Archive for Friday, August 29, 1997

MEAT SELLERS CARVE NICHE IN MARKET

August 29, 1997

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Retail butchers have found ways to cope with supermarket competition and the E. coli scare.

His burly arms moving swiftly, Steve Koerner continued carving up several pounds of inch-thick pork chops.

The east Lawrence butcher spoke loudly above the whir of his stainless steel meat band saw. He talked of the changes he's seen in his business -- and the recent E. coli scare.

"I know I'm a lot more careful when I eat out," said Koerner, who owns Steve's Quality Meats, 2140 Haskell. "You hate to say this -- I'm the meat business -- but when you spread 25 million pounds around..."

Koerner and several other area business people in the meat business spoke last week about the ramifications of the 25 million pounds of meat Hudson Foods Inc. recalled because of possible E. coli contamination.

But the E. coli scare pales compared to the effect chain supermarkets have had on retail meat markets, they indicated.

Koerner, who has been a butcher for close to three decades, had a dream about 10 years ago -- a profitable meat market in east Lawrence.

"It worked out real good the first couple of years," said Koerner, looking over old snapshots of his former meat counter.

But business costs and competition with larger supermarkets led him to close the retail counter a few years ago.

He's now in the wholesale meat business, selling high-quality cuts to restaurants and nursing homes in the area.

"Between the bank's interest, insurance and taxes, small business has a tough time," the 50-year-old businessman said last week. "The retail is just not there."

Across town, Bob Harwood, owner of Choice Foods Inc., 711 W. 23rd, said over-the-counter sales make up only about 5 percent of his business.

"Ninety-five percent of our business is wholesale and goes out the back door," said Harwood, whose family has owned the business for 50 years.

Harwood said he's kept a high-end meat retail counter as a service to customers, which is open Wednesdays through Saturdays. But the money is in wholesaling.

"You can spend 15 to 20 minutes helping a customer with a $20 order or the same amount in the back with a $200 order," he said. "We don't pursue the retail or work at it like we used to do."

Harwood said whenever E. coli meat contamination makes headlines, it doesn't seem to affect his business.

"We have never noticed a change," he said. "People go out and eat hamburgers regardless."

He said five-pound boxes of ground beef patties make up the backbone of his retail business. U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors come in as often as twice a week to inspect the premises.

"I talk to a lot of meat markets all around the state and they do it as a personalized service," he said.

However, grocery stores can offer better prices because they can use ground beef as a loss leader to get people in the store, then make up the difference in other grocery items, he said.

"With a smaller meat market, you're going to lose that," he said.

Gary Kroeger, who owns Kroeger's Country Meats in Lecompton, has been in the business for 15 years. Kroeger gave up a job as a Lawrence school administrator for a less hectic lifestyle.

"We mainly are a meat market and also are a full-service deli and grill," he said. "We have groceries and the necessities for a small town like this."

He said the Lecompton business won a Kansas City area radio station contest a few years ago as having the best grilled hamburger in the area.

Kroeger, who gets his meat from a supplier in Elwood, Kan., said he's noticed when the E. coli headlines hit, he began getting more business.

"We're selling more hamburger than ever before. People who know us, know how clean we are," he said.

He said a lot of the E. coli problem comes from meat handlers in mass production operations not being as clean as they should be.

"We tear our equipment down between every cutting and grinding and we wipe our scales," he said.

Tom Pyle, president of Pyle Meat Co. Inc., has been in the meat business since 1959 at the corner of Eighth and Main streets in Eudora.

Competition with grocery stores led him to get out of the retail meat business, he said.

"We took our retail meat counter out of here probably six years ago," he said. "It was a business decision. We're all very happy with it. We don't have to worry about all this stuff with the E. coli."

That's because the majority of Pyle's business consists of manufacturing pre-cooked sausage and beef jerky, which he sells to area grocery stores.

"Where we used to be in competition with supermarkets, now we sell to them," Pyle said. "Now we are a supplier."

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