The Ranch House Meat Co.’s 1,600-sq.-ft. retail store is a specialty meat shop that combines small-town friendliness and full-service meat processing.
“I’ve been around livestock all my life,” Shane Flowers reflects. “So I guess it was just natural for me to get into the meat business.”
The 44-year-old operator of Ranch House Meat Co. in Billings, Montana, moved from raising Future Farmers of America and 4-H animals to ranching in Cody, Wyoming, before he and his wife Tanya bought a custom meat processing business in the Yellowstone Valley just outside of Billings in 2007.
“It was strictly a custom plant, but we were so excited about actually processing meat and having the chance to sell meat along with the custom service that ideas began clicking in our heads,” he continues. “We used any occasion to market meats at the Project Meats shop. It might be two ribeyes and a shrimp meal for Valentine’s Day, but Tanya, who had the mind for retailing and marketing, kept coming up with new ideas. Our retail sales grew and in 2009 we went under state inspection. Four years after that we added smoked meats and put that under inspection as well.”
In 2010, they started a rebranding program to move from Project Meats to Ranch House Meat Co. and in April of 2014, they leased a 1,600-sq.-ft. retail store in Western Billings, about 20 miles from their plant. This latest venture would be to create a specialty meat shop that would bring small-town friendliness and full service to a larger market area.
“It was our idea to get the customers who would buy meat to actually meet the owners and relate to us,” Shane says. “We began participating in home improvement shows, a farmers market, home and health expos and events where we could see our customers face-to-face and build a rapport with them. Sure, we could run newspaper ads, but when we could personally hand out our flyers or coupons to thousands of people a week, we were able to build that rapport with them. They rewarded us with their business.”
“We were new at the game,” Tanya confides. “But we wanted to be involved in the community and make ourselves known.”
When the area put on an annual Bacon-Opolis (bacon festival), the Flowers family was not only present but took home top honors three years in a row.
Their new retail store on Grand Avenue featured not only their bacons, but also snack sticks and jerky, along with fresh cut beef, pork, lamb and even buffalo meats. They also added a deli section that offered corned beef, ham, honey ham, roast beef, turkey, salami and summer sausage. They sold take-out sandwiches on a daily basis.
The Flowers still raise a 20-head beef herd, but they are more for 4-H and FFA projects. However, their mantra is to support local livestock producers, both with their custom processing and through their purchases. They use some boxed packer meats, but more to assure they don’t run out of certain popular cuts.
“We are part of this community and want our rancher friends to know they are partners with us as well in selling their meats,” Shane explains. “We do some private labeling for a number of livestock ranchers.”
Networking for growth
Before setting up their retail store, Shane and Tanya took a road trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin to get ideas from other successful small processors.
“It was a learning experience for us, and when we asked others what worked for them and what didn’t go so well, they were honest with us and gave us great ideas to bring home,” he says. “We’ve found that when we became more involved with groups like the Montana Meat Processors Association (MMPA) and the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), we learned important things quickly and loved the sense of sharing and pride that smaller family businesses offered us.”
Shane has served several years on the MMPA Board and last year was elected a National Director on the AAMP Board. Both he and Tanya serve in official capacities on the Montana Beef Council.
“The meat associations held competitions for cured meats and we kind of got kicked in the teeth on our first outings,” he adds. “But this was a tough but friendly competition and they shared information about their products and taught us how to improve our own...even giving us ideas for new products and flavors.”
In subsequent years the family business has won awards for its products in the community, state and national competitions.
Ranch House Meat Co. offers gift baskets and meat and cheese party trays year-round but does a strong business with them during the holiday seasons. Other specialties, including rubs and seasonings are detailed further on their website ranchhousemeatco.biz.
The firm has also ventured into catering. In keeping with their wish to better know their customers, they prepare, deliver and serve for about 90 percent of their catering events. They’ve done as many as 400 meals at an event and their menu selection can range from prime rib to pulled pork.
While they purchase their bakery breads and rolls for retail deli sales, they use a small bake oven to make their own for larger catering events.
“Catering has been good for us, but we find we have to limit how many we do a year,” the couple notes. “We have to allow some time for ourselves and if we don’t watch what we commit to, we can get behind and never find the needed time for ourselves and our three children.”
Wild game season is also a busy time for the company. They accept only clean game trim, but can make a vast variety of sausages, jerky, snack sticks and other value-added products in varied flavors for their game hunting customers.
“For years we accepted entire carcasses for hunting season but learned that in doing so, we had to put many of our rancher customers on the back-burner of scheduling,” Shane confides. “Those ranchers are the people who support us all year-round and we owed them more priority than that, so we went to only accepting boneless trim from game animals. We were worried about the reaction from that change, but in the long run it was a successful move for us.”
Eye on the future
Success at Ranch House Meat Co. can be measured in many ways. One of them will be more evident next spring when the Flowers hope to expand their original Project Meats plant from 6,000 sq. ft. to add another 10,000 sq. ft. They eventually want to build a larger retail shop in Billings that will allow them to produce many items in the store and not have to truck them from the production plant, and they believe customers will like seeing how their products are made before their eyes.
The expansions may change the financial dynamics for the business, which now has 50 percent of its sales under retail, 25 percent under custom and 25 percent under wholesale. Shane says the wholesale arena is growing and that their jerky and snack stick products now appear in nearly a dozen other local businesses.
“Since we started in the meat business, we’ve learned a lot,” Shane concludes. “We came up with many of our own product and flavor ideas and got good feedback from our customers. We may be a little bit behind the 8-ball in our equipment, but we hope to get new packaging systems and keep our eye out for some good used production machinery.”
But one of the most significant changes came recently when the Flowers felt a need to raise wages for their 20 employees.
“We really need and rely on our production and sales teams,” he says. “Without good wages we would have no one making our product. That step raised their income and enabled us to retain and attract the quality workers we need to grow.”