Banana Cream Pie. Turkey Stuffing and Gravy. S’mores. Clam and Bacon. Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Want to hear more bratwurst flavors?
Blueberry Cheddar. Peach Mango. Caramel Apple. Crab and Butter.
We could go on.
Whiskey Peppercorn. Sour Cream and Onion. Chili Cheese Jalapeño.
OK, that’s 12, leaving 98 other brat flavors at Grundhofer’s Old-Fashion Meats in Hugo. Most are available year-round.
Unless they’re sold out, which can happen when it comes to the bestselling brat in the joint, the one made with Gummi Bears.
Yeah, Spencer Grundhofer can’t believe it either — and he makes about 300 pounds of Gummi brats a week, which speaks to repeat business.
This was not the meat market Grundhofer imagined when he opened seven years ago. His backroom is stocked with mini-marshmallows, chocolate chips, green olives, peanut butter and dried cherries. That old line about it being better to see neither laws nor sausage being made? The sight may give law the advantage, but Grundhofer doesn’t question success.
“People come in: ‘What’s the newest flavor?’ I put Caramel Apple brats on the sign out front last week. Gone. One hundred pounds. Gone. Seems like everything we make, it sells,” he said.
The charm of a butcher shop
If you’re unfamiliar with Hugo, you might drive right past Grundhofer’s the first time. It’s set back from Hwy. 61, hidden by a nice stand of trees north of the traffic light with Hwy. 8. Its sign notes “quality meats since 1983,” which would make Grundhofer, 42, about 11 years old when he started in the meat business.
Which is true.
When he was 10, he worked in the freezer of a butcher shop owned by a friend’s parents, packing meat in boxes. “But I hung around, asking to do more.”
By age 11, he’d convinced them to let him try cutting meat, “and I could break down a whole beef by the time I was 13 years old.” He slaps one of the 200-pound hind quarters of a steer hanging in the cooler with a sort of fond familiarity, himself being about as broad and necessarily outweighing the hunk of meat.
After 18 years at that first job, he worked at Festival Foods for seven before opening his own business, becoming one of the few full-service butcher shops around anymore.
This confounds him.
“What surprises me is that there aren’t more places like this,” he said. In a good butcher shop, someone’s always behind the counter, offering cuts you don’t find in most grocery displays, meats that they’ve smoked or boned themselves.
Take the slabs of bacon. “We have a dial on our slicing machine to calibrate thickness. People will come in and say, ‘I need two pounds sliced at 16,’ and that’s really nice. They’ve been around enough to know their numbers.”
Offering a tyranny of choice
“Gummi Bear? I don’t know.”
“Here’s Chicken Broccoli Cheese.”
“I like spicy. What about Chili Cheese Jalapeño?
“I don’t know — there are too many choices!”
Andrew and Jamie Feist of Forest Lake stood before the freezer case, squinting at all the labels, seeking some different brats for the weekend. Grundhofer’s No. 2 bestseller, Bloody Mary, was sold out.
Jamie was veering toward the chicken and turkey brats, skeptical of the stranger flavors, but Andrew was game. Finally, they settled on the Chili Cheese Jalapeño and the Chipotle brats. Then Andrew backtracked.
“Let’s get one of the Gummi Bear ones.”
“Um … yeah … OK.”
Beware the dare
Grundhofer has told the Gummi Bear brats’ back story too many times to count. In 2008, Joe Berglund, who owns Hometown Auto Repair next door, suggested throwing some of the chewy bruins into a batch of ground pork and seasonings. Grundhofer was experimenting with flavors such as Mushroom and Swiss Cheese, and Apple Cinnamon. But even he grimaced and waved Berglund off. Ha-ha.
Every once in a while, though, a customer came in asking for Gummi Bear brats, and he’d have to tell them he didn’t make them. Weird.
“Then I finally figured it out, duh,” he said. Berglund had been sending people over, telling them to ask his buddy for the special brats. Ha-ha.
That Christmas, Grundhofer made a batch, took them next door and announced, “There, now we’ve made ’em and you’re gonna eat ’em,” he told Berglund, who returned the next day with the stunning verdict: “Awesome.”
Grundhofer added a few to his selection, figuring the kids would get a charge out of them, the bears’ little faces straining through the casing. But then the Hugo paper and a Twin Cities TV station did stories “and it just exploded.” People said they liked the play of savory and sweet, and the brat in and around the candy was terrific, too.
Grundhofer himself prefers brats he makes with Skittles. “With the Gummi Bear, you get into, like a sweet pocket. But the Skittles brats taste more like Froot Loops, which I didn’t think would happen. But you never know when you start adding candy to meat.”
Ignorance can be bliss
The sleeper of the shop’s offerings may be a brat made for Minnesota Monthly’s GrillFest last May. Butcher Wayne Mackenroth, who was working the grills, saw that one of the samples kept getting passed over when people read its label.
“My daughter was helping me and I told her to turn that sign around,” Mackenroth recalled. “Then people would reach for it and once they tried it — and didn’t know what they were eating — they loved it.”
The flavor? Banana Cream Pie.
Not every idea works. Grundhofer once tried a version with Snickers, “and I said, ‘We aren’t even putting these out to sell.’ ”
Of course, people also buy Regular brats because, at heart, the basic brat has to be good, no matter how it’s embellished. Grundhofer buys pork from local producers, and has a secret seasoning. And he’s firm about using natural casings — the intestines of sheep or hogs — instead of artificial collagen casings.
“Natural casings have that unique ‘snap’ when you bite into them,” he said. “That’s what I started with, and what I’ll use ’til I’m dead. They cost more, but they’re worth it.”
With pork prices rising, he had to raise prices 40 cents a pound not long ago. “Nobody said a word,” he said, with a note of gratitude in his voice. A package of five big brats averages about $8, depending on ingredients. “People don’t come here for cheap brats.”
The stuffing machine kicked in, sending a plump skein of sausages across the stainless steel counter.
“Those are Peach Mango,” Grundhofer said, then smiled. “You can’t be surprised at anything here.”