There are few towns in America more picturesque than Belleville, Pa., but probably none with a biggerhearted citizenry. Located about 20 miles south of Penn State Univ.’s fabled Happy Valley, this Amish and Mennonite community in the midst of Big Valley has been home for more than a half century to A.J. Peachey & Sons – at least until April 15, 2010.

On that night, a fire of unknown origin totally destroyed the fourth-generation business. Left in the rubble of the 55,000-sq.-ft. slaughter and processing operation, restaurant, craft shop and ice cream parlor were the hopes and dreams of the father-son ownership team of Lewis Peachey and his son, Aaron, along with their 86 employees.

But after a few days of pondering the future and an outpouring of support from their long-time Belleville customers and friends, they made a decision to rebuild. Within hours of the fire and before any decision was made on whether to rebuild, more than 100 volunteers from the Mennonite Disaster Services organization and the local community showed up to help pick through the ashes to hand sort out metal, glass, wire and other materials to take to the dump and salvage yard. The next day 200 more showed up to help.

“We were blessed in so many ways,” Lewis reflects, “but when we saw how much others cared about us, our sadness became our promise for the future.”

Indeed, the Peachey operation is already under construction and set to open in July, 2011.

Good business sense
Elements of the family’s story seem to fit a pattern of making wise business decisions. Lewis’ father, the late Aaron J. Peachey and his grandfather, Joseph Y. Peachey, were experienced farm butchers and processors and had delivered products by horse and carriage to outlying communities. But Aaron took a bold step in 1955 when he gave up slaughter and processing on the farm to build a 30 ft. x 60 ft. retail store and custom shop.

“The dimensions were well thought through,” Lewis recalls. “He told us that if the business didn’t work out, there was room in the block building for housing two rows of cows and some overhead storage area for hay.”

Aaron J. and his two oldest sons, Joe and Jess, were forward thinking enough to later operate stands at several farmer’s markets throughout the mid-state area to sell their products.

In the original shop, Aaron J.’s wife sold home-made baked goods from the small retail area. But within five years, they expanded to add more kill floor space, a separate cutting room and more freezer and cooler space.

Lewis, who had some background in butchering and grew up around the new meat-market business, came on as a partner with his father and older brothers in 1969. At about that same time, they also purchased a nearby farm to raise their own hogs and cattle, both for family use and to sell.

In 1970, the Peachey family invested in another major addition, this time to include a grocery store, produce department and a bakery, along with more cooling and freezer space.

When a fire burned 75 percent of the operation in 1991, the family was back in business within days, selling products for the next six months from one of the few surviving storage buildings. Remodeling of the burned-out store area was completed and within two years, a new structure was finished. It was large enough to include an upstairs area that one of Lewis’ daughters would use to house Peachey’s Country Crafts. That area became a draw unto itself, featuring gift items from candles and home decorations to custom-made furniture from local craftsmen.

Continued growth
The appeal of A.J. Peachey & Sons grew through such offerings as a 144-seat home-cooking restaurant, a fullscale bakery and even the ice cream shop. About one year before the April 2010 fire, the family added two outdoor smokers to cook ribs and chicken. Amish buggies in the parking lot became a mainstay as shoppers came in for home-style frozen meat pies, farm-fresh sausages, scrapple and puddings, fresh-cut meats and poultry, oven-ready loaves and cheeses of every variety and shelves abounding with bulk cooking and baking supplies in colorfully arrayed plastic bags.

But rebuilding on the success story written before last year’s fire also involved some sharp thinking. In December of 2009, Lewis and son Aaron, 33, agreed to buy out his brothers’ share of the business. One thing they reviewed at the time was their insurance coverage, particularly as it related to business interruption.

“We saw that we had about eight months of business interruption expenses in our policy and realized that if anything major happened, we would never be able to recover in such a short amount of time. We extended the interruption coverage to 15 months and I am thankful that we did.

“The insurance company was wonderful and helped us stay in operation by bringing in several moveable wooden buildings that we could use for office space, our produce department, meat and retail sales, our crafts business, in addition to outdoor cooler, freezing, storage units and a portable kitchen. We were able to get a large enclosed tent set up to house our restaurant and later set up a double-wide manufactured building to get us through the colder months. It even has chandeliers.”

To sustain business, the Peacheys held regular meat sales from reefer trucks regularly and purchased a lot of their product from other area plants.

The upgrade in business interruption coverage also meant the company could keep most of its employees. Sixty-five employees continued to earn full paychecks even though many were working only part-time schedules.

The new construction project kicked off in mid-October with a total of 37,000 sq. ft. of space that will allow all phases to continue except slaughter. They will buy local livestock and have it processed under USDA inspection in the area, but plan to promote “natural” and source-verified meats.

Peachey’s new restaurant will have 200 seats and the store’s food and meats line-up will hold true to pre-fire days.

“Changing the interruption insurance was critical for us.” Lewis says. “Even with replacement money to rebuild, we learned there was plenty of red tape to go through just to get plans approved. Emergency lighting, handicap access, labor and industry regulations and so much more paperwork and hearings made that the toughest part of coming back.

“It was not so bad at the local level because unemployment is bad here. We lost over 1,000 jobs when the Ford New Holland plant closed a few years back and the local officials were anxious to keep us in business. And the people here…what can I say about them… have been so supportive and wonderful.

“When we looked at those 46 tractor-trailer loads of fire debris leaving our property, we wondered how we could ever replace what we had. Now we know that what we really had, but never really lost, was a base of loyal customers and friends who wanted us to come back for them.”
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat&Poultry, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.