Marengo country market celebrates 60 years
MARENGO – It’s 8:45 a.m. Rodger Brandt slaps a pork loin onto the stainless steel platform of his meat saw.
He’s in the cutting room at Wayne’s Country Market, the meat market he owns in Marengo, doing more or less what he’s done his whole life. Brandt, 69, was 12 when he first started working at Wayne’s; 15 when he first started cutting meat.
He took over the ownership in 1984. In 2001, a fire forced a relocation to Route 20, giving them more space in the process. Wayne’s celebrated its 60th anniversary this month.
Brandt fires up the saw and removes the chine bone. He lifts the 23-pound pork loin to a nearby table and grabs his knife. He slices off a full slab of ribs, flips the meat and begins cutting what remains into thick, butterfly pork chops.
“Speed was money,” he said, referring to a time when he was a little more reckless with the knife. “You get older and you slow down and you watch what you’re doing.”
Brandt thinks about that for a second.
“It still is,” he said. “Time is money.”
Keeping it fresh
Brandt made 25 cents an hour his first week on the job. He did well enough that week that owner Wayne Beggs doubled his salary during his second week.
From there, Beggs taught Brandt the business – first how to clean up around the store, then how to wait on customers, and finally, how to cut and prepare the meat.
“I wanted to go to college but the money wasn’t there,” Brandt said. “So he started me out at a decent wage and taught me everything I know.”
Brandt was drafted into service in 1966 and came back a store manager in 1969. He spent 15 years in that position before buying the store.
“What kept me there was that I enjoyed what I did,” he said. “I enjoyed cutting meat, I enjoyed trying different things, making different things. We do a lot of different stuff here.”
Brandt has been aggressive in creating new rubs and marinades to keep things interesting at Wayne’s. You can get about 20 different varieties of chicken breast, featuring a variety of marinades, rubs and stuffed options.
In the 1950s, Beggs began making bratwursts with a recipe he got from a German he’d met in Wisconsin. The idea was slow to pick up speed, Brandt remembered, because back then nobody had heard of brats.
Today, Wayne’s still sells that original brat recipe, and more than 10 variations – from jalapeno cheddar to bleu cheese to taco.
It’s approaching 9 a.m. when Brandt takes sweet basil rub – a recipe he’s perfected through many attempts – and coats both sides of each pork chop.
“It’s become very successful,” Brandt said of this particular rub, one of several ways he prepares pork chops. “People really love it.”
Finding a niche
When Wayne’s opened up in 1952, it wasn’t unusual to see meat markets around. But Brandt said he doesn’t have any real competition today.
“It’s been good throughout the years,” he said.
No other store close to him does the same thing. Big grocery stores like Wal-Mart and Jewel represent his biggest threats, but so far neither has moved into Marengo.
Even if they did, Brandt said he’s confident many of his customers would be loyal to Wayne’s. Personal customer service is a big part of what they do. He knows many of his regulars by name and order.
Gene Carroccia, who runs Red Wing shoe store in Marengo, has been going to Wayne’s as long as he can remember. He said he’s established a trust in Wayne’s over the years. These days he just calls in what he wants and how many people he’s feeding, and then swings by on his way home to pick it up.
“I don’t compare shop,” Carroccia said. “I know I get exactly what I want when I get home and put it on the table.”
But Wayne’s hasn’t been immune to some degree of ups and downs. A meat grinder with a 300-pound capacity sits stagnant in the cutting room these days. Wayne’s used to provide beef to a sausage company called Quality Sausage before they were bought out.
“I’d like to retire, but I still enjoy what I’m doing,” Brandt said. “In the economy today, it’s pretty tough.”
It’s 9:15 a.m. when 18-year-old Travis Arney hoists an enormous beef chuck onto the table in front of Brandt.
Arney’s been here since 7:15 a.m., like Brandt. He’ll be here until 6 p.m., does it six days a week, just like Brandt. He started at age 14.
Brandt doesn’t have a plan for the store when he finally does come around to retiring. Anyway, there’s no one ready to take the place over.
“He’s got quite a talent that’s becoming obsolete in this world now,” said Gwen Thompson, an assistant manager at Wayne’s the last 11 years. “Nowadays, most meat cutters don’t have to cut anything, it just comes to them and they package it. He’s still doing the whole nine yards.”
Arney steps away from the cutting room at 9:30, fills a gap in the showcase with a tray of thick chuck roasts. It’s a welcome step away from the cutting room – Arney and Brandt have been butting heads this morning. They do that sometimes. Too much time in a confined space, Arney said.
“I’m still learning,” he said. Brandt’s been teaching him all the cuts. Later this morning, he’ll be making brats. “He’s almost 70 years old. He doesn’t need to be here all the time.”
Arney hasn’t been asked to be the next in line at Wayne’s. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t considered what he’d say if he was.
“If it comes down to it, yeah, but I see the hassles he goes through,” he said. “It’s a big business to take over.”