You can go home again
Since Otto Weber arrived from Switzerland in 1905, there have been successful Weber Meats operations in both Southwest Wisconsin and Northwest Illinois. Though a plant fire brought an untimely end to the Illinois business, the current generation of the family has come back to its Wisconsin roots.
“I see the great business my great-grandfather, my grandfather, my dad and my uncles have built, and it’s up to me to keep it going,” says Dan Weber, owner of Weber Meats, located in Cuba City, Wis., and the former owner of Weber Meats of Geneseo, located near the Quad Cities area in Illinois.
Weber has done more than maintain the business. Since taking over the business in 2010, he has grown and organized the retail space and replaced an outdated smokehouse with a state-of-the-art model. With a bevy of new products and several building upgrades in the works, Weber Meats is clearly in good hands.
The family business started in Belleville, Wis., in the early 1900s, but Cuba City has been the home for Weber Meats since 1935. When Weber was growing up, it was run by his father and three uncles, and it didn’t take long for him to get into the business.
“It was probably around sixth or seventh grade,” he recalls. “I just grabbed a knife and started trimming away. I grew up here, and I got my foundation here.”
Weber’s father Norm ran the business side of Weber Meats, and his Uncle Reginald ran the back of the shop.
“I worked along side my Uncle Reg,” he says. “He taught me the art of how to cut meat and how to do the curing and sausage-making.”
Eventually, Weber took over the curing and smoking, as well as the slaughter. He also trained many of the company’s employees, many of whom are still working at Weber Meats today.
Moving to Illinois
In the early 1990s, Weber says that he was at the age where he wanted to get into the business, and his father and uncles were at the age where they were not ready to get out. Fortunately, an opportunity arose in Illinois.
The owner of a closed-down meat plant in Geneseo came to Cuba City to ask Norm Weber if he wanted to buy it. The elder Weber wasn’t interested, but he introduced the man to Dan and told him about the plant. After visiting the facility, Weber, his wife Tracy and brother Craig bought the business and moved to Illinois.
Getting the company up on its feet took several years, with unexpected hardships that had to be overcome. The facility that they bought was a custom cutting operation, with a very small retail space. The Webers ripped out all the locker boxes and expanded the retail space. The former business had gone through several owners, and they had to work hard to regain the trust of customers who had bad experiences in the past.
Dan and Tracy also had to overcome the sudden loss of Craig Weber, who died after a battle with cancer just a couple years after the business started.
“He was so vital, and we struggled,” Dan Weber recalls. “I had some great, young employees at that time, and they stepped up and helped us continue on.”
Weber had to take the lead in training his inexperienced staff. That workload, couple with the fact that Geneseo’s slaughter facility was located north of town, led the company to eventually discontinue the
custom beef slaughter and process only custom pork and venison when in season. While the business reduced its custom processing, it greatly expanded its retail offerings – to the tune of more than 500 different products.
“We used some of the recipes from Cuba City, but we made our own, too,” Weber says. One of his most popular creations was a “Ham for Two” product, which is a smaller version of a standard boneless smoked ham.
“My retail was pretty small, but we packed them in,” Weber comments. “In a little place like that, we’d sell 1,500 hams at Christmas time. But we were tiny.”
Weber Meats of Geneseo overcame its tumultuous start, and from 1992 until 2009 it grew to become one of the most well-regarded small meat processors in the country. The company won hundreds of state and national awards at cured meat contests, and Dan Weber was inducted by the American Association of Meat Processors into the Cured Meats Hall of Fame in 2007. He became the second member of his family to reach that honor, as his uncle, Reginald Weber was inducted in 1999.
Untimely endings and new beginnings
On October 21, 2009, Weber arrived home from work in the evening, and less than an hour later he got a phone call. Weber Meats of Geneseo was on fire. It had apparently started in a drop ceiling above the smokehouses, and by the time the local fire department was able to extinguish the blaze, the smokehouses were destroyed, and smoke had damaged the rest of the facility.
In the short term, the business moved to the company’s slaughter facility in time for venison season while the Webers figured out what to do next.
“Our first intention was to rebuild, as we liked the community and the people of Geneseo did not want us to leave,” he says.
As Tracy notes, building a new facility would have been more than a financial undertaking.
“If we were going to build in Geneseo, then we were going to stay there,” she says. “If you make that commitment to build and the expense of putting up a new building, you’re not going to turn around and sell it.”
A few months after the fire, Dan and Tracy started having conversations about taking over the Wisconsin business with his father and uncle Lee, who were the only two brothers still involved in the business. The advantages in going back to Weber Meats outweighed the process of rebuilding in Geneseo. They were both from Cuba City, and they already knew most of the employees and their capabilities, since Dan had worked with most of them. Furthermore, the Cuba City location was a much larger location. While the Illinois location was about 5,000 square feet, the Wisconsin building is easily three to four times larger, with 40 full-time and part-time employees.
The Webers finalized the paperwork and took over Weber Meats in October 2010. Since then, they have made a few changes to the business. About 25 of the most popular recipes in Geneseo were added to the current operation, and they have proven to be as popular in Wisconsin as they were in Illinois. The building’s retail space and exterior are also due for a makeover. On the production side, Weber made a large investment in a new smokehouse, replacing a 50-year-old model. The new house is fully automated and has improved product consistency.
One of the biggest personal changes that Weber has had to make was transitioning himself out of the back room and into the office.
“I do go back with the employees and train, and I oversee everything, but I don’t do any of the cutting,” he says. “And I knew that coming in, because you’ve got to run the business.
“It was tough for me that first year, because I wanted to go back there and dig in,” Weber adds. “But I finally just said to myself, ‘Dan, those days are over.’ The primary responsibility is committed to the business end of it, which is good.”
Currently, about half of Weber Meat’s sales comes from its retail store, with the other half is divided between custom processing, venison processing and the wholesale business. The company sells to Wisconsin hospitals, restaurants, convenience stores and schools.
Currently, Weber Meats is state inspected, unlike the Geneseo operation, which was federally inspected. Cuba City is in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, putting it reasonably close to both Illinois and Iowa. If the company decided to pursue federal inspection, or if Wisconsin moves forward with its plan to allow state-inspected facilities to ship out of state, Weber says that the company would see an immediate surge in sales. For that reason, he is careful not to plunge ahead without planning ahead.
“I want to have everything in place first, because it’s going to be done right,” he says. “You’ve got to get the right equipment and the right people. At that point, then we’ll sit down and take a look at it.”