Dennis Schaardt (middle) and his family, (from left) Clayton, Courtney, Kim and Colton all play a role at Den's Country Meats. 
It was an ominous start for Dennis Schaardt. The old custom processing and locker plant he worked in after school and during the summer months wasn’t making a go of it. After graduating from high school, he went to work for the owner full-time. And a year later, at the not-quite-ripe age of 19, he entertained and accepted an offer to buy an old plant in Table Rock, Nebraska, for what he describes as “a song.”

“I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into, but I saw an opportunity,” relates the current president of Den’s Country Meats. Now, 21 years after getting the keys, Schaardt has managed the business into “full song mode.”

Thinking big in a community of 250 has been a risky venture for the entrepreneur. Two things have remained the same: Table Rock is still a small hamlet; and the ring bologna recipe of the original owner dating from 1939 still brings in the customers.

“We saw a big decline in the custom slaughter and processing business,” Schaardt says. “And the people who used to buy sides and quarters for their home freezers dropped off sharply. In fact, I’m not sure if most of our customers still have home freezers.

“Today few people ask for a 16-oz. steak. They want a 12-ouncer. They still buy the steaks and burgers, but their preference for ready-to-eat or quick to prepare meals has grown drastically. We used to deliver sides and quarters within a 90-mile radius from Omaha to Kansas City. We still deliver, but the product mix has changed a lot.”

The farm families that once brought in livestock to have processed for their own consumption have been largely replaced by those who see an opportunity to market their own meats under private labels. Schaardt admits that while his custom processing business has fallen to about 10 percent of the company’s volume, he has seen a doubling and tripling of customers who take advantage of his USDA-inspected facility to have products to market themselves under the “buy local” trend that has swept the country for the last decade.
Den's Country Meats sells 35 varieties of sausage, jerky, ring bolognas and snack sticks. 

Upgrades and Renovations

The original locker plant, which once boasted 300 rental lockers to store frozen foods, also disappeared, replaced by a 7,200-sq.-ft. modern facility.

“We built the new plant in 1996,” he explains. “We still have the Sinclair gas station that draws people. But we have discontinued being a grocery store. We couldn’t compete with the big chain stores 20 miles away. They beat us badly on price and we couldn’t keep our products fresh, so we changed direction to focus on being a country meat shop.

“People come in and step back when they see the higher prices. Yet, they know how and where the products were made and are willing to pay more per pound, both to support our local agriculture and to take comfort in knowing the source of their meal.”

The new location underwent some changes as well a year-and-a-half ago, moving from a white-painted wall motif to a 2,000-sq.-ft. retail area that has a log-cabin look and feel. Six full-time employees and three part-timers augment the family to constitute the work force.

Den’s Country Meats installed glass-door self-service display cases, but also began to utilize more bunker display cases. Today, the retail store represents 30 percent of the company business, but the biggest growth for the business has been in the private labeling and wholesale accounts.

Nebraska beef once represented a 2:1 ratio over other meats sold in the shop, but pork now accounts for 60 percent of overall sales. Under federal inspection, the firm averages 25 hogs and a dozen beef weekly.

Those traversing Highway 50 will spot a recently installed billboard promoting the meat shop, a form of advertising Schaardt says has been a boon for his business.

Those coming through the retail store doors are enticed by 35 varieties of sausage, jerky, ring bolognas and snack sticks along with the fresh meats service counter.

“People stop by for gas and grab some of the snack items, but a lot of them look around and buy other meats for full meals,” he notes. “When they come back the next time they are bringing coolers to buy more meats to take home.”

Deer processing once represented 40 percent of the firm’s business, but when Chronic Wasting Disease devastated much of the local herd, the company went from doing 1,500 animals a year to about 500. Schaardt says it’s coming back slowly and his ability to produce deer products from sausages to snack items will attract hunters back as the local herd rebuilds.