Independent lockers look to fill the need for meat

Erik Kaufman
Forum News Service

KAYLOR, S.D. — Kenny Konrad has been in the meat locker business since 1961, and he has never seen anything like what’s going on now.

“We’re very busy, let’s put it that way,” Konrad, owner of the Kaylor Locker in Kaylor, said in a recent interview. “I don’t know what’s going on, if everyone is scared about the COVID-19, but we’re booked through 2021 and have even booked some work in 2022. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Konrad is one of several locker operators in the area who is doing their best to keep up with demand for meat products ever since the COVID-19 outbreak disrupted nearly every aspect of business and life. That includes meat processing. With disease hot spots hitting some of the larger meat processing plants around the country, the balance of supply and demand has shifted as more people adjust to extended hours at home due to social distancing guidelines put in place to help slow the spread of the disease.

With many parts of the country restricting restaurants to carry out and delivery orders and schools across the county closed, essentially shuttering their lunch programs, the demand for the product is in flux.

As the meat industry tries to shift its supply chain from restaurants and institutions to the retail shelf, customers in the meantime are looking to source their own meat from farmers and then having lockers like the one owned by Konrad process it for them. That can mean buying in bulk from the farmer, who is having trouble getting good prices for their product.

Konrad said the number of calls he is receiving for service is exceptional.

“We’re running a couple extra hours, but we just don’t have the capacity to hang as many as we get calls for. We just can’t cut them up fast enough, but I think everyone else is in the same situation,” Konrad said. “We’ve had people calling from Nebraska and from the northern part of (South Dakota). One lady called and said I was the 18th locker she had tried to get some pork in.”

Konrad said demand right now is highest for beef and pork, and his crew of approximately 20 employees work their hours trying to fill demand. And as the calls roll in, he does his best to keep up with the requests.

“Everything is so tight the cooler is busting at the seams right now. In my 59 years (in business) I’ve never seen anything like it,” Konrad said.

Down the road at the Scotland Locker in Scotland, S.D., James Dangel and his crew are doing their best to handle the orders coming into his business, which he has owned and operated since 2016 after many years of working at the establishment.

And while things are obviously busy, he is frustrated with the bureaucratic red tape that comes with trying to get quality meat to customers at a reasonable price. In a Facebook post that was widely shared, he outlined the difficulty he had in sourcing good cuts of beef for his customers.

“I legally can’t go to a farmer and buy beef to sell cut by cut. When I help line up a quarter, a half or a whole beef from a local farmer, you first buy the animal from the farmer and I then process your animal,” wrote Dangel, 30. “To sell individual cuts off a self-butchered animal, I would need a whole new federal level of inspection. This puts me in the crappy situation where my hamburger and my brats and my products all need to be made from federally-inspected large plant producers.”

Unfortunately, Dangel said, those large producers set the prices on that federally-inspected beef, and that feeds into his own costs. He struggles to not pass that extra cost on to the consumer, whom he feels is struggling enough with a high unemployment rate and mouths to feed at home.

Even if some of those people can acquire beef from a farmer, the first-time cost of purchasing the whole or part of the animal can be prohibitive. And then it may take months at the current rate for the animal to be processed. That means consumers are stuck buying the more expensive processed meat until their animal is ready.

“A lot of people have to fork up $600 at a time, and a lot of people can’t do that,” Dangel said. “So they have to buy $10 per pound hamburger, when it’s been $4.50 a pound for years.”

Dangel said his processing orders are backed up until February of 2021, and while that means income for him and the business, it’s the consumer who suffers the most in the meantime, both in the wallet and with the quality of items they can find.

“I’m still a new business owner, still making payments on this business,” Dangel said. “I can afford to lose money to feed people, but these packers have been bailed out and are paying minimum wage when the employees have to buy their own work boots. And now they can’t get workers to come to work when they’re netting five bucks an hour. I don’t blame them.”

And the workload takes its toll on his staff, as well.

“My guys are probably putting in 50 hours a week, and it starts to take a toll,” Dangel said. “It’s become the new normal, but we’re not going to stop. We want to feed people, that’s the whole thing.”

This type of struggle will continue until policy at the top of the chain changes for the better, especially in an emergency situation like the country faces today with the COVID-19 outbreak, he said.

“Guys up top need to take a lesson from those down low, they have to be willing to drop their damn profits. They don’t have to lose money, they can break even for a while and help people. It just doesn’t make sense. If I can lose money, they can break even,” Dangel said.

At Shorty’s Locker in Mitchell, owner Shorty Hofer said he is in a similar situation to other small processors: he’s booked to the limit.

“A lot of people are trying to book things in but you can only handle so much,” Hofer said.

Hofer said his operation has orders booked through the end of the year, and like many other lockers, he keeps a cancellation list at the ready. If someone who has booked processing at his locker finds another locker that can do the work sooner, they can call Hofer and he’ll remove them from the list, and try to move other orders up.

His locker processes beef, pork and lamb, but customers are steadily coming to him for good cuts of beef, which have become harder to find at traditional retail outlets. But there are customers out there willing and able to pay increased prices for the product, he said.

“A lot of burger has been going out the door. We just had a guy call for 100 pounds and wanted it in bulk. They had a big event coming up on Sunday. I got the order in and I had it, luckily, and I had the price and he never batted an eye,” Hofer said. “Another guy called and wanted to get 20 hogs in. I said it’s going to be a long time.”

Unfortunately, increased prices are something he said he expects to see for a while.

“(In the past) you had no problem getting anything off the truck, and now it’s tough. And the prices keep rising, that’s the only thing. Then (we) just have to pass it on to the customer and try to keep it reasonable,” Hofer said.

Hofer, who has operated Shorty’s Locker for 22 years, has about five workers on staff who are working full days to meet demand. He said like his colleagues around the state, he’ll continue to do his best to provide an option for people looking for quality meat for their dinner table. He encourages families to look into buying bulk meat from a farmer and having it processed, even if it is a tough budget item the first time around, the value is there.

“I know it’s hard the first time,” Hofer said.

It may take some searching to find a locker that can do it for you, but it is another source for meat that consumers should be more aware of, he said. Even when the threat of COVID-19 eventually eases, a look at a local locker can provide consumers with another food source option.

“You look back 30 years, every little town had a locker or two. Luckily, Mitchell has two side by side, and we’ve been here for years,” Hofer said, referring to his own operation and Mitchell Locker, both of which reside on Havens Avenue. “We don’t have everything like a grocery store, but we do a good job.”

Shorty’s Locker employees Larry Duerksen, left, and Ron Davenport dump a load of cut up meat into the processor to make ground beef while Simon Bullis, top, cleans up the cutting counter while working on May 12 at the meat locker in Mitchell, S.D.