The tourists stream from the tour bus into the dining area, smiling, looking around and taking pictures. As soon as they find their seats, a delicious gourmet meal is quickly brought out and placed in front of them. This is not a celebrity-owned restaurant in New York City or a historic bed & breakfast. This is the Hermann Wurst Haus, located in Hermann, Mo. The company was started by Mike and Lynette Sloan in 2011, and in that short amount of time, it has become a major tourist destination in Hermann, an area known for its Germanic heritage and its wine country.
Naturally, the tourists (and anyone else who stops in for lunch) are served some of the company’s award-winning sausages. With more than 40 years of experience in the meat industry, Sloan has won hundreds of state and national contests for his products. In this instance, they get a traditional bratwurst in a pretzel bun, with a side of sauerkraut and some German potato salad — all homemade.
After lunch, guests are free to wander around the shop. And it’s not just any shop. In addition to a café that can seat about 100 guests, Hermann Wurst Haus also has row after row of meat items, from ham to snack sticks to dozens of bratwurst varieties. There is also a beer sampling bar, featuring Wurst Haus ale, and a wurst bar, where someone on the staff — usually Sloan himself — is cooking and cutting bratwurst samples for a crowd of hungry onlookers.
“This next one is one of my favorites,” explains Sloan, who uses a mic to be heard above the crowd. “This favorite is a Reuben-flavored bratwurst, and a Reuben-flavored bratwurst is pork, seasonings, spices, caraway, added kraut, added Thousand Island, added Swiss cheese. Looks like a bratwurst, tastes like a Reuben, so try the Reuben-flavored bratwurst.”
It’s a pitch that he’s mastered; on busy days, he can talk to more than 1,000 people until his voice gives out. The samples are snatched up in seconds, and Sloan moves on to the other featured brats. A caramelized pear and Gorgonzola cheese brat, a pineapple-bacon brat, a Bloody Mary brat (one of his newest creations — looks like a bratwurst, tastes like a Bloody Mary). Those and up to 40 other flavors are available in the freezer cases at the back of the store. Customers can buy what they like — and as an in-store special, if they buy four packages, the fifth one is free. It’s a too-good-to-pass-up offer, and most shoppers take advantage of it.
Even after the tour bus fills back up and takes off, Hermann Wurst Haus is still buzzing with shoppers who stopped in while checking out all the stores down the main street. While meat markets aren’t typically known as tourist hot spots, that was Sloan’s plan when he started the business.
“I still do the custom processing, deer processing, catering — everything that everybody else does also,” he explains. “The only thing we probably do differently is we really have an opportunity to get tourism. That was my goal, to become a tourist destination.”
Starting over from scratch
Sloan started Hermann Wurst Haus when he was 54 years old — a time when many small business owners are thinking of stepping back from their duties. Before that, he worked in his family’s meat business in nearby Swiss, Mo., for more than 40 years. During that time, he worked at every possible job in a meat plant, but his passion was in further processing and selling. Sloan eventually decided to go to work for himself and focus on the parts of the industry that he loved best.
“It was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done and probably the smartest thing I’ve ever done, all in one,” he says, laughing. “It could have gone either way, and I’m just lucky and thankful that it went the right way.”
Sloan looked at offers to work in other industries, but after getting encouragement from Hermann city and tourism officials, he decided to open his own meat business. He and his wife found a shuttered auto parts store on the main street in Hermann that was a diamond in the rough.
“When Lynette and I walked in there, it still had auto parts in it. It had been closed for five years, and it was dark, dirty, damp and nasty,” he recalls. “But as we followed the flow of the auto parts business, Lynette and I said to each other that this flow will work for a meat and sausage company. We just had to change the structure.”
The rehab of the building took 65 exhausting days, but at the end, they had a building that looked brand new. With cedar-lined walls, a spacious, 17-foot ceiling and Lynette’s decorating sensibilities, Herman Wurst Haus turned into a warm, inviting space to sit, eat, sample and purchase.
Starting a new business gave Sloan a chance to put his marketing skills to the test. One of his recent successes was to promote the Wurst Haus as a Husband Daycare Center. Much of Hermann’s main street is made up of antique shops and other wife-friendly shops, and Sloan’s store, with its big-screen TVs, mounted animal heads and sausages on the grill, is basically a giant man cave.
“I would always see husbands arrive in the store about 20 minutes ahead of their wives, so I came up with the idea of a husband daycare center, where wives dropped their husbands off, and all they had to pay for was their food and drinks,” he says. “It’s just a gimmick to have them come in, but the first day I ran that ad, two husbands came in and stood by the front door. When I said ‘Can I help you?’ they said, ‘We’re here for the daycare center!’”
Out-of-towners may stop in for the curiosity factor, but the store’s personalized service is the main selling point. When a customer walks in the door, they’re greeted within seconds by Sloan, Lynette or one of the other staff members, who will show them the various features of the store: the lunch counter, the wurst sampling bar, the beer bar. Sloan says it’s common for tourists to stop in for lunch multiple times on a vacation and then once more to stock up for the trip home.
“One of the big challenges I have, and it’s a challenge I love, is when people come in and say, ‘Oh, I don’t like sausage,’” Sloan says. “Then, after talking with them, they leave with $50 of products. You had to beg them to take a toothpick [and try a sample], and now they’re taking it out the door, and they’re taking your business card so they can mail-order it.”
Sloan’s marketing skills keep the shop busy, but when Oktoberfest rolls around, the steady stream of shoppers turns into a flood. The town of Hermann grows from 2,300 people to more than 30,000 on October weekends, and a good portion of the out-of-towners end up at the Wurst Haus. Sloan brings in guest musicians to add to the festivities, and he partners with local wineries to set up a wine bar in the shop. For those weekends, the front door never shuts.
<strong>Try the Haus beer</strong>
As befitting a German-styled sausage shop in a town with a strong Germanic heritage, Hermann Wurst Haus also has entered into the beer business. A second location about an hour south from Hermann produces four German beers, as well as five sodas. The sodas, along with the Wurst Haus meat products, are sold on site and also can be ordered from its website. The beer is sold by the bottle, six-pack or growler at the store only. Sloan may very well be the only meat processor in the country with his image on a beer label.
Along with catering and deer processing, Sloan has also started offering Sausage 101 courses several times a year. Over the course of a day, about 40 people will learn the basics of sausage processing from Sloan, who also sells the small home processing equipment, seasonings, casings and cheese. They end up with a wurst meal, a goodie bag and some of the product that they made. Sloan says that people from as far away as Georgia have come for the classes.
“I’ve had so many people come into those classes for birthday presents,” he adds. “I’ve had three sets of honeymooners come in for a sausage-making class. I asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ and they said, ‘It sounded interesting.’”
With a menu that changes daily and so many new developments taking, tourists who make regular trips to Hermann are encouraged to return to the Wurst Haus to see what’s new. To further encourage repeat visits, there is a Wurst Haus mobile app that gives users a 10 percent discount and notifies them of special events and promotions. If they won’t be returning anytime soon but need a wurst fix, the company ships nationwide through its online store.
Everything that Sloan has initiated has paid off, as he says the company is growing at a rate of over 20 percent a year. Eventually, he expects it to even out to steady yearly growth of 10 to 12 percent. So far, the growth has gone according to his initial plan.
“I started this business pretty late in my life, at 54 years old,” he says. “I told my wife when I bought this building that I’m on a five-year plan. For five years, it’s going to be fast and huge, and after that, I can step back a little bit.
“I feel like I’ve done this before. I gave it all I had at my previous job and left and started over again, so I think I know how to do it,” Sloan adds. “I’m three years into my five-year plan of giving it what I got while I still can do it. As I get into my 60s, I’m going to have to shut down my hours a little bit. I’ll still be here, but I’m going to start picking and choosing.”