When he left Austria to come to America in the 1920s, Frank Sailer, Sr. searched for a place that reminded him of the land that he left behind. After making several stops along the way, in 1923 he found a new home among the hills that surround Elmwood, Wis and started up a butcher shop. Almost 100 years later, the residents of Elmwood are still enjoying the benefits of that choice. Sailer’s Food Market and Meat Processing continues to produce high-quality, innovative products that have been recognized by state, national and international competitions.
There have been changes along the way, as would be expected of any 95-year-old business. The original storefront that simultaneously supported four generations of the Sailer family was replaced by a brand new facility in 2006. The company became federally inspected about 10 years later. Sailer’s product range has continued to expand, while keeping some of its perennially popular legacy items. And while Sailer’s continues to feed Elmwood residents, the company’s reputation has grown well beyond its hometown. Customers travel from all over the upper Midwest to shop at the store.
“There are times that this little place will see up to 200 people on a Saturday morning,” says Jake Sailer, vice president and the fourth generation of the family to work in the business. The town of Elmwood, incidentally, has about 800 residents, according to the 2010 census.
Sailer and his father, Ric, took over the business in 1995 as vice president and president, respectively. Since that time, Jake has led the efforts to modernize the business, adding new equipment, expanding the product range and building the new shop. That modernization has coincided with a time when consumers are looking for local, niche, authentic food, and it’s hard to be more authentic than a four-generation meat market.
“I talked to Louis Muench (of Louie’s Finer Meats in Cumberland, Wis.) years and years ago about building a building,” Jake recalls. “He said, ‘What you need to do is build a destination, and get people to want to come to you.’ He had already done it, so he knew. But you can’t get people to come back unless you give them the quality to come back for.
“Did we make it a destination? I think we did,” he adds.
Independent Processor of the Year
2018: Sailer's Food Market and Meat Processing
Sailer’s store features a full-service meat case and refrigerated coolers full of award-winning hams, bacon, more than 40 varieties of bratwurst, ring bologna and more. It’s located not too far from the original location on Main Street. Just look for the building with the UFOs in the parking lot.
Why, you ask? Elmwood calls itself the UFO Capital of the World, thanks to some sightings in the early 1980s.
“These are not just by guys who were out drunk one night, we’re talking about the town chief of police and a Catholic school teacher,” Sailer says. “It was a big deal, and they were on Geraldo and Donahue.”
Elmwood even calls its annual summer festival “UFO Days.” Sailer’s contributes to the fun by selling a UFO Brat – a traditional brat with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, pineapple and olive rings. Shoppers can take pictures with the UFOs in the parking lot too.
Last year, Sailer helped to bring a long-time tradition back to UFO Days. He says that when he was growing up, the town barber would fly over the town in his private plane and throw paper plates out the window. The plates, which spun to earth like flying saucers, had an amount of money written on them that could be exchanged for food tickets at the fair.
“They would have 5 cents on them, or 15 or 25, and if you got really lucky, you’d find one that said a buck,” he recalls. “We kids would chase the plane and catch them, climb onto trees and people’s roofs to get them, and take them to the food tent.”
The plate drop ended when the barber passed away, but it came back in 2017. Sailer, who has a pilot’s license and a Cessna plane, flew over Elmwood at last year’s festival while two of his friends tossed out the plates. These plates included coupons donated from town businesses, so the children had fun chasing after the plates, and their parents had fun spending the coupons. Lucky attendees might have even come away from the plate drop with a $10 coupon at Sailer’s.
Continuing the family tradition
Jake and his father bought the business in 1995. He worked road construction previous to that for three years. He farmed on the side until 2000 but also worked at the business full time starting in 1995.
One of the first steps he took was to bring in some automation to help the processing, such as a tumbler to replace the traditional method of hand-pumping bacon.
“When I came back, everyone said, ‘Your bacon’s too salty, what are you going to do to fix your bacon?’ We redeveloped the bacon, and then it just took off,” he says.
Though Sailer’s is a federally inspected business, the company had not actively pursued selling beyond its Wisconsin borders. That hesitancy may be changing thanks to a relationship with Reinhart Foodservice, a distributor in La Crosse. Sailer’s processes hogs for the company’s legacy pork program, and it also distributes Pa Sailer’s Old-Fashioned Ring Bologna.
“I’ve always wanted to bring back that ring bologna that my grandpa had always made,” Sailer says. “Reinhart is distributing this for us. We’re not huge, but it’s all baby steps.”
There are two varieties of ring bologna, both of which feature a picture of Pa Sailer on the label. The coarse-ground variety is the original family recipe, and the emulsified variety is more contemporary.
“The coarse-ground probably sells more here, but when we get out into the grocery stores they sell about 50-50,” he adds.
Sailer’s products have picked up numerous awards in meat competitions. At the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors annual meeting in April 2018, the company won 11 awards at the Meats Products Competition, including the R.W. Bray Award of Excellence — the Best of Show Award for smoked meats — for a semi-boneless smoked ham. Sailer’s has also been successful in the national American Cured Meat Championships. It won the Clarence Knebel Best of Show Award in 2016 for a spicy pepperoni and won nine awards at the 2017 competition, including two Grand Champion awards.
In 2016, Sailer’s participated in the IFFA Quality Competition, sponsored by the German Butcher Association. It was the first time in years that this renowned international meat competition had included entries from the United States, and German judges flew to the University of Wisconsin-Madison just to judge the American entries. Sailer’s won 10 Gold Medals for its products in the IFFA Competition, as well as one Silver and one Bronze Medal. It also brought home a Cup of Honor, awarded to those companies that win at least five Gold Medals.
Sailer’s reputation has grown by word of mouth, as satisfied customers come back again and again for their favorites and tell their friends. The company does partner with some of the other boutique businesses in the area to produce brochures that highlight local food and wine. The best advertisement is Jake Sailer himself, as he appears twice weekly on the popular Moose Country (106.7FM) morning show with host Jay Moore. Sailer has been appearing on the show for more than seven years, talking with Moore in what amounts to a live commercial.
“It started out that you had a 2-minute slot to talk live on the air. You have to keep it clean – I’ve only ever sworn once on the air – when we started it was $65 for a two minute slot. Well, you get to talking with Jay Moore, and it turns into 10 minutes,” Sailer says. “That has been our best advertising ever.”
Sailer will use the time to talk about the store’s products, special events, UFO days, county fairs or anything else that comes to mind. He started with a Monday morning slot at 7:50 a.m. and has since added a Friday slot at 9:20 a.m. It’s not uncommon for people just passing through the area with the radio on to stop in Elmwood and stock up on meat, all because they heard Sailer on the radio.
Sailer is quick to point out that the company’s success and growth has been a team effort, including his parents, his wife Leslie and Sailer’s employees. He recalls that when the company won the Best of Show Award at the ACMC in 2016 for its spicy pepperoni, the win was announced as “Team Sailer’s”.
“We have a really great crew working right now, and I can’t commend them enough,” he says.
As with any meat business, finding and maintaining quality employees has been a constant challenge. Sailer believes that education is the key to getting the next generations excited about the meat industry, and he helps to provide that education in many ways.
Sailer’s invites students from the surrounding three counties to his shop in the spring for a Tri-County Education and Tour. He and his employees, along with Dr. Gary Onan of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, provide a basic primer of the meat industry. Students get a tour of the plant, watch Sailer break down a hog carcass and get an education session from Dr. Onan before they get treated to grilled brats and hot dogs. The event this past spring drew almost 120 students.
“It’s a lot of fun, and the kids learn so much. You have to do something to spark that interest and get kids interested in this,” he says.
Sailer also serves on the advisory committee for the new meat lab that is currently under construction at the UW-Madison campus. He explains that his role is to serve as the voice for the small processor, and his goal is to create short courses that will help students get placed into meat industry upon graduation.
“I don’t care if it’s several times during the year or a one-year or two-year program, but somehow we have to get more people interested faster, give them a quick overview of what we’re going to do, and get them in somewhere,” he says.
Sailer himself didn’t get a four-year degree at a university – “I’m just an idiot who kept working,” he jokes – but he was part of the first graduating class of UW-Madison’s Master Meat Crafter Program. The unique program is designed to provide a basic knowledge of meat science, food safety and the principles of meat processing.
The two-year program is designed for those who already have experience in the meat industry and requires all participants to complete a mentorship program, attend workshops, complete homework exercises and conduct an in-plant research project. Sailer graduated in 2012 and subsequently sent one of his key employees through the program. He continues to participate in the Master Meat Crafter program and other educational sessions by teaching what he’s learned through his experiences.
The goal of all of these educational endeavors is to instill a basic understanding of the industry in the next generation of employees, along with passion and enthusiasm for it.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. But I keep hoping and praying, keep trying and training and teaching,” he says.