CLEAR LAKE, Minn. – When you walk through the swinging double doors into the production area of McDonald's Meats in Clear Lake, the labyrinthine backrooms smell of wood smoke, seasoned meat and crisp refrigerated air. This is co-owner and general manager Jennifer Dierkes' home turf.
"This is custom processing," she says as she turns a corner, past a man filling gigantic pans with armfuls of pork. "Not everyone is prepared for it," she warns.
But as she steps aside, the scene she reveals is akin to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory for meat lovers. Workers expertly carve massive cuts of meat from a leg of beef while perfectly portioned sausages pop from a machine. There's a swirl of activity, and people pass carrying trays of fine steaks or pushing racks off which meat sticks hang like strands of glistening jewels. Dierkes opens a smoker and is engulfed in rich, jerky-scented steam: it's the world's strangest skin treatment.
If you can stomach the sight of freshly slaughtered ("We prefer to say 'harvested.' You know, PR," laughs Dierkes) beef or pork, it's a fascinating look at how the sausage gets made — literally. But for Dierkes, it's just another day on the job.
Dierkes began working at McDonald's Meats when she was just 14 years old. At a time when most teens were smuggling their Metallica T-shirts and eyeliner to school in their backpacks, Dierkes' bag was filled with work whites.
"When I started to work here, I just wanted a job!" Dierkes said. "I would get dropped off here by the bus after school and go to work. Now when people from my high school come in, they always say, 'You're still at the meat market?' "
Dierkes is a member of the fourth generation to own and operate McDonald's Meats. Along with her stepbrother Travis McDonald, Dierkes manages the family business, which is more than 100 years old.
All of Dierkes' hard work has earned her the nickname "Jen the Meat Babe," a humorous moniker that is often heard during radio commercials for McDonald's Meats. The nickname was first created by a radio host whose show Dierkes frequented with tasty samples in tow, but Dierkes laughed off her sales manager's suggestion to use it in advertising until one very telling incident.
"I was at a blackjack party where I knew about half the people, and the other half were strangers. At one point a friend of mine said from across the room, 'Hey, Jen the Meat Babe, come over here!' And three people at the table turned to me and went, 'You're Jen the Meat Babe?!' " Dierkes said with a smile. "And then I realized I should listen to my sales guy, because he knows what he's talking about. It's stuck ever since."
Whether she's known as "The Meat Babe" or just Jennifer, Dierkes is proud of her imprint on the business and that she makes a point to be open-minded.
"When you've been around it for so long, it can be like, 'Yes, this is the way we do it!' " she said. "But I think that's part of the success of McDonald's Meats since I came on — I don't have blinders on."
Dierkes' focus on innovation has helped the meat market score some major awards. Their braunschweiger, a sausage originally hailing from Germany, received a makeover after Dierkes attended a workshop and decided to make the sausage her pet project.
"After I learned some new info, I thought I should go back and redo our whole process … and interestingly enough since then we've won not only grand champion in the class but also the Best in Show awards given out by the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors twice in a row," Dierkes said.
"Last year when they announced that we'd won, we were all shocked. Braunschweiger? Braunschweiger never wins!" she laughed. "You're competing against hams and specialty bacons, but we won it again this year!"
"The Meat Babe" will soon have an even bigger project on her hands: expansion. Dierkes said it's been a long time coming, and reflects the meat market's booming business.
"We've grown to a point where we are at capacity in our current facility. I jokingly say we either have to expand, or stand at the door and tell every fifth customer they can't come in!" Dierkes said.
A new production facility will include a space for the business to continue bringing live animals for slaughter. The space that currently houses the production area will be converted back into retail — that building's original purpose dating back to the early 20th century — and will more than double the overall retail space.
But Dierkes doesn't seem nervous about filling all that space with McDonald's Meats products or about keeping the historic meat market's legacy alive. In fact, McDonald's Meats' over 100 years of success may help to give Dierkes the confidence to lead the business at her own pace.
"We've always been very good at controlled growth," she said. "You never want to grow too fast. Because then, you'll lose sight of where you came from."