The term “old-school” can mean many different things to different people. But when it comes to processing and selling meat, the reference conjures up attributes like quality, service, good prices and great variety.
For the management of Stewart’s Meats in Yelm, Washington, continued growth and success harkens back to the principles upon which it was founded in 1933. When Emmett Stewart started his meat business and was joined four years later by his daughter Dorothy, little did they know that those tenets would sustain the fledgling enterprise through four generations.
When Emmett opened his meat processing facility, he began delivering meats in a Ford Model T to customers in the area. He had been raising cattle, which he normally sold for $100 per head. When the Depression hit, no one had money to buy his cattle, so he had to sell them for $10 a head, which almost forced him into bankruptcy. To cut his losses, he decided to sell them in quarters and halves, which led him to start his meat business.
Dorothy had wanted to go to nursing school but the Great Depression changed those plans, too. Lacking money for schooling, the family needed her help when they lost almost everything they had except for a few cattle. That’s when Stewart’s Meats was born.
Dorothy referred to her father as the real butcher at the store, but she also learned to become a meat cutter to help out her dad. She took a great deal of harassment for donning a butcher’s apron in what was then considered to be a “man’s world and job.”
Dorothy’s son Stewart “Butch” Carlson, 64, who recalls slicing bacon in the shop when he was 8 years old, and his wife Jeanne – who he refers to as the boss – took over the business when Dorothy passed away in 2009.
“People say we are unique about the way we do things and the products that we offer,” Butch says. “The truth is that we do things like they did back then. There were local meats, cutting to customer preferences, fair pricing and we simply built on that design.”
The business actually began in McKenna, a township across the river, but moved to an old creamery building which the family bought in 1946. At that time the business was changing from a dry goods and grocery store to a meat shop, and by 1953 major changes to the structure were undertaken.
The 6,500-sq.-ft. plant today is rustic, with creaking wooden floors in the retail area. The 360 frozen food storage lockers of yesteryear have given way to more modern processing and cold storage space.
In addition to the mother ship store in Yelm, Stewart’s Meats operates a four-day-a-week counter at a farmers market in Olympia (20 miles away) and another retail facility in Seattle (an hour away) seven days a week.
“I guess I had to open my big mouth when they eliminated the ‘blue’ laws that prohibited Sunday sales,” Butch recalls. “I told Mom the other stores would be open and we needed to do the same. That put me in the position of working 39 years, seven days a week.”
Specialities and secret recipes
Butch points out that his mother hand mixed and made all the seasonings for the fresh sausages, such as bratwurst, Italian, chorizo, potato and others, as well as for their jerky, pepperoni and summer sausage.
“Our most well-known fresh items are our tri-tip that we prepare grill-ready. We also season our carne asada, make our own cordon bleu, and stuff our pork chops. People like to come in and buy things ready to cook. This is huge for us at holiday times, particularly for our smoked turkeys, hams and smoked prime rib.”
Custom processing represents about 25 percent of the plant’s business and the balance is retail, with about 70 percent of that volume coming from outside the immediate area. An entourage of specialty products that will knock your socks off is the featured attraction.
“We ship jerky all over the United States and overseas,” Butch notes. “Our website, stewartsmeats.com, has become a huge driver for our business.”
Many customers drive across state lines to buy Stewart’s jerky, for which they’ve won a national championship. However, jerky spoken here comes in many dialects, such as beef, pork, turkey, chicken, Alder garlic, maple, grass-fed, red (hot) and black pepper and even teriyaki, including a popular cubed version.
At the pepperoni cases, shoppers can choose from even lesser-known varieties such as bear snack, elk, buffalo, venison, antelope, and ostrich. When it comes to exotic meats, this is the place to obtain llama, turtle, kangaroo, rabbit, camel steaks, frog legs, gator tail, wild boar, rattlesnake and python, as well as quail, pheasant, ducks, geese and even crocodile.
But the front-and-center beef, pork and chicken service departments offer registered Black Angus from the family’s own herd, other local grass-fed beef, lamb and pork that are not only sold fresh, but can be found crafted into anything from Landjaeger (regular, hot and spicy), bacon and ham, including Black Forest and honey ham. Wieners, sausages, leg of lamb and racks, cold cuts, cheeses, and other smoked and hot smoked meats appear daily.
Sure you can buy a turkey at Stewart’s Meats, but you should specify if you want Northwestern, free-range or organic. Yep, you can even find turducken at the specialty order counter or on the website.
Merchandising prowess is visible in the 10 versions of meat gift box assortments the store sells, as well as in the variety of meat bundles that vary from 12 to 50 lbs. They also sell luau pigs which they can stuff and slow smoke for customers. Or, for customers feeling a bit more adventurous, they can rent special roasters and try doing it themselves.
Using the original smoker, the company pleases shoppers with smoked ribs, chicken and turkey at their quaint retail location along the Nisqually River.
Game processing may be seasonal, but it has declined in volume over the years as much of the surrounding countryside has built up as a larger residential area.
The family-owned business takes good advantage of by-products by making its own brand of pet foods, using ground beef, liver, kidney and beef fat. It also features large and small raw and smoked dog bones as well as smoked pig ears, chicken backs, and smoked chicken and turkey necks.
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Customers describe Stewart’s Meats as “not your local grocery store” but “not your fancy over-priced butcher” either. It seems that referrals from satisfied customers and generations of reputation-building have worked for Stewart’s Meats, which does little commercial advertising.
They have added to their credibility through support for FFA and 4-H groups, the military and other community groups and events they contribute to in donations and services. The company each year provides $20,000 in scholarships for youngsters pursuing degrees or further studies in various agricultural fields.
Butch reflects on the future, explaining that his son Brian operates a 350-head cattle ranch, a daughter Krystal is a registered emergency room nurse. Another daughter, April, works in banking.
“We have a daughter Deborah who serves in the Air Force and we hope she decides to continue the business after her military years,” Butch says. “I know one thing though, if there wasn’t a family member in charge, I would never sell the business as Stewart’s Meats. I know we may need some remodeling and would welcome thinking from a younger generation, but it would have to be operated as we have done,” Butch explains. “I guess I’m so passionate about it and married to it that I’m stubborn that way.”