BURKE - There's a new way to meat in Gregory County.
A public-private partnership and the vision of a pair of meat-loving business owners has given the rural area surrounding Burke a meat locker for the first time in decades. The Gregory County Locker, which opened in mid-January, fills a business gap many in the area have wanted to see closed in recent years.
The business is owned by Kurt Frank and Lonnie Liewer, who developed a knack for meat processing while working for Tom Glover, a Burke resident who ran a wild game processing shop for many years.
"We just thought we'd give this a shot, and it's gone over really well," Liewer said.
Liewer has had a painting business that he operates in the summers, but both Frank and Liewer developed a knack for the process of making jerky, sausage and meat sticks while helping with the wild game business. The locker is located 1 mile west of Burke on U.S. Highway 18.
Perhaps fittingly, different parts of the community are behind the project. The land was handed down from Frank's family, and his grandparents donated a grinder and meat saw. Various members of Frank's family are also involved in bookkeeping, cutting and packaging meet, while his wife runs the company's social media account. Years ago, Herrick had a meat market that was famous for its sausage, and the recipe was handed down to the co-owners, as well.
Most of the recipes come from Glover, and Frank was effusive in his praise for his role in helping get the business off the ground. Glover adapted a freezer into a homemade smoker which Liewer and Frank continue to use.
"A lot of these recipes are his, and they've been perfected over the last 20 years," Frank said. "He took a lot of the mystery out of the recipes. He's a big reason why we can get this going."
As for the building itself, Frank said it is modeled after a facility in Nisland - located 30 miles north of Sturgis - called The Meat Shop. The locker's owner, Wes Reinford, has been a key consultant in helping the Burke location get going. The building is essentially an exact mirror of Reinford's, and the two locations shared aging techniques for processing beef.
"We were basically told that his facility was the cat's meow ... that if you're serious, go talk to this guy," Frank said. "He came down and went through our cuts of meat and said 'Do this, don't do that.' He's been a big help."
The facility includes large freezer rooms, including rooms for the beef and pork to hang and age. There are also rooms for smoking and packaging, and a front office area that doubles as retail space. A custom-made chute area streamlines the kill process.
Frank said the new business is trying to process 10 head of beef each week, with some pork processing mixed in. There's a waiting list for their business, as well, since opening in mid-January. At the end of February, they were booked for more than a month out.
The retail items include bratwursts, beef sticks, sausages and jerky, among other items, and eventually they hope to add cheese products. The hickory jerky and German sausage are the two most popular items that are currently sold. They also make a "Devil's Kiss" jerky, which Frank described as "terribly hot."
"You need a beer in your hand when you eat that, for sure," Frank said.
A local effort
For being in an area that is big on beef production, Gregory County had a gap in not having anyone that could make chops or cuts of beef or pork.
The next closest meat locker or processor is 35 miles to the west in Winner or 40 miles to the southeast in Spencer, Nebraska. Mid-Dakota Meats in Winner, Frank said as an example, is booked for meat processing several months in advance.
Kelsea Sutton, president of the Burke Business Promotion Corporation, said the community has studied the feasibility of a meat locker in the area dating back to 2014.
"We did producer surveys and consumer surveys, and it was sort of surprising just how high the support was for this," she said. "We talked about it and it seemed like a really high cost project. We didn't know who would want to run it or have the skills to do it."
But the two parties found each other, and a $200,000 low-interest loan from the development corporation helped make the project happen.
"(The town) was anxious to see a place that could do hogs and beef because there's not really another place close," Frank said. "We did it and off we go."
A local bank, the Governor's Office of Economic Development revolving loan fund and business planning resources from District III Planning and Development also helped make the project happen, Sutton said.
"They got interested and they knew we were looking for a match," she said of the business. "I think people have been ready to get behind this business."
Sutton said she was told by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture that it was the first new locker plant certified by the state in several years. She noted that the meat locker business is a hard one to start and difficult to keep going, but hoped that the local support - both financially and from civic leaders - can make a difference.
"It's important to have an organization that can do this that's close, and that has an inherent understanding of the community and the people in it. And how much help people might need is changing. The economic environment is different now and a $5,000 small business loan doesn't get you very far."
Currently, the Gregory County Locker is a custom inspected outlet, which means the locker can process beef or pork that is individually provided and cut up for a single customer. The new locker sells retail products, but buys meat from the local grocery store to do so.
"If we get state inspected, we can buy our own beef, and the guy can watch us kill it and do all of that, and we can then sell it out of our retail right up front," Liewer said. "Once we get more established and more settled down, we'll probably look into that."
Liewer said the feedback they've received recently indicates the venture was a good idea.
"You just get a great chance to meet so many different people, or maybe people that you knew of but didn't really ever have a chance to talk with them," Liewer said. "We've had business from all over and that's been a good feeling."