The ladies behind the counter at Kalck’s Butcher Shop in Crystal Lake would love to talk, but it’s lunch rush and customers are stocking up for Father’s Day.
Customers stream into Butcher on the Block in Lake in the Hills doing the same, seeking grilling meats and deli sandwiches. And when owner Tom Yucuis isn’t working at his shop, he’s expanding the market for his gourmet bratwurst and sausages, which now can be found in 14 states.
Echoing a national trend, local mom-and-pop butcher shops are doing brisk business, even as consumers are still a bit cautious about opening their wallets. Owners attribute it to a loyal and growing client base concerned about price and quality.
“In a lot of aspects, our products costs less than those bigger chain stores and are of a better quality, and I think people are realizing that,” said Wendy Kotlowski, daughter of Kalck’s owners Barb and Ken Kalck.
About 9 percent of the 130,720 people the Bureau of Labor Statistics identify as butchers and meat cutters work for “specialty food stores,” according to May 2012 data, the most recent available. But for the most part, the numbers show that the number of specialty butchers has increased in the years during and after the Great Recession.
But that’s not to say there weren’t scary moments when the economy slumped.
Butcher on the Block, 4660 W. Algonquin Road, which Yucuis founded in 2000, was in the middle of starting a new venture to distribute its gourmet brats and sausages when the recession hit – getting government inspection approval, printing mandated nutrition labels, and other product development expenses.
“It was almost like, what do we do? We’re far into this. You can’t just stop when you’re three-quarters pregnant with it – we decided to move forward,” Yucuis said.
The gamble paid off. Besides store shelves and other vendors, you can buy one of their brats at Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, and Yucuis said he is close to getting foreign distribution.
Besides meats and deli sandwiches, Kalck’s is famous for its homemade salads, particularly its chicken salad, Kotlowski said. Its most popular fare include freshly-ground beef and homemade cakes and cookies. Kotlowski said she would like to expand the bakery aspect of Kalck’s, 71 E. Woodstock St.
“Right now [business] is really up. I feel that it’s our customer service and our product,” Kotlowski said.
Customer service is a very important aspect, said Lora Scholer, who since 2010 has owned Jones Country Meats in Woodstock, which like the other two carry fare such as popular ground beef and gourmet brats. During the cold-weather months, the business, which also features an on-site smokehouse at 204 N. Seminary Ave., caters to hunters by processing their deer, for a fee.
“We like to think of our customers as family. There are quite a few regulars where we know their family and they know ours,” Scholer said.
All three butchers also attributed their sales to a growing interest by health-conscious consumers to know where their food comes from.
“Now the biggest buzzwords are injection-free, grass-fed. We get those questions all day, every single day,” Yucuis said. “The customers are looking for health and they’re looking for trust. They keep coming back because, once they try our stuff, they don’t go back to the big-box store.”
Small butcher shops also tend to be family affairs. Kotlowski and her sister, Melanie Roberts, run Kalck’s day-to-day operations. Yucuis employs his wife and two daughters – his younger daughter, Brynn, is vice president of Butcher on the Block Gourmet Bratwurst and Sausages.
Kalck’s has been at its downtown Crystal Lake site for 38 years, and the daughters have no intention of stopping any time soon. But it may not end up being passed down to a third generation. The only grandchild for the Kalck’s is Kotlowski’s son, and she has bigger plans for him that include college.
“I would prefer my son to be a doctor,” she said with a laugh.