By Elisabeth Fondell
Author’s note >> “On September 21, 2020, Chuck’s Old Fashioned Meats posted that they were likely closing unless someone wanted to take over their business. I’m saddened by this news. Please support them. We need small businesses in our towns!” This piece is part of 2020 Crystal Creek Citizen-Artist Elisabeth Fondell’s larger residency project to document the culinary resilience of Houston County during the pandemic. You can read more about her project at www.elisabethafondell.com. Learn more about the citizen-artist program at www.crystalcreekcitizenartist.com.
Chuck’s Old Fashioned Meats in Caledonia is known for their take’n’bake pizzas, marinated meats, Bakalars sausage products, and local foods. Opened by Charlie Reed in August of 2019 in the former Albert’s Grocery Store building, this meat market offers custom marinades like Bourbon Molasses Pork Tenderloin and Garlic Butter Ribeye. They also sell cheese and ice cream from Metz’s Hart-Land Dairy, Creamery, and Honey in Rushford, butter and cheese curds from WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon, preserves, spice rubs, and more.
I stop in on a muggy July day to find a friendly guy named Stephan working alone in a surprisingly quiet shop. “This is my home away from home. It’s quiet here away from the poison of the news,” he tells me. Stephen is wearing a jersey and a Green Bay Packers hat and ring. I ask if the close proximity to Wisconsin creates animosity between Vikings and Packers fans. “Nah,” he said. “I’m a Packers fan. My son’s a Vikings fan. It’s all fine.”
In this town of 1,500 people, any shop selling locally-produced products is a real boost to the local economy. There’s the Caledonia Bakery MN up the street with fresh donuts and pretzels and The Wired Rooster selling coffee, ice cream, sandwiches, and snack items. Now with the addition of Chuck’s, Caledonians can pick up all the necessary ingredients for a picnic or park outing right downtown.
Looking around I see kabob skewers and marinated pork in the meat cooler. I recognize a few items in the refrigerated case. “Oh those? We can’t keep those in stock,” Stephan says when I point out the WW Homestead Cheese Curds. I understand the challenge and agree with the customers. They truly are delicious.
I shift the conversation towards COVID-19. “It’s wicked stuff,” he says. He tells me about a family member just diagnosed with the virus in Virginia. “We can’t even travel to see her,” he says.
As for the shop, he tells me many customers are taking meat to go out on the local rivers and lakes. People are staying closer to home and exploring. His kids are bummed they can’t travel or go to the Dells this summer as planned. But he says they’re lucky to have a yard and things to do. “They’re probably on their electronics too much, but it’s a hard time so we let them,” he says.
I asked about meat prices. There was a price increase on ribeye due to COVID-19, but it’s coming back down again. Meat sales are up, grilling is up, home cooking is up since so many restaurants are closed or offering limited options.
Despite all of this, Stephan seems upbeat. “Humans are tough,” he says. “Cockroaches survived the stone age. Humans survived the plague. We’ll get through it.”
As I turn to go, a sudden downpour erupts out of the drizzly gray sky. “Stay as long as you’d like!” Stephan kindly offers.
While I wait out the rain, Stephan assembles take’n’bake pizzas and we chat some more. I buy a jar of sour cherry preserves and he offers me a complimentary meat stick. As I walk out of the shop, I turn back to Stephan and promise that next time I’ll bring a cooler.
The next time I visit, Charlie is working. He agrees with Stephan that more people are buying food to cook at home with their families, though a few of their elderly regulars haven’t been in due to COVID-19. I thank him for his time and fill my cooler with meat sticks.
Since my first visit to Chuck’s Old Fashioned Meats, Stephan’s words stick with me. “Humans are tough…we’ll get through it.”
EDA help with taking over a business
Houston County EDA director Allison Wagner told the Argus they would be happy to help with taking over the meat market and the transition. When Wagner began working for the EDA, the number one business that was requested in Caledonia was a meat market.
“I do think this could be a very viable business for someone,” she noted. “A meat market can offer products that compliment many of our other businesses’ products and provide an additional service to the area.”
The current market is equipped with general restaurant and retail options, but if someone needed different equipment for a different purpose, they may have to undergo a plan review with the state.
“The current business owner added equipment and made changes to the facility for a meat market, so a new business owner could potentially come in with all of this already set up,” she added.
The EDA can also help with business coaching and financial packaging. A lot of new business owners use the revolving loan fund, which are low interest loans used as gap financing. Visit the county’s website at houstoncountymn.com to see the application.