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Meating the need: Local processors see demand soar during pandemic

A pre-pandemic tour is held inside Eickman’s Processing Co. in Seward, Illinois.
A pre-pandemic tour is held inside Eickman’s Processing Co. in Seward, Illinois.

SEWARD, Ill. — When Tom Eickman stepped outside on a sunny and pleasant Friday evening, he was happy to see the sun.

“I was like, ‘Oh, hey, it’s nice outside,’” Eickman said.

He started work that Friday at the meat processing plant and retail shop that his grandfather Merlyn started.

Since the demand for both retail meat and processing beef and pork ramped up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Eickman, his wife, Katie, and their staff of 27 workers haven’t had a lot of time in the sun.

“It’s been busy, it’s been a little insane, almost,” he said.

Business on the retail side and the processing side has exploded for Eickman’s Processing Co., as it has for the majority of local meat processors and local retail meat shops across the Midwest.

Consumers turned to local meat stores as the slowdown and then shutdown of larger commercial meat plants created shortages of beef and pork in big-box stores.

Livestock producers, particularly pork producers, sought out local processors to try to get animals slaughtered and processed as an alternative to euthanizing market-ready animals.

“We have filled up through the end of December. Every kill spot we have for this year is taken at this point. We’re pushing upward of 35 to 40 cattle per week and 60 to 80 head of hogs,” Eickman said.

He said he started to see demand for meat in his retail shop increase around the middle of March, shortly after Illinois schools closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I had a feeling something was going to come down the road with that, people were going to be a little scared. We had the mindset of, ‘I want to keep the shelves full.’ I want, when people come in, for them to see full shelves. I don’t want them to come in and say, ‘Oh, my, gosh, half the shelves are empty,’ and have a panic attack out of that,” Eickman said.

The processing side of the business is federally inspected, which means that Eickman can sell meat across the country. The business took a hit when restaurants shut down and slowed, but Eickman was able to move wholesale meat over to the retail side.

“I’m glad we were able to do that because retail definitely took care of it and move all the product we needed to move and more,” Eickman said.

Just up the road in Lena, at AJ’s Lena Maid Meats, which also has a retail store and custom processing, Marcia Pax, who owns the business with husband Laverne, was planning on a rare day off.

“We are so busy and there are people coming from all over. It’s just crazy all day long,” she said.

She and Laverne and their staff made the decision to go to curbside delivery, with customers ordering online, paying over the phone and then calling when they get to the store.

“They call on the phone. They tell us what they want. Everybody has been really, really good. People who call know exactly what they want, we just write it up like an order in a restaurant, we grab our baskets and go around and fill the order and the person at the cash register adds it up, calls the customer, gets the payment over the phone and tells them it’s ready,” Pax said.

The list of available products and pricing is posted weekly on the store’s Facebook page and also on the store’s website.

Like Eickman’s, AJ’s schedule for custom processing filled up for the rest of the year.

“Right now, with custom hogs, we’re doing 23 to 24 hogs a week, which is a full house for us. We’re doing 17 head of beef a week. We are out to March 2021 for beef slaughter. I can’t get another beef in until March 1, 2021, and we can’t get any hogs in until the middle of January. In talking with the inspectors, everybody is full until the first of the year,” Pax said.

With herself and her husband, the business has a staff of 12, along with four part-time employees. Business has increased so much that it takes close to a full staff to run the retail and processing sides.

“Before, on a Saturday, you could run the store with three to four people at the most. Now, we almost have to have a full staff,” Pax said.

She said she hopes and expects that some of the new customers will stay on as permanent, regular customers even after the big box meat cases fill up again.

“The hope to come out of this is that it keeps the retail business larger than it was. We are hoping we have customers who had never been to us who are now thrilled with us and they will come back,” Pax said.

In Enfield, Bruce Fechtig, who farms and raises cattle and bought Enfield Packing in 2007 to have a place to process his cattle, has seen business on the retail and custom processing side increase.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before. The phone is ringing constantly with people placing orders,” Fechtig said.

Like AJ’s Lena Maid Meats, Fechtig is using a curbside delivery service, where customers call in their meat order, pay over the phone and then drive up for their order, which is brought out to their vehicle.

The processing business has seen a surge, too.

“We are booked up. It’s unbelievable,” Fechtig said.

His customers for retail product come from a 50-mile radius of Enfield, and one of Fechtig’s specialties is bacon that he and his staff smoke and cure.

“We probably sell more bacon than we do anything else,” Fechtig said.

He’s confident that many of those who are trying local meat for the first time will keep coming back.

“Once we get them in the door the first time, we’ve got them. This is all locally-grown meat and people really pay attention to that anymore, where their food comes from,” Fechtig said.

In Roscoe, the Main Street Meat Co. has seen interest pick up in their online store that was put together in response to coronavirus concerns.

“We put the online ordering system in while we were still open because we could kind of see what was coming, and we offered the curbside delivery. It has been working amazingly well. It’s more work for us, but the customers love it. They love to have their products put into their vehicle,” said Amy King, who owns the business along with her husband, Jim. Their son, Matt, is the manager.

The Kings also put together a freezer box of different meats.

“We put together several items that people like and that are popular, beef, pork and chicken. We’ve seen a lot of those go out the door,” King said.

Get More Info

For information on local meat processors in Illinois, go to illinoismeatprocessors.com.

Eickman’s Meats can be reached at 815-247-8451, www.eickmans.com.

AJ’s Lena Maid Meats can be reached at 815- 369-4522, www.ajslenamaidmeats.net.

Enfield Packing can be reached at 618-963-2813.

Main Street Meat Co. can be reached at 815-623-6328, mainstreetmeat.com.

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