Innovative product development is not solely the domain of multi-million-dollar corporations with an R&D team and a dedicated product development lab. It can come from any processor who has a creative imagination and a willingness to experiment.

Tiefenthaler Quality Meats, located in Holstein, Iowa, got its start as a custom slaughterer of beef and pork and provider of fresh meats, and that still is a large and important part of the company's business. But thanks to the creativity of owners/operators John and Shelly Tiefenthaler, the state-inspected company draws customer from miles around to its retail store to try its No-Mess Chili Dogs and its raspberry-chipotle chicken breasts, to name just a couple of its more creative ideas.

John started in the business working for a local locker in 1981, right out of high school. The company itself had been around since 1942, and the company’s then-owner, Bob Bagenstos, taught him the ropes and eventually made him his partner. John acquired the business in 1991 and has grown it steadily since then. John and Shelly married in 1994 and moved the business to its current location in 2004.

“We were in a smaller, older, standard locker plant and slaughtered in one location about a half-mile west of town and processed in the other location. We had things strung out all over, and we had the standard old locker plant issues, just trying to do things efficiently and in a timely fashion so we could make money,” John says. Because the main location was off of the main highway, the retail store was rarely visited by customers.

Tiefenthaler’s moved into a new location in 2004 with a better location, a larger retail space and a better, more modern production area. The company took a former Schwann’s depot and rebuilt it from the ground up, providing for both retail and an improved processing area. The new facility is 7,000 square feet in size and houses 15 employees.

With its new, more accessible location, the company’s retail store attracts customers from within a 50-mile radius, the Tiefenthalers say. Customers in the Kansas City area also have made the 300-mile trek to Holstein to pick up products for tailgate parties.

The company’s custom slaughtering is still a mainstay in the business. While there are other meat processors in the area, Tiefenthaler’s is the only inspected plant, which gives it an advantage over other competition. They also have an advantage over other grocery stores in that they can give the customer exactly what he or she is looking for.

“We know when we’re cutting [the animals] what they were like,” John explains, because they know the hog and beef producers and their preferences. “If customers want it fat or lean, drug-free or not drug free, we’ve got producers that produce very different styles. We’ll put the two together.”

John recalls one customer who bought a quarter beef and turned it all into hamburger. He tried to warn the customer of the cost, but the man reasoned that the ground beef would be worth the cost and would be better than the most expensive meat he could buy at the local grocery store.

“I’ll guarantee that the difference in getting the type of meat you want is a lot cheaper than your cell phone bill, which is not considered a big deal anymore,” John reasons. “Getting what you want and knowing it was raised correctly, humanely and fed correctly, that’s cheap.”

Shelly notes that buying a quarter or a half of beef still makes good economic sense, as well as from the dinner-preparation perspective. It’s easier to look through a home freezer to see what’s to eat than it is to walk past a meat case at a supermarket and try to plan out a meal.

“Your meal plan is so much easier, and it’s paid for already,” she says.

Product development expertise

One of Tiefenthaler's specialties is its No-Mess Chili Dogs, which are hot dogs with chili and cheese mixed throughout the product. The idea came to Shelly in a dream she had right before the Iowa Cured Meats Competition.

“When I woke up, I said to John, 'I know what we're going to have to make for this competition,'” she explains. John and another employee developed a batch based on her idea. Because it was so close to the competition, they only had time to make the one batch, so it would either be something they would like and could enter in the competition, or it would have to wait until the next year's show. As it turns out, that first batch was good, though very hot; Tiefenthaler's took the Grand Champion prize with the dogs, and the judges comments were that they had an innovative product but needed to turn down the heat. They did so and entered the product at the American Cured Meat Championships, where it also won an award. Other than turning down the heat, the chili dogs haven’t changed and continue to sell well.

The first batch of No-Mess Chili Dogs used a Midwest chili brand, Mrs. Grimes. When they got back from the competition, Shelly called the company to let them know the news. The company was so intrigued by the product that it sent a couple of representatives to Tiefenthaler's store to see it for themselves. The two companies have since co-branded the product, with both the Tiefenthaler and Mrs. Grimes' logos appearing on the package.

Shelly says the company hasn't actually made the chili dogs in several years. “The local grocery chains wanted to pick them up but needed us to be federally inspected,” she explains. “We weren't quite ready to make that change in our own plant, so we found a plant that was federally inspected not too far from here that makes a lot of hot dogs, so they make them for us.”

Product development is an instinct that the Tiefenthalers share. They try to develop three new products, or a variant of an existing product, a year to keep things interesting for their regular customers. One of the products that has been a long-time favorite is the company's fresh, skinless brat, available in a variety of flavors. John says that they are available in several local grocery stores, as well as Tiefenthaler's retail store. “People drive for miles and miles for them,” he says. Among the most popular flavors are tomato basil, bacon cheddar, mushroom Swiss and cheese & jalapeno. They have also developed new flavors like a pineapple brat.

John points out that casing costs are continuing to rise, and given that the company started out without a smokehouse, producing skinless brats was a relatively easy transition to make. “I know in Wisconsin you might be drug out into the street and beaten to a pulp for not having a casing, and I understand that, but it's working for us,” he says. Other companies in the area have tried to produce similar items, but they've not had the same level of success.

Along with those items, Tiefenthaler’s also produces fresh steaks, pork cuts, roasts and marinated chicken items. It also sells jerky, snack sticks, summer sausage, hams, bacon, bologna and other smoked items. The company has won many state and national awards for these products, which is a point of pride for John, who’s largely a self-taught smokehouse operator.

The company has only had a smokehouse since 1998, so prior to that time, he either had to take products elsewhere to be smoked to produce its hams and bacon. The company went through several processors as businesses changed hands or closed down.

“Then we finally bought a smokehouse, and I started learning how to use it and playing around with it. That’s given us a real push,” he says. Along with reading trade publications and taking courses at the nearby Iowa State University, he spoke with many fellow processors to learn the tricks of the trade, many of which have several generations of expertise from which to draw.

“When you’re in nationals [cured meat competitions], everyone will give you a little bit of advice on what you should do,” John says. “I took all those things, remembered them and was able to put them together.”

Surviving as a small business

The Tiefenthalers readily admit that their partnership is a big part of the success of the company.

“It takes both of us,” John says “[In each other], we have partners that we trust and partners that have the same goal. Some of the decisions may take us months to decide, but at least we’ve got someone to bounce our ideas off of.” John oversees the production side of the business, while Shelly handles the paperwork/computer side of the business, including the state HACCP program.

The couple’s two children are both active in the business when school doesn’t come first. Their son, 12, runs the grill when the store has its week-long Spring sale in June. Their daughter, 16, has spent summers working in the back, helping to package product and clean up.

“The good thing about a family business,” Shelly says, “is that our children are definitely going to have a job if they want one.”

Tiefenthaler Quality Meats is bucking the trend as a small, state-inspected meat processor that is growing. John points out local processors that have changed hands several times or have closed down for good when the owners can’t find a buyer.

“If a guy is 58 and knows he’s going to retire in two years, they don’t do any fixing, and all they do is try to save the profit,” he says. “Then they try to sell the place. The upkeep is to tremendous starting from scratch, and you’re asking for this huge amount that you can or can’t prove with your books, how in the heck can anyone expect to come in and make money?”

He notes that in a smaller town, someone could acquire a business for $20,000 or $30,000 and put in another $40,000 to get the business redone and fixed up. Despite the costs, a person could get in business for less than $100,000, but it does require hard work.

“You’ve got these kids going to high school, and they’re thinking ‘I’m going to go to college and get a job that pays $75,000 my first year, and I’m going to have three weeks paid vacation,’” Shelly adds. “That’s not what this is.”

The Tiefenthalers have thought about becoming a federally inspected facility, and John says that meeting the federal requirements would not be a real hassle. However, they are content with their position and have no current plans to become a federal plant.

“We’ve heard feedback, both good and bad, from people of our size and type of facilities, who have made the transition,” John says. “What growth we’ve had has kept us as busy as we can handle.”

The company is located close to the South Dakota and Nebraska borders, so being able to ship product across state lines would have some benefits. They are paying close attention to the Farm Bill and the language in it that will allow state-inspected businesses to ship outside of the state borders.

“It would be more effective to stay at the state level and still sell outside of the state than to go federal,” Shelly says. “Iowa’s state program, we feel, is very good. There are a lot of good resources in our state for any questions or problems. We feel very comfortable with our state inspection staff.”