MAKIN BACON AND MORE
Making bacon and other meat products have proven to be an award-winning venture for Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale for the past 42 years. And this year is proving to be no different.
As Rachael Lee, operations manager of Steve’s, continues to churn out various meat and sausage products, the awards keep piling up. She, along with her mother Donnavon Eaker, came back in mid March from the Minnesota Association of Meat Processors with 11 awards, including the coveted Sweepstakes Championship award for the second straight year.
Steve’s was founded in 1973 by Lee’s parents, Steve and Donnavon Eaker. Steve died in 2006 after battling cancer, but not before preparing Lee to continue the family legacy. Steve’s has won state and national awards every year since 1976.
Just how good is Steve’s?
Lee points to the period of when her father was fighting cancer. Despite his courageous battle and everything that went along with it, the meat market still managed to pull of winning three awards.
To this day Lee relies on her father’s recipes for producing the award-winning meats and sausages. Lee said the sausages, wieners, bologna are still 100 percent Steve’s recipes. With many other products, Lee has taken Steve’s basic recipes and spiced it up by adding something. Jalapenos and Pepper Jack cheeses are some of the extra ingredients added to many of the products these days, according to Lee.
“I’m not here to make a lot of changes because obviously he knew what he was doing,” Lee said. “This all comes right back to my dad—100 percent.”
Lee recalls one of the last times she leaned on her dad for advice in making specialty summer sausage.
“Dad tasted it and said it’s just missing something,” she said. Lee worked on it by adding more jalapenos and a combination of low temperature and high temperature Pepper Jack cheese. She won reserve champion in this year’s competition with the Pepper Jack Summer Sausage.
Steve was big on developing value-added meat products, according to Lee. He enjoyed creating meats with wild rice, cheeses and berries, among other things.
At this year’s state contest, Lee was awarded two grand champions for wieners and prepared food item, which was a smoked prime rib roast. She won a champion award for specialty bacon (warm bourbon bacon) and three champion awards for small diameter traditional sausage (Polish sausage), cooked summer sausage and fresh specialty small diameter sausage (Pepper Jack bratwurst).
In addition to the Pepper Jack summer sausage, the other reserve championships came in ring bologna, specialty small diameter sausage (pepper jack sausage), whole bone-in smoked ham and specialty snack stick (pepper jack snack sticks).
The Sweepstakes award is given out to the person with the highest total points for the overall product show.
“I feel like my dad is saying you’re doing a good job,” Lee said. “It’s pretty neat.”
Added Donnavon, “The stars were lined up.”
Even though Steve has been gone for 12 years, Lee still feels his presence while cutting meat. “He’s still here every day,” Lee says. “He still leads me. I talk to him quite a bit. He still has a finger right here.”
Lee credits her competitiveness in the state and national contests to both her parents. She said they taught her how to work hard and try to always make a good product.
“It’s labor intense,” Lee said of the meat business. “It’s not an easy business. It’s a physical job,” she added.
But she comes away with great satisfaction at the end of the day.
“I feel good about what I do,” Lee said. “I work hard to produce something good.”
Donnavon said she always taught both of her girls to have a good work ethic. “They learned how to work,” she said. “It’s not just handed to them,” she added.
Hard work, Donnavon said, seems to be a dying art these days for the younger generation.
Besides the retail store in downtown Ellendale, Steve’s products are also sold in area retail stores under the Steve’s Smokey Acres label and on privately labeled products sold in other retail stores throughout the Midwest. Steve’s has provided meats for the Lunds and Byerlys stores in the Twin Cities since 1993.
Just last fall, Steve’s added the first meat vending machine in Minnesota outside their store in which customers can access any time 24/7.
Steve’s, which is a USDA inspected meat plant, produces more than 285 specialty meat and sausage products. Snack sticks are the top seller today. Donnavon noted when they opened in 1973, the only products they made were hams, bacon and dried beef.
And just in case you’re keeping track, after the newest awards, Steve’s is up to more than 390 state and national awards, most of which are displayed in the retail store.
Asked what the secret is to their on-going success, Donnavon responded, “Just put your head down and go to work. Don’t be afraid to learn.”
Donnavon said her husband wrote down all the recipes in a notebook before he died, but he never gave them out to anyone. And as for the notebook, Donnavon said referring to her daughter, “She’s very protective of it.”
Looking back on the past 45 years, Donnavon said, “I was his (Steve’s) cheerleader, and now I am hers (Rachael’s).”