“Meat” Me at the Locker

By Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

As the title indicates, this article is indeed an invitation for my fellow Iowans to “meat” me at the local meat locker – an agricultural art form and small business that is experiencing a remarkable resurgence.

Products from Iowa meat lockers can be combined to create a unique charcuterie board. Photo credit: Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

Products from Iowa meat lockers can be combined to create a unique charcuterie board. Photo credit: Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

Growing up on a livestock farm in the 1970s and 1980s, our large, chest-style freezer was packed with pork, beef and chicken dinner options. Those white paper-wrapped packages with ink stamps identifying their contents held some of the best quality local meat. For us, “local” meant either raised on our farm or a neighbor’s or relative’s farm.

After college and marriage in the 1990s, I no longer had access to a freezer full of options. I was lucky enough to still receive occasional packages as gifts from my parents and brothers, but most of the meat on our table came from grocery stores.

The interesting thing about my timeline and relationship with meat lockers is that their story was developing right alongside my own. The Farm Crisis of the 1980s took a major toll on privately owned meat lockers. In the 1990s, food safety regulations and inspections required modernized facilities, updated equipment, more documentation and inspections. Many lockers closed, many barely survived and many adapted to new standards.

In the last few years, meat lockers have returned to my radar and, considering their success, the radar of many others, too.

For this article and your stomach’s benefit, I visited three unique lockers across Iowa, including Tiefenthaler Quality Meats in Holstein, Story City Locker in Story City, and Ruzicka’s Meat Processing & Catering in Solon. The three lockers share so much in history yet have created completely unique markets.

Please note, by clicking the links you will be leaving a partially funded checkoff site. 

Tiefenthaler Quality Meats

Tiefenthaler Quality Meats in Holstein is owned by John and Shelly Tiefenthaler. John was introduced to the occupation of a butcher as a high school employee. In 1983, he became a business partner at the local meat locker and the sole owner in 1991.

The Tiefenthaler’s facility houses a retail store with more than 140 products. Customers can purchase a wide variety of frozen and refrigerated meats, cheeses, spices and pickled vegetables. The business is widely known and loved for its skinless brats that are available in more than a dozen different flavors (my personal recommendation is cheese and jalapeño). And their peppered bacon can’t be beat for that summer BLT or burger!

In recent years, Tiefenthaler’s devoted, local customer base has expanded to include customers who are discovering their products in Fareway and Hy-Vee grocery stores around Iowa. And word continues to spread. They just brought home nine gold medals from their first-ever submissions in the International Meat Competition, held every three years in Germany.

Story City Locker

The corporate world just couldn’t compete with Ty Gustafson’s farm-boy heart. Ty wanted to raise his family with the values and stability he experienced growing up on a farm in northwest Iowa. With fond memories of his early experiences working at a meat locker in Atlantic, Ty and his wife Bobbie opened Story City Locker.

The locker’s focus on sustainable practices has attracted a clientele – including restaurant chefs – who are interested in purchasing locally raised meat and reducing food allergy risks.  

At the request of Mayor Mike Jensen, the Gustafsons carry on a Story City legacy by producing ring bologna. As a child, Jensen remembers walking to Story City’s locker with a quarter to purchase ring bologna made by Albert Dunhowe. Jensen gave the Gustafsons Dunhowe’s hand-written bologna recipe and the tradition continues today. Full disclosure: the price of the bologna is no longer 25 cents. Sorry about that!

Ruzicka’s Meat Processing & Catering

Visiting Ruzicka’s Meat Processing & Catering in Solon is not only a culinary research project but a history lesson.

The beautiful old brick building that houses the business was originally built for the Czech-Slovak Protective Society (CSPS). This organization supported the welfare of Czech and Slovak immigrants, providing services to help with language barriers and citizenship.

Jeff Ruzicka’s dad opened the meat locker in this location in 1984. He began catering services in 1989 to help his family survive the impact of the farm crisis. The catering side of their business has more than helped them survive, it now accounts for half of their business. Just looking at the pictures of their buffalo wings and steaks gracing the front page of their website makes my mouth water.

Today, Jeff and his sister Julie run the business and have built a reputation for their jalapeño salami and barbecue pork burgers.

The three lockers I visited share not only the passion and commitment required to succeed, they also share the value of mentoring. The current owners were mentored by family or friends. Each was taught to respect their customers and the animals they butcher. After visiting each of these places, I gained a renewed respect for the industry and my freezer gained some amazing dinner options!

How an Iowan Builds a Charcuterie Board  

Photo credit: Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

Photo credit: Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

One of my favorite ways to entertain in the summer is to build a charcuterie (shahr-koo-tuh-ree) board. Think of it as a complex meat and cheese tray. Having found some delicious meat options at the lockers I visited, this board was begging me to continue the Iowa theme.

  1. Start with a few protein options. I included a meat from each of the lockers. One is familiar (bacon), one is spicy (salami) and one is unusual (Braunschweiger). And an Iowa board wouldn’t be complete without some hard boiled or deviled eggs!

  2. Use a similar process for choosing cheese options. Try something locally produced, but always have something familiar and/or mild. Iowa is home to the fantastic Maytag Blue Cheese, some amazing goat cheeses and the Midwest favorite, cheese curds.

  3. Please the carb-lovers by including a variety of bread and/or crackers. Small cornbread muffins are always popular. Rye toasts compliment the Braunschweiger and a simple cracker is a great third option.

  4. At this point, it is a good idea to consider some sweet, crunchy and sour additions. Seasonal fruit, garden-fresh vegetables and a selection of pickles will add color and balance to the board.

  5. Finally, condiments like mustard, horseradish (of course!) and honey add another layer of interest. Jams, jellies, chutneys, pestos and even nuts are worth considering.

Choosing a fun mix of familiar and unique foods will make guests feel comfortable and curious at the same time. Just watch the conversations unfold.

Products used in the pictured charcuterie board:   

Photo credit: Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

Photo credit: Anita McVey, Picnic Life Foodie

  • Tiefenthaler’s Pepper Bacon

  • Ruzicka’s Jalapeño Salami

  • Story City Locker’s Braunschweiger

  • Selection of Cheeses

  • Hard Boiled Eggs

  • Bread and Butter Pickles

  • Beet Pickles

  • Horseradish Mustard

  • Garden Veggies

  • Seasonal Fruit

  • Cornbread and Crackers

  • Honey