Walk up to the counter at Anoka Meat and Sausage and be welcomed into a bygone era. The display case stretches the length of the store, packed with a wide variety of cuts — from tender butter steaks to award-winning beef sticks — and flavored bacon and sausages.
The business has been around for 130 years, although it's changed hands a few times. Its current location on W. Main Street is several years old.
Owner Dave Jurek's business is an exception in an industry that sits at a crossroads. At a time when industry reports show dozens of small butchers in the state threatening to close in the next decade, his shop is thriving. Last year, revenue was up 18 percent over the previous year.
Jurek attributes Anoka Meat's against-the-grain success partly to the methods it's using to lure customers, especially younger ones. It has its own Facebook page, a website and now offers e-mail subscriptions.
During the summer, sausages are grilled outside the store, sending savory aromas and whiffs of nostalgia wafting into the air — and selling on average 200 to 300 a day. And the store now stocks grass-fed meat products, aiming for a broader audience.
As a result, he's seen an increase in younger patrons, Jurek said.
Jurek bought the company in 1987 from a retiring couple. They had purchased the business in 1957, and during their 30 years introduced fresh sausages, smoked meats, fish, custom slaughtering and processing.
When the couple owned the business, butcher shops were in almost every town — from sprawling communities to farmland — processing and selling various types of meat. Now that's not so common, as more supermarkets offer convenient prepackaged cuts, and meat-shop owners nearing retirement age shutter their businesses for good.
Currently, there are an estimated 280 small meat-processing facilities in the state, according to a report from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI).
While comparable numbers from decades back are not readily available, it's clear that "there were way more meat shops back then," Jurek said. "Every town had one. It's not the same anymore."
Feeling the weight
Two-thirds of meat-processing business owners are at or nearing retirement age, according to the AURI report.
Lavonne Sundeen is one. Along with her husband, Sundeen owns Braham Food Locker Services on the northeastern edge of Isanti County.
After only a few years of processing meat in a town with a population just shy of 2,000, the Sundeens are feeling the weight of a declining industry.
A mix of ill health and the "dying trade" has meant that the Sundeens' shop is for sale, but the business will remain open, Sundeen stressed.
Two-thirds of owners do not have a succession plan in place, according to the report.
The previous owners had the shop for 40 years before they retired.
"We are trying to sell it because the business of custom processing is getting to be a tougher and tougher trade to make money in," she said. "It's very hard to develop a good retail business in a small town like this."
The Sundeens specialize in custom cutting and processing, essentially selling their labor to a farmer. When a farmer brings in a cow, the Sundeens process the animal and cut the meat to the farmer's specifications.
They have a small case of products for the public, but farmers provide the majority of their business.
The opposite is true at Anoka Meat, where Jurek gets his meat from a local packing house and sells it to customers.
"The heart of [Jurek's shop] is retail," Sundeen said. "But there are fewer of us that do custom cutting."
When Jurek bought the business, it was called Anoka Meat and Locker Service. The demographics of his customers were changing, so he switched to mostly retail.
Sundeen thinks the closing of a meat-cutting school in Pipestone, Minn., where Jurek and her husband learned the craft, is why shops like hers are closing. Jurek agrees: "Now you just don't have the people that know how to do that kind of stuff."
Julie Lorentz, executive secretary for the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors, said there are no training programs in the state for butchers. However, meat production classes are offered at the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
A steak in the community
Jurek has been around the business since he was a kid. His uncles owned a meat store in North Oaks where he worked for many years. He went on to manage meat counters for grocery stores in the area.
Owning Anoka Meat happened by chance.
He was in need of casings during a shift at the grocery store and ran into Anoka Meat and Locker Service. When the previous owners put the shop for sale, he bought it.
For the first few years, 75 percent of his business was from local farmers. As the farmland turned into suburban neighborhoods, he started promoting the display case.
He introduced flavored bacon and beef sticks, and cuts of meat, like the tender butter steak, that are not commonly found at supermarkets.
At one point, Jurek had another store near Taylor Falls, but he closed it because it "became too much." The two businesses are more than 52 miles apart, and the commute started to take a toll.
At 54, Jurek has started wondering what will happen when he retires. In a business where the future is unknown, he has hope. His 26-year-old son is interested, but Jurek is afraid the 10-hour workday may be too much.
"When you have a business like this, the bad part is that you hardly have any free time," he said. "It eats up so much of your time."
Lorentz agrees. It's not for everyone, she said.
"It's definitely not an easy industry. It's hard work," Lorentz said. "But the people who do it are craftsmen."
The best part, he said, is working with his friends "no matter what happens."