Mychal Stittsworth is owner and CEO of Stittsworth Meats in Bemidji. What began as a family-operated meat market in Nymore has grown and changed substantially under Mychal’s leadership. In the KAXE/KBXE Local Food interview below, we discovered that many of the changes in the Stittsworth business model reflect broader changes in the meat industry—in markets, on farms, in schools, and at grocery stores. Mychal Stittsworth grew up in the business and also trained as an engineer.
I asked Mychal to visit Katie Carter and me at the KBXE studio in Bemidji because I had noticed a change in the meat department at Teal’s supermarket in Cass Lake, where local meat was not only available but packaged differently. The source was Stittsworth Meats in Bemidji. --Maggie Montgomery
Maggie Montgomery: Your family has been in the business for over 25 years. Tell us about that history.
Mychal Stittsworth: I think it basically started out a lot farther back than the twenty-five years. I had a great grandpa that was in the business down in Iowa and moved up to northern Minnesota. My grandpa was a professor here. But my dad always kind of liked his grandpa. He got into the meat profession and started out doing that while in high school. He took sole ownership of his meat market back in ‘93 and I actually remember starting the same day. I was 13 years old, and helping customers, and cleaning up, and helping doing wild game processing; stuff like that.
I've kind of been around it my whole life. My passion was engineering. So I went in the Air Force. A lot of the Air Force was to get my education paid for. I ended up with two engineering degrees by the time I was done with the Air Force and schooling and everything else.
I realized that I didn't really think being a butcher was a bad job. After I did a few things, I thought I really didn't mind doing that. There are so many variables to it; there's so many different ways you can do things. It keeps you out of the monotony of things. You can change your career within the same career over and over and over again. That's what I like about it.
Maggie: You told us before we went on the air that there are no places that train people to be butchers now, and so engineering…that's probably just as good as anything for training?
Mychal: Yeah engineering profession’ s going to help you with your thought processes more than anything. It’s the way you look at things; the way you find opportunity within any business you're in. It helps you with the systematic thought process and finding better ways of doing things all the time.
You know, the best training I ever had was when I was working for Bobcat company as an engineer. I got to learn from the guy that invented the Toyota production system. His name is Oba. We did a project that saved the company $26 million, and we figured it out in about a week. I learned probably more in that week than I did my whole life. Basically it was training the way you look at things—you know, how you get through a thought process and efficiencies and reducing waste; stuff like that.
Maggie: So you brought this kind of thinking with you when you and your wife took over the business. And that was when?
Mychal: It was nine years ago yesterday… Nine years ago yesterday I moved from North Dakota back to Bemidji to take over the family business. So yeah.
Maggie: You've expanded that business.
Mychal: I bought it in the original location in Nymore, off of Fourth Street. And that building was around for a lot of years. We took it over in ‘93 but it was first opened in 1889. You always hear the adage: location, location, location. So I just started reading about traffic studies and this, that, and the other thing. I rented a building on Paul Bunyan Drive to see if that's actually true, and it is true. You’ve got to have traffic. It gives you more impressions. You know, the people that actually see your building.
We had them both open for a little bit but Nymore had a big storm and the repairs just weren't worth the money on what you'd get back out of them. A lot of the stuff was grandfathered in because of the age of the building. We decided to just close it and sell it for a cheap price. Somebody repurposed it into a rental property and it actually had some really cool old maple hardwood floors underneath the flooring. They bought it really cheap but you obviously can't sell a building with roof damage for too much money.
We consolidated down to one location and that one location really wasn't big enough to do everything we needed to do before, when we had the two locations. So when the neighbor moved we bought their building and we went from renting to buying that building and doubled the square footage. That gave us an even bigger test lab to see what works and what customers actually want. That's basically what drives any kind of businesses: what does your customer want? It doesn't matter what the business owner wants.
Maggie: The reason I emailed your business was because I went to Teal’s Market in Cass Lake and I was looking at the meat and it all looked different. It was in different packaging and it was from Stittsworth’s. What’s going on?
Mychal: Teal’s is like almost every grocery store in the nation now. There's a labor shortage in the meat industry. Right now Teal’s is kind of seeing what's coming in their future. They asked if we would—through our new facility—cut for their meat department and package it. The packaging machine we bought to do all of our own stuff, we can do fresh meat through there.
And then we found a new type of plastic that has like a UV coating on it. It's only made by one person in the world. Basically it can hold fresh meat fresh for 28 days, so that basically gives them four times the amount of time to sell it. You're reducing a ton of waste there. You know, grocery stores aren’t throwing out as much as they used to. The packaging is a lot better than what you typically would see in a grocery store with that foam tray in the cellophane wrap because there's still oxygen in there. It just turns in like four days. You only have about 4 days to sell it. Then it forces them into doing something else with it or customers get not getting as good of a product.
So we basically are cutting for their meat department. They're just transferring the labor to us. I'd say not all of it is coming from our on-the-farm operations because obviously some cuts sell at a higher frequency than others. If you went to the fastest moving item in the meat case, then you have a huge buildup of trim. So then you have a whole bunch of waste that way. You kind of have to go to what your slowest mover is and then you fill in the gap from an outside source until you figure out a way to balance everything.
Maggie: So what you're mentioning in explaining this is a couple of ways that you've expanded the business that we haven't even talked about. One is your processing plant and one is your mobile unit. Tell us about those.
Mychal: The mobile unit is a trailer that has everything on board to be USDA certified and inspected. We bring in an inspector with us on the farm. The way I kind of look at it is, you have all the current regulations with USDA, centered around making food wholesome and safe to eat. Some of it's a little overburden on regulation; makes it hard to comply with. But with this trailer, it meets all the all the requirements so we can comply with all the regulation and do it at the farm.
So that animal's never been on a trailer in its life. Growing up, you always hear people talk about “Oh, we raise our own blah blah blah…” A lot of this stuff, you can look at and it looks apples to apples. Say, you take a New York strip steak and the marbling and everything looks the same if you bought it from a packing plant or if you got it straight off the farm. But what's different in it is the lactic acid build up from the adrenaline. What that does is makes the muscle more tense so it can look apples to apples but be twice as tender.
Katie Carter: That is fascinating. I would never have thought of that.
Mychal: I've always heard it but I've never really got to have a side by side comparison over and over again to actually see it and taste it for myself, the quality difference. And then the other thing too is when you when you're doing things in a processing plant you're taking thousands of cattle and running them through one location. If we were to have a kill floor in our plant we'd have to capture all this waste because it's too much waste for one single point to accept.
You have to treat it and there's a huge cost to that. It becomes an environmental hazard. But if you do it on the farm, you’re doing a few here and there on different farms. You basically take what used to be waste and turn it into nutrients because what they do is when they clean out their barns they have a manure pile, and that manure pile they then spread on their fields for fertilizer. With this waste from the trailer, it's not as big an amount like you’d have in one single location. So they put the waste in the manure pile. It breaks down within a couple days. All the waste breaks down in the manure pile and then that gets spread out on the fields for fertilizer.
Farmers like it because if they haul their cattle to a processing facility the closest to one for us up here is probably going to be about 500 miles. Cattle going about 500 miles in a trailer, you're gonna lose about 10 percent of their body weight. They're losing up to about 150 pounds in that trailer ride.
So that's 150 pounds of weight that they lose. Just for simple math, that's, say, two bucks a pound on the weight at the processing facility so there's 300 bucks. But then every load they ship, that's probably 30 cattle and that costs about thirty-six hundred dollars for 30 cattle. Plus, they're losing about close to 150 pounds per cow. So there’s a huge savings on not having to ship it. And for us, if we get to buy it at market value, we’re getting to cut out our middlemen as well.
It goes back to that Oba from Toyota. He’d just figure out ways to reduce waste. So basically what he means is taking steps out of the process that aren't needed. That's reducing waste, is what he says, and if you just think about it that way it reduces actual waste in the end.
Katie: How many farmers or ranchers are you working with?
Mychal: Right now probably about five or six. We're going to a different one that we haven't been to here pretty soon. Typically, in the last six months we've been focusing on what they call fat cattle which is under 30 months old, grain fed; it's a high, high end cut. That's typically what you'd see at restaurants and in meat markets like myself.
We always hear about grass fed, and grass fed is what we're going to next; maybe next week we're going to try that out. The reason why we're going to try that avenue out is because when you have the fat cattle you have a buildup of waste because of the fat. You have to be able to consume the fat at about the same rate as your lean meats. You find a balance to get around 85 % lean ground beef.
It's hard to do with fat cattle because you have more fat so you're continually building more fat into the freezer, and if you throw it away it's just a complete loss. So we're going to go with some grass fed next week and that's going to feed our operations in, like, the sausage-making and the snack sticks and jerkies. And then we supply almost all the locally-owned restaurants—the corporate-owned ones have contracts with big food wholesalers—but locally-owned and -operated ones. We'll be using a lot of that lean meat, and then basically your steak trim from trimming up your higher end steaks will go into that to balance out your lean content.
Maggie: So you have this new processing plant and you'll have this mobile slaughter unit. How many jobs have you added? How many people are working for you now?
Mychal: In total, I think about twenty-five. Nine years ago yesterday it was me and then my dad was all. I bought my dad out 100 percent right away but he stuck around and helped me with the business for a couple of years part-time. So I had me one full timer and two part timers when I started.
Maggie: So this business has grown a lot. Where are your next markets going to be?
Mychal: The thing you mentioned with Teal’s is a pretty big opportunity because it's kind of a growing epidemic. There's not enough skilled labor force in the meat industry anymore. My dad went to school for meat cutting and that was the last school that they had, and I think that school closed in the 90s. Now that class is getting close to retirement age. So then you have the next class which would have been the people that will learn OJT off of those guys, which will be my age; I'm 39. Luckily I got to grow up working with my dad that had formal training, but a lot of these guys are just learning the meat business through tribal knowledge.
Maggie: Kind of an apprenticeship.
Mychal: Yeah it's apprenticeship, but then you have apprentice teaching more apprentice. You never have the journeyman or the master type of situation.
What happens in these grocery stores is, you have to be very knowledgeable. There's many different things you can do with the same cut. If you don't market it well or you're not efficient…You could go from like, say, just for simple math, you say you try to make 30% average in a meat department in a supermarket. Well, a couple mistakes could take that from 30% down to losing money. They solely depend on the knowledge of the guy in the meat department and the help that's with him.
With this project that we're working on, where we're cutting in a central location, we're taking on that responsibility; it falls on us on how efficient we are. But we only have one location to manage instead of many many grocery stores. So we run everything through one central point and then we package it in that special plastic that gives them the extra shelf life. Then when they get the meat in they can just mark it up 25%. And they know they're gonna make 25% because they're not handling it again. It makes their business a lot more predictable. That's one of the major markets that we're working on, and it seems like it's happening more and more.
Maggie: Are you getting any reactions from customers? What are you hearing from the public as all these changes are taking place in your business?
Mychal: Pretty much all good. We haven’t heard anybody complain about anything. When we started the new place obviously our more experienced staff that we had at the store in town we had to take up north. It took a little bit for some of the newer staff in town at the retail store to catch up with everything and get up to speed. We kind of had to pop down there and help them and make sure that they're treating our customers that we've always had right. And that's about the only negative effect I could see out of everything; making sure that our retail outlet is still performing at a high level.
Maggie: I notice on your Facebook page, which is very active, that you are constantly putting things in the smokehouse. What do you have going in there this week?
Mychal: Well, see the smokers, we have two in town, and they're the same brand as what we have up north. We run them 24/7. So we started out with 300 pounds of brisket for a big wedding and then we did a bunch of smoked ribs. We bring them up to just before they fall apart and then we cool them off. So all you have to do is take them home and heat them up and they taste like you just smoked them.
Then we go through tons of smoked salmon. We do a sweeter-than-sweet smoked salmon, it's called. I shouldn't even call it sweeter-than-sweet because it's not sweet tasting. That means it's not a salt-based cure. Typically, everybody has an idea of smoked salmon, and even myself, I never really liked that growing up. But we figured out a way to make it without that fake liquid smoke taste and the really salty dry texture. It's very moist. It's a regular natural wood smoke and it's not a salt-based cure. That is popular. We could fill up our smoker every other day with that and not have enough.
We have six distribution companies now taking our smoked stuff from up north. And our coverage is, you know—I’m not saying it's everywhere in these states—it kind of gets less dense the farther away from Bemidji we get—but we're in about seven states now. The distribution companies will come to our dock and pick it up because we found distribution companies already coming through Bemidji. They come through and pick it up and haul it on the way back to their warehouse and then distribute it to stores that they already go to.
We're making our homemade brats and jerkies and sticks. We're making all the beef products for the whole school district—all ten schools in Bemidji. So they're getting stuff locally for the first time ever in the U.S. We're providing beef to Bagley and Kelleher and Northome and Cass Lake for the school lunch program.
All the burger patties that they were getting previously were beef and soy—it wasn't all beef—and there is a huge ingredient list on that. I remember seeing one ingredient, it was copper something, and that's what the kids were getting. Through us, it's just one ingredient; it's just ground beef in there.
We had to figure out how to pre-cook those because the schools don't have time to cook a bunch of burger patties. So what we did—and it adds flavor without having to add a bunch of extra ingredients—we let the schools add on what they want to do for seasoning—but we put it in our smoker. We smoke them up to temp to kill the bacteria and we cool them down and box them up. The smoking gives them a flavor and then they can add a little bit of seasoning to it after that when they warm it up.
Katie: What’s your favorite cut, if you take a steak home?
Mychal: Probably ribeye. :-)