Visitors wouldn’t know it by stopping in his upscale ethnic German butcher shop located 35 miles down the peninsula from San Francisco, but the 74-year-old has a tale that inspires awe and admiration.
Listening to the owner of Dittmer’s Gourmet Meats & Wurst-Haus Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., tell how he began his journey to become one of America’s exemplary meat processing immigrants is a captivating exercise not soon forgotten:
“My father had a dairy store in Hamburg, Germany,” he relates. “He was a cheesemaker and sold milk and butter. Things were tough and when he didn’t return from the war, we had a family of six to feed. The dairy store couldn’t survive and my mind turned to meat.
“I always had a hunger for meat all the time because you couldn’t get any. I was 14 and one day on my way home from school I saw a sign in a butcher shop advertising for an apprentice. It drew my attention and I went in and talked to the owner. He said he was interested in hiring me but that he couldn’t wait until I was able to finish school that April. I went to work there the next day.”
For the next three years, Dittmer worked his way up through the ranks. The initial work offered practically no pay, but an occasional piece of meat to take home to feed the family on Sundays. He later earned a paltry eight German marks for the week, but he was learning and the mileposts on his road to survival began clicking past. It was in this little shop of experience that Dittmer labored six days a week, except for the one day a week he went to meat school.
“After school it was back to the butcher shop,” he recalls. “There were no time clocks and you didn’t go home until all the work was done. I liked it and was able to eat meat again.”
By 1956, he was planning to relocate to work at a meat shop in Africa. However, at the last minute he stumbled on to a better opportunity, working at a German butcher shop in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In the first week he identified a major problem with the way a foreman was making sausage and one week later he landed a spot as the foreman’s replacement. Dittmer went on to work a handful of other Edmonton-area meat operations, including Safeway.
Two years after moving to Canada, he and a friend went on vacation to a much warmer California. In 1960 another visit to the West Coast convinced him that it was time to move on. One year later, he and his wife Margaret moved to the San Francisco area and the union found him a job at a Bay Area Safeway. Dittmer admits it was hardly a dream job, but it sufficed until that dream became a reality.
“There was too much pressure at a store like that with quotas and I wanted to open my own business anyway,” Dittmer recollects. “My wife spotted an ad for a meat shop in the Mountain View area. We looked at it on Oct. 1, 1978, and bought it 14 days later. Their bookkeeper confided about all the problems the shop had and looked at me like I was nuts for wanting to buy it.”
Putting experience to work
Packing in his trepidation, Dittmer used his years of experience to make a difference. He had made hams, brats and German-style sausages for parties at his home, where guests would ask where they could buy them. Once he opened his store, he converted them into loyal customers at his new butcher shop. Indeed, one of his first customers who came in just days after he acquired the shop still shops at the store 32 years later.
It was Dittmer’s zeal for keeping things high-quality and traditional in flavor that formed the foundation for his new enterprise. You won’t find salty products, but his dedication to the delicate flavors of his German homeland are unmatched in the entire region.
There were many ethnic European butchers in the area, but over the years nearly all have fallen by the wayside. Outlasting the competition is perhaps someone’s scorecard for success, but the Bubert family measures it another way.
“When we come in to open the store at Christmas time, there may be 25 or 30 people lined up outside waiting to come in,” Dittmer says. “And they are not disappointed.”
Those customers will find more than 100 fresh, smoked and cured specialty products. And while there may be a bit of a wait for service at the 45-foot meat counter, customers can reassure themselves the wait is worth it as they scan more than 200 product awards decorating the wall behind it. The little shop of processing legends cranks out nearly 6,000 lbs. of sausage products weekly.
Drawing a crowd
To handle the growing lunch crowd at the shop, between three to five counter workers gear up each lunchtime to handle the average 150 sandwich and deli customers who flock through the doors to chomp into the gourmet fare. It’s quality dining at blue-collar prices and those who choose to eat on-site take a seat at one of the many outside picnic tables. While the seating is a bit Spartan, the menu selections offer something for all carnivores, complimented by the fact that five different specialty bakeries deliver breads to the deli.
Dittmer says he’s part-time now, making a total of 15 employees in the 2,400-square-foot retail butcher shop. His son, Mark, handles most of the sausage making and daughter, Petra, runs the deli. Dittmer spends hours in the office but relishes his task of being the mix master for the ethnic spices and the flavorings of his shop. He remains the moral conscience of taste in the unique wurst-haus that brandishes his name.
Dittmer served six years as a director for the California Association of Meat Processors and Mark has been on the Association board for nine years.
Equipment is limited as is the space, but a bowl chopper and onecage gravity and one-cage Koch smokehouse get the job done. Reviews posted on the Internet about the business describe it using words such as “a Bay Area institution” and “one of the best things that has happened to me.” The shop has its own Web site www.dittmers.com.
Dittmer became such a fixture in Silicon Valley that major computer chip companies flocked to his shop in the 1980’s to pick up patés and smoked products for office functions and to hear him yell “Yahoo!” in his still intact German accent.
Dittmer’s little German butcher shop has been touted by local television, in newspaper reviews, and even in the widely read German magazine Der Spiegel. But an even more fitting tribute plays daily at the Bremenhaven Museum in Germany where that proud country plays a video of a chosen handful of its successful emigrants, including Dittmer. It runs up to 20 times a day to tell the story of a meat man whose hunger burnished his passion!
There is, indeed, something in the mystique of being old-fashioned that is timeless, even in the heart of Silicon Valley. •
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.