Ron and Jenny Nieken took ownership of a local meat market in Hillman more than a year ago, and business has been good — maybe too good.

Formerly known as Lakes Meat Market, the married couple renamed it RJ’s Meats. It was founded, however, by Richard “Stuffy” Stauffeneker in 1978 and opened as Stuffy’s Thriftway.

“We get nothing but absolute praise about our fresh meats,” Ron Nieken said. “We do about 25 different varieties of sausage, home-cured bacon, and we’re big into custom-processing.”

Meat processing plants in April, including Smithfield Foods in South Dakota, shut down and Tyson Foods in Iowa suspended production because workers tested positive for COVID-19.

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That has meant more work for area butchers.

“We have been extremely busy,” Nieken said. “It has been absolutely crazy and we’ve actually added two full-time positions as a result of the demand that’s going on right now, so it's been absolutely wonderful on our end of it.”

RJ’s Meats in Hillman

Ron Nieken handles the wholesale custom slaughtering and meat processing, such as pork, beef, buffalo, sheep and venison, while his wife handles the grocery side of things at RJ’s Meats.

“It’s just a comfortable feeling for them, knowing that they’re not having to go to a big box store to pick up the meats that they need, be it retail meats like your steaks, sausage, bacon, anything like that, or ordering quarters or halves through several of the farmers around the area that we do processing for,” he said.

Smithfield Foods closed its pork production facility in April due to workers who tested positive for COVID-19 and were linked to 238 cases in the community. The plant produced up to 5% of all American pork and was the “No. 1 U.S. producer of packaged meats,” according to officials.

James Tretter (left) has been a sausage maker for 45 years. He enjoys a laugh with owner Ron Nieken Thursday, July 30, at RJ's Meats in Hillman. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
James Tretter (left) has been a sausage maker for 45 years. He enjoys a laugh with owner Ron Nieken Thursday, July 30, at RJ's Meats in Hillman. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“That actually drove up a lot of the demand because a lot of the products that we order in to handle through on the retail end of it here we were unable to get,” Nieken said of plant closures.

South Dakota’s governor ordered the Smithfield Foods plant closed for weeks, resulting in 3,700 workers off the production line. Pork was not the only meat, however, in demand by consumers. Hamburger was the No. 1 requested item at RJ’s Meats at the time, according to Nieken.

“The shortage just kept increasing because of so many of these processing plants — that had workers with their COVID-19 cases — shutting down. It was really hard. I think people initially panicked, and bought anything and everything they could get their hands on,” Nieken said.

Nieken said meat prices have dropped back down but are not at levels that they were before.

Von Hanson’s in Baxter

Von Hanson’s goal at its meat markets in Minnesota is to “deliver personalized full service, in a friendly old-fashioned meat market environment,” according to the chain’s proprietors.

Ben Von Bank owns and manages the Baxter location along Highway 371 and knows first hand how the coronavirus and COVID-19 upended the meat industry with supply chain interruptions.

“At first, it was absolutely gangbusters — almost like people were, you know, they didn’t know how to react, so we were on the verge of running out every day — ground beef,” Von Bank said. “A lot of times we were the only place in town with burgers. … It was just chaos.”

National Beef, a beef processor, temporarily suspended operations in Iowa in early April after a worker tested positive. Tyson Foods also suspended production in early April at an Iowa pork plant following more than two dozen cases of COVID-19 involving workers. JBS is an American subsidiary of the world’s largest processor of fresh beef and pork, but it closed a pork plant in Minnesota where more than 2,000 workers processed 20,000 hogs daily. It was the third JBS plant to suspend operations due to coronavirus infections.

All those closures led to a rush on meat buying at the local level.

“At one point, we were, like, running 200% over last year's numbers,” Von Bank said of sales. “I think we’re probably, like, maybe up 30%, I would say, for July. But as far as payroll goes, there was really no one to hire, so I have had my guys working crazy amounts of overtime.”

Still, Von Bank said he wouldn’t be using the processing plant closures as a reason to take advantage of his customers.

Von Hanson's Meats in Baxter is owned and managed by Ben Von Bank. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Von Hanson's Meats in Baxter is owned and managed by Ben Von Bank. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“At first, our profit margin took a 10% hit because of the price fluctuations, and, you know, we weren’t willing to raise our prices to certain levels because, you know, which just didn’t think it was fair, so we took the hit on our end,” Von Bank said.

Von Bank said because of the governor’s stay-at-home order and closure of nonessential and dine-in businesses to slow the spread of the virus, more people were making meals at home.

“So people were coming in getting 50 pounds of ground beef, you know, 30 pounds of ground beef, which created a crazy amount of demand. And we were seeing the prices go up,” Von Bank said.

Thielen Meats of Pierz

Thielen Meats is a full-service, fourth-generation meat market founded in 1922, but little in its storied history has prepared it and other meat markets for the changes of the last few months.

“Every day now seems like a Saturday … and Saturday was my best day of the week,” co-owner Andrew Thielen said. “And it’s almost impossible to find new help.”

Thielen Meats hand cures all of its hams and bacon in-house and offers beef that is cut fresh daily and all-natural Amish grown chicken.

“Most people are staying at home, and I think they’re doing a lot more grilling and camping … staying at home rather than going out to eat and going on vacations out of state because I think everyone’s kind of sticking near home or staying inside Minnesota,” Thielen said.

“We noticed that you couldn’t maybe get exactly what you wanted,” Thielen added. “It’s not like there was a total shortage, but you would get shorted some things. But it was not the end of the world. We never had a week gone by that I can remember that we ran out of anything.”

Thielen Meats produces more than 100 varieties of fresh and smoked sausages and also makes ready-to-cook products such as meatloaf, marinated steaks, chicken and pork.

“Was there a shortage? Not really, you know, because you just paid more money for it. ... Prices went through the roof on beef. And unfortunately, that has to get handed down to the customer, you know?” Thielen said. “I mean we were paying almost double for our burger meat.”

Glen Meats in Aitkin

Jason Plekkenpol owns Glen Meats in Aitkin, which opened in 2015, but what a difference five years can make.

“Business was good before the pandemic. It’s been really good since the pandemic started, and most of it is on the custom side where people bring in beef or pigs, you know, to have processed that are their own or that they purchase from someone,” he said.

Plekkenpol said traditionally he does not have many custom orders because area farmers prefer to do it in the fall or spring when it is cooler.

“We were booked pretty heavily through until July and then I backed off on taking some just because of the Fourth of July and stuff like that. ... And then afterward, I’m starting to fill up. I’m not completely full, but I’m starting to fill up through deer hunting already,” he said.

Because of the pork processing plant closures in April, pig farmers were killing piglets because of a lack of room to raise the newborns and there was no market at the time to sell them, according to the Associated Press.

“The pig farmers didn’t have any place to take their livestock, so they were out selling it to just the general public and then the general public needed a place to process it if they couldn’t do it themselves … so most of the markets were pretty well booked that could do custom work,” he said.

Backus Locker in Backus

Owned and operated by Dave and Jan Schmid, the Backus Locker is a meat market and processor that offers, for example, venison, beef, pork and poultry processing.

“A very large portion of the locker plants used to have storage lockers for people that, when they processed their meat, they didn’t have to take it all home. We still have probably about 50 lockers that they store the meat in,” Jan Schmid said.

The old-fashioned meat market has been in operation since 1947 and offers a variety of retail meats for sale, and farm and wild game processing services — a place where one can find everything from bear, antelope and mule deer sausage to bacon, roast beef and smoked turkey.

“Not everybody had electricity (back then), so when you processed your animal, you rented storage space in the freezer. And then when you came to town, you took meat home,” she said of the cold storage facility.

Tyson’s largest meat processing plant also closed at the end of April in Iowa. It handles 4% of the country’s pork, so hog farmers had fewer options where to send their animals. The Schmids had to turn away between 400 and 500 hogs for processing, and they are booked into February.

“It’s abnormal. … When the big plants went down … the farmers didn’t want to destroy the hogs, so they offered them cheaper for people, people bought hogs and they were scrambling to find places to process them,” she said. “Our whole butchering schedule has been full since May.

“When the bigger plants closed up, there was less product available and the prices went up, you know?” she added. ‘They seem to be leveling back off, so they’re, you know, they’re coming back down to about where they were at before. “

Infobox No. 1

  • Business: RJ’s Meats.

  • City: Hillman.

  • Number of employees: Seven (full time).

  • Interesting fact: Co-owner Ron Nieken worked for the founder, Richard “Stuffy” Stauffeneker, before purchasing the business after it changed hands.

Infobox No. 2

  • Business: Von Hanson’s.

  • City: Baxter.

  • Number of employees: 10.

  • Interesting fact: Two employees have remained with the meat market since it opened in 2006.

Infobox No. 3

  • Business: Thielen Meats.

  • City: Pierz.

  • Number of employees: 25.

  • Interesting fact: It’s a fourth-generation meat market.

Infobox No. 4

  • Business: Glen Meats.

  • City: Aitkin.

  • Number of employees: Seven.

  • Interesting fact: Bestsellers include beef sticks and summer sausage.

Infobox No. 5

  • Business: Backus Locker.

  • City: Backus.

  • Number of employees: 10.

  • Interesting fact: Built in 1947 as a cold storage facility with 100 rentable lockers.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.