When shoppers go to the grocery store to pick out their meat, odds are pretty good that they don’t go directly to the canned foods aisle. Canned meats have, right or wrong, developed a reputation as a substandard product, made with the cheapest cuts and leftover trimmings, packed with preservatives. That is of course a false assumption, and one Ohio manufacturer has been changing minds by offering a full line of lean, hand-trimmed, all-natural beef, pork, chicken and turkey. In a can.

Like many processors, Keystone Meats got its start four generations ago, raising and butchering cattle. Keystone Meats opened up its own butcher shop and filled the meat case with locally raised beef, and it developed a business wholesaling meat throughout its home state of Ohio, as well as Indiana and Michigan. About 25 years ago, the company went in a different direction, and that decision has helped to greatly grow its business, as well as its name recognition.

“We started making the canned meats just to sell in our retail store and a few other retail stores and butcher shops in the area. They did pretty well, and people seemed to be pleased with the quality that we produced,” explains Peter Dorley, president of the Lima, Ohio company.

With that initial success, Keystone went to larger retailers, like Kroger, Walmart and Meijer, gaining distribution there as well. Its reach now covers most of the Midwest and neighboring states.

“It’s a very organic growth, as I like to think of it. We just started local and reached a little further out each step of the way,” he explains.

Its canned product portfolio has expanded as well. Along with canned beef, ground beef, pork, chicken and turkey, the company also offers several varieties of broth and soup base.

Keystone Meats prides itself on being premium canned meat company. Rather than use the trimmings from the fresh meats operations, the butchers hand-select lean cuts of meat and cut them into chunks. Those chunks are then hand-packed into cans along with a little sea salt, before the cans are sealed and slow cooked. The result, Dorley says, “is what we think is the best quality canned meat you can make.

“The final product is not a salty mystery meat that’s shaped like the can it came out of,” he adds. “It’s tender, juicy chunks of beef, pork, turkey or chicken. The most common, first-time customer comment is, ‘I can’t believe this came out of a can.’”

Point of fact, the can doesn’t change its contents any more than a pouch, a carton, or a foam tray does. Its use offers some advantages, even. Dorley notes that, thanks to the can, Keystone doesn’t need to add any further preservatives to maintain the shelf life of its products. The ingredient list of the canned chicken, for instance, reads, “Chicken, Sea Salt.” The company doesn’t even add water.

“I’m always telling people, ‘Don’t fear the can.’ It’s just a metal container that happens to form a great seal,” he says.

Keystone’s message has been spreading, as the company’s distribution has gained steadily throughout the country. It has also grown its product line, adding a soup base line about five years ago. Dorley says that the soup bases, which use the company’s own meats as the primary ingredient, complement the canned meats well. Many consumers who pick up a can of meat for dinner also end up buying the soup base to use in the recipe.

While the canned goods business continues to grow, Keystone isn’t straying from its foundations. The company still runs its retail outlet and makes its own fresh bratwurst, bologna and sausages, along with its beef cuts. It also custom processes fresh beef for local customers. Dorley notes that the cannery business and the processing business both require skilled butchers, so the company is able to utilize its employees in either business segment.

Since Keystone produces its canned products in small batches, farmers also have the option of having their beef custom canned, if they wish.

“That’s a nice service that we can provide, at least locally, for people who bring their cattle in,” he explains. “There aren’t many other operations that can do it all – bringing in cattle for custom freezer beef or canning the whole thing. If they can fill up a batch, I’m happy to do that for them.”

A planned expansion to the cannery this year should increase the company’s packaging capacity, as well as add to its workforce of 35 employees. Dorley adds that the company will be reaching out to more and more retailers as well. Part of the company’s growing presence in the retail market stems from the fact that it doesn’t offer a “me-too” canned product. By providing a premium item in a category that typically is not considered premium, the company is adding something new to the store shelves.

“If the retailer is bringing in Keystone, they’re not trading Brand A for Brand B,” Dorley says. “Bringing Keystone in truly brings incremental category growth for the retailers. There’s not really a whole lot out there that’s like it.”