Reinvention is a way of life and a pathway to success for Stephen Boyer, president and owner of The Country Butcher and Spring Meadow Farm in Tolland, Connecticut.
It was 1975 when Boyer, then 12 years of age, teamed up with his father to start a company called B&B Slaughter Services. The idea was that they would tap into their on-the-farm meat processing experience and use a mobile unit to do custom killing and processing of meat for other farmers who needed help. This was based out of the 80-acre family farm in Tolland.
“I guess you could say we were mobile custom before mobile custom was cool,” Boyer reflects. “I had always been involved in the Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs with everything from hogs and steers to dairy cattle, even the livestock show circuit.”
Things went as planned for 12 years until a smokehouse fire burned down the business. It was then that he and his wife, Cathy, agreed to operate a new meat processing concept called The Country Butcher in the nearby town of Ellington. They would no longer do slaughter, but rather focus on further processing meat, including smoking and curing and producing value-added items. They wiped away the ashes from the earlier family business and remained there for 19 years. Their 3,000-sq.-ft. facility soon expanded to 6,000 sq. ft.
“It’s funny, but when we were in Ellington, there were six sizeable grocery stores around us and they kept telling us that we would never make a go of it,” Boyer says. “Today, those stores are all gone and we really started to take off.”
BACK TO HIS ROOTS
The couple decided to move The Country Butcher back to the family farm in Tolland and began buying federally inspected meats from other plants and devoted themselves to quality craftsmanship in sausage, hams and bacons.
“We really took a chance,” he explains. “We had been open six days a week in Ellington and decided that at the new location we would only be open for retail on Fridays and Saturdays. We changed directions and discontinued our custom work about five years ago. We had been running out of product in the retail area and determined that we could have fresher meats and full cases if we made the items two or three days earlier and flash froze the sausage. It was a great move and the satisfaction from customers was overwhelming. As we put out the sausage, it thawed very quickly and retained the peak of fresh flavor. We were selling five times as much product at retail two days a week as we had been doing six days a week previously.”
The new plant, which was actually built on a horse pasture, was enclosed within 30 days, although the finished facility took a few more months. It is styled as a colonial farmhouse, with a wrap-around porch, complete with rocking chairs. It has cathedral ceilings and is decorated to coincide with the seasons and holidays.
“We had been a German and European atmosphere shop in Ellington, but were finding out that increasingly our customers were more Americanized,” Boyer explains. “So we reinvented ourselves as an old-fashioned American country butcher shop in a historic colonial New England town. The retail store interior has custom cut log walls and is decorated with antique farm and meat processing equipment, even a wagon on the porch.”
Boyer is quick to point out that many of the recipes he uses were taught to him by his mentor Helmut (Hal) Wagner, a legendary German wurstmeister and salesman for First Spice Mixing Co. He says many other members of the Pennsylvania Association of Meat Processors (PAMP) and the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) took him under their wings to help him out with production and marketing ideas. He returned the favor by serving many years on the PAMP board, including the presidency, and spent three years as a Regional Director on the AAMP board.
Aside from listening to advice from his fellow small processors, Boyer applied his talents and continuing search for quality to garner over 60 competition awards at the state and national level. His business in Tolland has grown even in lean years.
“We’re not the 99 cents a pound chicken guys,” he continues. “Our presentation isn’t just in the quality of our products, but in everything we do. Our landscaping is immaculate, from flowers to trimmed bushes, to blowing the leaves from the parking lot. Everything in our retail store appeals to the senses of sight, sound and aroma. We strongly believe our customers expect this of us and it makes our products a higher value even at a higher price.
“One of our biggest events to advertise is our fall Open House. We greet customers in the parking lot and welcome them. We give them a bag with information about all aspects of our business. The packet of information we give out introduces them to our business and products and services. We include coupons that are good (one a month) for six months. We find that 90 percent of the first timers keep coming back.”
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As noted, reinvention is a long suit at this family owned business. The game-processing trade was drastically changed and grew tremendously in recent years.
“We were too crowded and too busy to properly serve our sportsmen customers, so we told them a year out that we would only take skinned out deer and none with hides,” Boyer adds. “Now we will only take boneless venison and that is only after Jan. 1. This has freed up our 11 store and plant employees during our busiest holiday season which is from September through December. There is a slow period after Jan. 1 and we accept the boneless venison for further processing for limited hours on Friday and Saturday. There is typically a line of 50 to 60 waiting to deliver their deer meat to us. Some hunters get a second deer and it means they can freeze the venison and bring it to us all at one time.”
Boyer is quick to reminisce about an epiphany he had in 1991 when a customer asked him if he would cook the meat that he was buying for a party. He agreed to do it as a favor, but then realized the amount of the cooking service portion of the bill was as great as the cost of the meats. He paused and thought, “Hey, we have something here that we have to do.” His catering business was launched with a flurry.
Today, Country Catering utilizes a full commercial kitchen to prepare meats, side dishes and baked goods both for pick-up and for service at off-premise events.
“Our catering is very upscale and most events are for 100 people or more. We’ve served 900 at a single event. I got to thinking that the food comes out of the kitchen smelling and tasting great, but when it’s transported any large distance and served, it loses that finite edge. We took an old delivery truck and converted it to cooler space and a mobile kitchen and now can serve our foods at the peak of their cooked flavor. In fact, we just renovated a third delivery truck for this purpose. We’ve driven into farm fields, set up and cooked on the premises. We began serving great five-star meals in a flash. The customers told us the quality is outstanding.”
Boyer says the pick-up catering business runs from May 1 to Nov. 1, but the off-site business can go year-round. The business employs five workers just for the catering division.
The Country Butcher features high-choice and prime Certified Black Angus beef, fresh pork from Leidy’s and poultry from Bell & Evans, both in Pennsylvania. They hand-cut meats at the 20-ft. service counter and also merchandize Amish canned goods. In addition, the store serves a growing private label business.
Boyer’s wife Cathy is a nurse who has moved into hospital administration. She is available to work in the front of the retail store, handles the decorating, deals with customers, customer contacts and other vital responsibilities. He says she is “fussy” which greatly serves the firm’s aura as an upscale business.
Triplet sons: Alexander, Benjamin and Nicholas, all 18 years old, have been involved in the business. They graduated from high school in June. Alexander is attending college to major in education, and Benjamin and Nicholas are pursuing a four-year program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
The Boyers just purchased an adjoining 25-acre parcel and look forward to bringing their youngsters home to operate a planned farm-to-table restaurant on that site.
Operating as what he calls a Christian owned-and-operated business, Boyer says the company’s success is credit to the family’s faith-first approach. “That understanding has brought us through all the difficult changes, recessions and the tough times and we are very thankful to have built and grown our business around that concept,” he says.