Purchasing Carlson Meats in Grove City this past November made sense on many levels for Steve Trachtenberg.
The business had been run by three generations of the Carlson family for more than a century. It was widely known for its quality work. It is one of a dwindling number of small town USDA-inspected butcher shops in the state.
“The main interest in Carlson was the age and tradition,” Trachtenberg says now. “We had done some head-to-head tasting with their products against other facilities … (and) the fact that it beat every other facility in quality in the taste testing, it made sense to add to my holdings.”
Seven months later, that all still holds true.
But Trachtenberg has a problem that he thinks could spell doom for his investment, and just as importantly, be a negative for the small town and surrounding area that has supported Carlson Meats for 107 years.
He doesn’t have enough qualified help.
The meat processing industry faces two primary challenges as Trachetenberg sees it: finding people who want to learn the trade and the rapidly disappearing number of people who have the knowledge to pass on the skills.
Carlson Meats provides an illustration of both problems.
This past Friday, Carlson Meats’ full-time butcher, an employee who has been learning the business for the past eight or nine years from third-generation owner Chuck Carlson, left for a job with another meat locker in central Minnesota.
“I wouldn’t have bought the place if he hadn’t been there,” Trachtenberg said of the butcher’s departure. “And now I have to find a replacement, which has not been easy.”
Meanwhile, another of the facility’s six employees is weeks away from maternity leave. While Carlson and his wife, Kristin, still work part-time at the business, Trachtenberg knows that can’t last forever.
“It’s like the perfect storm, right?” Trachtenberg said. “I’m losing the equivalent of one FTE Friday, and another in four weeks. Half of our full-time staff gone, and with it goes 20-something years of combined experience.”
Though Trachtenberg said he's tried job postings on a variety of venues, he has yet to receive a qualified applicant. He’s worried that if he can’t find someone who’s willing to learn the trade — and soon — he will have to close the business. Trachtenberg doesn’t want to be known as “that guy,” but Friday afternoon, as he prepared for a meeting with his Grove City staff, he said he feels he’s running out of options.
“We’re struggling as an industry, and I struggle a little more because I’m not a single-unit operator,” said Trachtenberg, who owns seven USDA facilities in southern Minnesota. “I’m in a different situation. … It’s harder and harder for me to fill in. I don’t mind filling in; I actually rather enjoy it. But (slaughtering) is not my primary job.”
Among other businesses, Trachtenberg owns Chasing Our Tails, a dog chews and treats business he founded in 2009. Last year, he moved the company’s processing facilities in Tracy and Minneota. He also recently purchased a family-owned chicken processing facility in southeastern Minnesota.
Having quality leadership and slaughtering skills at each of his facilities is key to their success, Trachtenberg said. And finding that skill hasn’t been easy.
“Parents don’t understand, or young people in their early to mid-20s don’t understand it at all,” Trachtenberg said of the slaughter profession. “These jobs pay well. They are good jobs.”
Unfortunately, recent news about COVID-19 outbreaks at large processing plants has painted another picture that he believes might be keeping potential employees away.
“There’s this perception that meat processing facilities are dangerous — you could get injured or get COVID,” Trachetenberg said. But the conditions at a large plant with hundreds of employees on a slaughter line, each doing one task in sometimes cramped quarters for low wages are significantly different than what one would encounter at smaller slaughterhouses such as Carlson Meats.
“There’s a career path,” Trachtenberg said. “We have to get the word out that none of those things are true. We need to build a public awareness that it’s high-paying, it’s safe, and the industry is in dire need.”
He isn’t sure he has the time to build that public awareness in time to ensure the survival of Carlson Meats, which is a reality that’s difficult to accept. Because, other than the worker shortage, the business is healthy.
Tuesdays are slaughter days at Carlson Meats, when the staff processes 12 to 15 animals on average. The schedule is full all the way to January, with a waiting list of another 90 animals.
The business’ federal licensure through USDA is a key to its success. Product processed at Carlson Meats can be sold at any grocery store or restaurant in the state. And the facility’s qualifications were leaned on earlier this year, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced temporary closure of some large processing plants and grocery stores began to have a difficult time stocking meat.
“During the pandemic, we supplied meat to grocery stores as far away as Minneota,” Trachtenberg said. “It’s a big freaking deal (to have a USDA license).”
And not just to Carlson Meats, or the grocery stores it has supplied, as Trachtenberg sees it.
“Towns die as a series of events,” he said. “Towns die when they lose their (meat) lockers … they lose their grocery store … they lose the bank. The town is dead. Towns die when we lose the basic necessities.”
Trachtenberg would like nothing better than to have his basic necessity — a qualified butcher, or someone who’s willing to learn the trade — show up at Carlson Meats. And soon. Without it, he fears the basic necessity of a local meat locker will disappear.