Hunting is a big tradition in Wisconsin. But at Maplewood Meats in Green Bay, the real game is customer satisfaction.

“We just keep doing what built our business while trying to do it better,” says Dave Van Hemelryk. The president of this family-run retail and custom business puts himself in the customer’s role when it comes to making decisions about the business.

“There has got to be a ‘wow’ factor when you walk in the door,” he explains. “You want to see a store that is exceptionally clean, offers a large variety of quality products and takes the time to neatly display products.”

Maplewood Meats is a model of discipline when it comes to those areas and successfully rides on the principle that the employees must be involved. The business is run “hands-on” by Dave and his family, with a lot of support from a staff that shares the same goals.

“To keep your customers, they have to know how important they are to you,” the 47-year-old emphasizes. “You want to make sure you give them the best products and service.”

Training new employees on what customers expect from Maplewood is key. Dave’s father, Roger, is well-known for telling staff “if you wouldn’t buy it, it doesn’t belong in the case.”

Dave says that when customers walk up to the full-service counter, they want to be greeted by someone who is knowledgeable and cheerful and gives them 100 percent of their attention.

Treating the 50 employees like family goes a long way toward achieving customer satisfaction at Maplewood. Indeed, with 80 feet of retail meat cases staffed by up to 25 counter workers on a busy day, the management works hard to let shoppers know they are not just one of the crowd, particularly on Saturdays when the parking lot is a sea of cars, but time is still taken with each customer.

“If a customer tastes a product and they like it, it sells itself,” Dave says. “We encourage our employees to do sampling. You want to know what you are buying. Most people aren’t likely to buy a whole stick of summer sausage if they haven’t tried it before. But give them a sample and if they like it you have a new customer for that product.”

The firm provides lunch for employees every day. They eat together, share social news, read the paper, bring in dessert or treats and feel they are at a family table.

Building on experience
Roger worked at a nearby Armour plant for 14 years before they closed in the early 1980s. He used his kill floor and maintenance department experience and with his wife, Pat, at his side, opened a small custom-processing shop in 1983 about a half-mile from the family farm. While he admits it was hard work at Armour, he makes no bones about the fact it was “rough sledding” when he went on his own.

“The first couple of years were very difficult,” Roger reflects. “But I had learned what worked and what wouldn’t work from Armour. I was involved in maintenance and knew how to build rails, layout the plant for better flow and most importantly, what not to do.”

Roger recalls one of his employees at the custom shop suggested he put in a small retail meat counter outside the shop to avoid congestion. With that step, the die was cast and three additions later the Maplewood enterprise grew to become a premier 34,000-sq.-ft. business.

The Van Hemelryk family stressed quality and relied on word-of-mouth advertising to grow. They said the biggest hurdle was “earning the trust” of their customer base.

They were aided in their early years by the late Dr. Dennis Buege at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison who worked with the fledgling business and used the plant in an instructional video to aid other small meat processing companies. Roger recalls Buege as “our No. 1 resource person” who brought out ideas on everything from layout to sausage-making.

Dave shares his father’s philosophy about producing nothing but the best-quality products and giving customers an unexpectedly delightful shopping experience:

“You want to know what you are buying, and you want some degree of confidence about your buying decisions,” he says. “Our service employees go out of their way to treat you as an individual. They will not cut corners on their time with you and are happy to cut off a slice of product for you to try so you know what you’re getting.”

Keeping customers satisfied
To ease counter wait time, Maplewood provides a sampling table, complete with self-serve samples of everything from sausage to snack sticks to coffee.

While the firm relies on many of its original recipes, it has added many new fresh and ready-to-eat products through the years. But clearly, the emphasis is on perfecting what is already good. The Van Hemelryk family has added new flavor profiles to existing products and believes you’ve got to constantly impress customers and re-impress them with every visit.

“We don’t ever want to lose a customer,” Dave says. “We need to respect their time every time and live the old adage ‘make quality a habit.’”

The firm’s website offers a photo gallery tour of the retail area, and details the product line-up and custom services, which represent about 50 percent of the Maplewood volume.

Roger and Pat were inducted last year into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame. He maintains that Maplewood’s bacon, smoked with apple wood and hickory, is their best product. Yet, at the American Cured Meat Championships (ACMC) this year, it was their Canadian bacon that took home Best of Show honors. The company has garnered a massive 152 awards for cured meats in the tough Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP) competition, and another 51 ACMC honors. The retail area features five medals earned in prestigious international contests.

If there’s a cured meat product out there, you’ll assuredly find a nearly perfect version of it at this meat retailer.

Dave’s sister, Lisa, runs the office for Maplewood meats and her husband, Bob, comes in to lend a hand in the shop during the holidays. Dave’s wife, Vicki, manages the full-service counter and retail area. Pat helps out in the office and does the holiday decorating. Roger has semi-retired, but comes in for a full shift about three days a week to repair equipment or run for parts.

“We’re content with our size right now,” Dave points out. “We’ve had offers to open stores at other locations and have been asked to wholesale, but for now we don’t want to get any bigger. Things around here already fill up the full work week and we still have things we want to do better and try to perfect.

“I’m not saying we won’t go into new areas if the children come into the business,” he adds. “We want to address the feedback we are getting from our customers. Time is precious for them and we are thinking about products that they can take home and pop into the oven or microwave and have a complete meal. This is a step above the kabobs, soups and cordon bleu items we offer, but we only want to go into it if we are doing it the right way – and that means it’s got to be first quality.”

For the Van Hemelryk family traditional values are its ace-in-the-hole, and everything about the business spells out to customers the theme of being an old-fashioned meat shop. There is a feature wall in the retail area that looks like it came from a log cabin, and not far away is a large highly visible antique oak cooler with marble inlays.

Customers may select from fancy meat and cheese party trays or holiday gift baskets and seasoned rib roasts. Satisfied shoppers have helped increase sales by purchasing gift cards to share their personal meat mecca with their family and friends.

The custom processing game
In the custom processing department, it’s also “game on” at Maplewood. The firm only accepts clean boned-out game meats and turns them into a massive variety of fresh and ready-to-eat products, all vacuum packaged. They are exceptionally fussy and personally inspect everything coming in, discarding any unclean or distressed product. What is accepted comes in with a $1 a pound deposit paid up front.

Their custom-processing reputation is also enhanced by the family’s “don’t cut corners” philosophy. Be it deer, elk, bear, moose or caribou, sportsmen bringing in their prized game know they’ll be getting the same first-quality service at Maplewood Meats.

Yet, being on top of the game isn’t good enough for this family. Dave is just completing a two-year Master Meat Craft course conducted by Dr. Jeff Sindelar at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison. It involved two-day segments several times a year where today’s top processing experts taught everything from fresh and dry sausage, to ham production and more. The two-dozen participants were even given in-plant homework assignments and projects to improve their craft.

Imagine that…still trying to make award-winning products better. But for the Van Hemelryks, it’s just another “wow” factor you’ll find at their shop in Green Bay.