Sangudo Custom Meats is a small operation in a tiny town — but it’s the little meat shop that could.
“We figure that if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” said Kevin Meier, who owns and operates the business with partner Jeff Senger.
“If you do 10 different things and nine of them are failures, but one of them sticks, then it’s worth it.”
Thanks to its unique marketing approach and its innovative animal-handling system, the business is now the biggest employer in the hamlet of 325 an hour’s drive northwest of Edmonton.
“I’m working away, out in Whitecourt and out in the (oil) patch and I’m watching this little town just implode,” said Meier.
A few years ago, about 30 concerned citizens formed the Sangudo Opportunity Development Co-operative (SODC) to revitalize business in the town, increase volunteer action and acquire government support for programs to better the town. When a 27-year-old meat-packing business came up for sale, a plan was developed and Meier, who had a retail meat-cutting licence from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology came on board. He was joined by Senger, 37, who was also working in Whitecourt as an accountant, but wasn’t happy with his career.
“With all 30 people, we could really push the meat shop,” said Meier.
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So he and Senger purchased the land, building and business, and then convinced the SODC to buy it back and act as landlords. The two parties hatched a deal so the rent stayed low, with the co-op getting a six per cent share of profits.
“That way we have the whole group selling the meat shop, because they wanted to grow their interest rate so their ROI (return on investment) gets better at the end of the year,”said Meier.
Business was so good, Senger and Meier were soon overwhelmed by the workload and began adding staff.
“Pretty soon we had seven people hired out of this tiny little community,” said Meier. “That’s a big percentage out of 300.”
They focused on hiring young people in order to entice them to stay in the community.
“We want to get them to buy a house in town, realize they have a job here, stay here and earn a living,” said Meier.
Senger became the sales manager and began talking to businesses and restaurants in Edmonton, leaving Meier to run things back in Sangudo. They began selling meat to Edmonton-area restaurants and developed different kinds of sausages and jerkies.
“At first it was just little things, but pretty soon the orders got bigger and bigger,” he said. “All of a sudden, running to the city became our second business. That’s when the business started to feel more like a business. Jeff was selling and I was running the crew.”
The guys started buying the local 4-H champion each June and began giving a 20 per cent discount off cut and wrap off every 4-H animal brought to their shop.
“I brought my stock trailer, and I offered to take the beef home, store it at my place and fed it until we had room to kill it,” said Meier. “My dad would hold onto it, and we’d slowly chisel away at it, killing about eight at a time.”
In the first couple of years, the shop processed wild game from September to December.
“The first two years were ballistic. We wanted to make money and we didn’t care about time, so we just asked everyone to bring it all in.”
Eventually, the workload proved to be too much, so Senger and Meier made livestock from local farmers their priority.
“Now if we have a slow week with killing, we bring in a few deer and a few moose,” he said.
January to June was the slow season, so Senger and Meier searched for something to kill during this time. They found out winter was the peak season for elk. A year after opening, Senger and Meier received a grant from Growing Forward to redevelop their handling system.
The existing handling equipment was outdated and poorly designed, and was dangerous for both animals and employees.
“The animals were scared to death back there and every kill day was nasty,” said Meier.
Working with elk farmer Don Bamber and bison rancher Neil Hochstein, Meier and Senger designed a system equipped to handle both elk and bison. Their current system includes slider gates, pusher panels, and strong steel, enabling them to handle beef, lamb and pigs easily and effectively.
The system uses many of Temple Grandin’s design principles, including round corners and solid wood panels. Senger’s father-in-law, an electrician, created a lighting system that could be adjusted to suit the preferences of each animal.
When animals are slaughtered, they are held in a padded hydraulic squeeze and killed using stun guns that knock the animal out in seconds.
“It goes in, disrupts their brain and the animal just drops,” said Meier.
The new system was so efficient that it enabled Sangudo Custom Meats to increase its kills from eight cattle to 18 each kill day.
Senger and Meier are proud of the way they operate and are open to letting anyone see what they do. They even host guest kill days and open their kill floor to viewers.
“We’ve been really transparent and have invited people in so they can see what’s going on,” said Meier.
Curious customers and chefs have been invited to watch as animals are slaughtered and meat is cut.
The duo also collaborated with Kevin Kossowan, the co-owner of Shovel and Fork, a group which teaches people skills like butchery and foraging. Sangudo Meats showed participants how to kill and butcher pigs, cattle, and alpaca.
“A lot of them were chefs, and they brought all this food and stuff and it was this big smorg. It was wild,” said Meier.
The two men would eventually like to move to more managerial roles and further expand the business. Future plans include creating a new kitchen for more processed meats, and developing smoked turkeys.