In 1972, Bill and Pat Hagberg moved their 34-year-old meat market from Main Street to Hwy. 5 in Lake Elmo to attract roadside business. In 1989, they put gas pumps out front to better serve their customers.
Now their son Billy and his wife, Melissa, have renovated Hagberg Country Market for the same reason. They increased retail space, chose grocery items to complement their specialty meats and launched a new website.
With more consumers caring about where their meat comes from and preferring specialized shops to supermarkets, meat markets with deep roots in their communities are making changes to address 21st-century retailing trends.
In Hudson, Wis., the Reams family found and installed last summer a feature for RJ’s Meats that few established family-owned markets can top: a Regiomat meat vending machine from Europe. RJ’s became the first business in the United States to own one.
Some meat markets have found that going digital helps on the production and processing side. Charlie Cory, owner of Big Steer Meats in St. Paul, said he’s been able to check freezer temperatures from his mobile device since 2015, when he expanded his store and meat selection.
“The technology out there is great,” Cory said, “and with the money I have tied up in inventory, I want the best products out there.”
Outstate markets also are stepping up their game. The 83-year-old Conger Meat Market, in southeastern Minnesota, moved to a renovated creamery next door and obtained federal certification to process meat on site — a three-year project that owners Darcy and Jeremy Johnson said cost them $1 million (with the help of a $150,000 state agriculture grant).
Johnson promotes the shop every Friday during a local radio show’s call-in hour for local businesses. She likens buying meat locally to buying produce at a farmers market.
“People are coming back to [wanting to know] where their meat comes from,” she said.
The state Agriculture Department offers meat sales certification similar to the federal program, according to Levi Muhl, manager of the Meat, Poultry and Egg Inspection Program. Both programs let businesses process and produce meat wholesale, but the state program doesn’t permit the selling of meat across state lines. The Johnsons would like to sell their meats online someday, and you can do that with federal certification.
Lines going out the door
RJ’s owner Rick Reams discovered the vending machine company while attending a 2016 meat trade show in Germany. He kept in touch with company officials, and last summer installed the machine.
Since October, two other Minnesota markets also have added vending machines, Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale and Dehmer’s Meats in St. Michael.
The vending machine, dubbed “Reggie” by the Reams family, is available to customers 24/7 and gets the most use during holidays and after big Packers and Vikings games. “And bar rushes,” Reams added. “Bar rushes are always good for Reggie.”
Reams said he’s opening a satellite shop at the Keg and Case Market in St. Paul, with plans to have the store running by late July or early August.
Before helping the Hagbergs with their renovation in Lake Elmo, Prime General Contractors project manager Dan Perry said he wasn’t aware of what the market meant to the community. He was familiar with the meat world, he said — he is married to a meat science expert — but he was pleasantly surprised by how busy the business was during the 13-week construction period.
“There were lines going out the door,” Perry said.
After working with Hagberg’s, Perry and Derek Clarkin, Prime’s president, said they’re interested in taking on more specialty businesses with roots in the community. To underscore the market’s beginnings, their design includes a few rural wrinkles such as a grain bin outside and the old gas pumps out front.
“Here we are in the metro, but it kind of feels like one of those things you’d see Up North on the way to the cabin,” Hagberg said. “We don’t have fishing bait, but same idea.”
Emily Allen, a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, was a University of Minnesota student on assignment this spring for the Star Tribune.