Growing up in the small town of Holstein, Iowa, with a population of 1,400, John Tiefenthaler determined a long time ago he wasn’t college material. His options in high school were to seek a job at the local grain elevator or the local locker plant. The late Bob Bagenstos, who owned Food Locker Service, shook Tiefenthaler’s hand after interviewing him for a job many years ago and welcomed him onboard.
That was in 1981 and Tiefenthaler, now 55, looks back at his early days of cutting meat and making sausage at Food Locker Service as a blessing. Within two years he and the owner became partners and in 1991, Tiefenthaler and his wife Shelly became partner owners in the business that later became Tiefenthaler’s Quality Meats.
“I honestly like people and want to make them happy,” Tiefenthaler reflects. “This business gave me the opportunity to do just that. Personally, with the meat products we make, the service we offer and the care we put into it, we maybe overdo it, but in the end that’s how we’re judged.”
The company’s success goes beyond just being a trusted source for meat. In January, for example, the family entered products in the German Butchers Federation (DFV) international judging competition held in Madison, Wisconsin, in conjunction with the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP). The Tiefenthalers won nine gold medals and received the Cup of Honor as well. Their ham was judged the second best of the 42 companies that entered products.
But before the Tiefenthalers started winning awards for their meat, they had to rely on other companies to help prepare their products.
“We didn’t have a smokehouse,” Tiefenthaler says. “We had to have other companies smoke our products for us. Today we make several versions of skinless bratwurst. Now that’s something that we developed because we couldn’t afford what we then thought were too expensive casings. We carry on that tradition and now have our skinless brats in supermarkets like Hy-Vee, Fareway, Food Pride and Fiesta Foods.”
His former boss, Bagenstos, continued working with him until 1996 and in 2004, the family moved the business to an 8,000-sq.-ft. building about a half-mile from the original locker plant.
“We found a building that was built in 1974 and was a Schwan’s depot,” Tiefenthaler says. “We remodeled it and when we were ready to open at the new location, we invited everyone to come in for free hot dogs, burgers and soda pop. We knew they were curious. We called it our ‘moving sale.’ We had tents up and wanted to just show off a bit and figured we would run the event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“But this event turned into an annual sale every June that lasted a week. We had customers who would drive three to four hours to get there. There is no doubt that we could keep getting the crowd if we extended it to two weeks.”
Tiefenthaler’s operates under Iowa state meat inspection and does slaughter on a custom basis and runs an 800-sq.-ft. retail store area. That comprises about 80 percent of the company volume with approximately 20 percent of the sales going into wholesale accounts.
Bigger and better
The company now produces 140 different products. When asked about a signature product, Tiefenthaler doesn’t hesitate to explain that the store’s enormous variety is its signature. “Things change so fast and customers always want to try something new. We continuously try to offer new flavors and meat items and we combine that with quality and real service from our employees. We have a few people with years of meat experience that have been with us. They have an almost encyclopedic level of knowledge and there are others who came to us that we were able to train.”
John’s wife Shelly handles payroll, HR, office management, and label issues. He refers to her as the computer guru who keeps things running.
The Tiefenthalers have a son, Austin, son-in-law, Jesse Bremer, and a daughter, Jordan, who graduated from Iowa State Univ. Austin and Jesse started working at the plant at a young age. Jesse began working at the company after school 12 years ago, doing cleaning and sanitation work. He and Jordan have been married for about four years. Jesse leads in the slaughter department while Austin handles much of the carcass breaking and cutting, and is in charge of the sausage kitchen for brats, sticks, summer sausage and more. Both Jesse and Austin are a huge part of the company’s award-winning success. Jesse does most of the preparation and production work while Austin tackles the cooking and smoking responsibilities.
Jordan runs the retail area and talks to their beef and hog customers about their orders, how they want them cut and explains the portions to be received for customers who have never had processing done.
“I hoped she would get a degree in business management since there seems to be more money in that field,” Tiefenthaler says of his daughter’s career pursuits. “She opted for meat science and has really taken off in the area of new product development and sausage-making. Jordan has the skill to tweak a product that makes it better. She was working on patties and had 14 versions until she found the formula that nailed it.”
While it may be a small family business, the Tiefenthaler operation is widely known. They ship product to the lower 48 states and their scores of awards in state, multi-state and national competition is a testament to their talents. They installed their first smokehouse in 1998 and six years later began entering competitions. The displays of their awards in the retail store let customers know they are buying meats judged among the best in the country.
Tiefenthaler is a past president of the Iowa Meat Processors Association and Shelly is currently on the IMPA board ofdirectors.
The company website, tqmeats.com, is as informative as it is colorful and functional. One section lists videos that lets viewers learn how to make main courses, side dishes and even soups like Philly Style Beer Brat.
The how-to videos feature cooking information on everything from prime rib, to grilled or oven-baked pork ribs or even exotic specialties like mango habanero salsa burgers. They offer recipes on the site and have them on cards in the retail store and include them with customer-ordered gift boxes.
“I like to be helpful to the customers,” Tiefenthaler explains. “If they are buying for their family or guests, or want to show off, we want to be the source where they get that help. The last thing I want to see is for them to be disappointed in what they bought because it wasn’t prepared correctly. If they use our information and do a bang-up job, they are proud and their family or guests are also pleased with what we sold them and the help they got to go with it. Their happy guests turn out to be future customers for us.”
The website also highlights their television commercials that often use customers vouching that Tiefenthaler’s meats are “delicious” or that the retail area is “like a candy store of meat.”
The company has a strong deer processing business, handling up to 700 big game animals a year. It takes whole carcasses or boneless trim and turns the venison into about 25 different snack items, jerky, sausages or other meat treats the hunters can takehome.
Tiefenthaler often brags about the talents and importance of his employees. One such employee, who recently left to be a stay-at-home mom, is staying on the payroll to help with social media. He said she could hold a baby in one arm and answer customer questions about the business with the other.
“Social media is feeding off the carcass of the yellow pages in the phone directory,” he contends. “When you have love and enthusiasm for what you do and can get that across...whether on the social media front, on the website, or when you see the customer eye-to-eye...you’ve got something going for you.”