held office on the Long Range Planning Committee and board of directors for the American Association of Meat Processors and was that association’s president in 2007-2008.
Like most small plant operators, the Sutton family counts on word-of-mouth advertising to promote its products. The company is also markedly present on social media and details most of its products and services on its website, iowasmokehousemeats.com.
As for the future, Sutton says he is looking into more wholesaling of his cured and ready-to-eat sausages and catering staples like pulled pork.
“The idea of retirement pops into my head sometimes, but I guess I have to define myself as a workaholic,” he concludes.