A Local Foods Beats the Pandemic Tale
By John Hamm & Denise Wee, Wisconsin River Meats
Saturday March 14, 2020 started out at Wisconsin River Meats much like any March Saturday. We were expecting some folks to stop out to pick up their venison or custom processing orders. We figured we would also sell a bit of sausage and our usual mix of steaks, chops, roasts and burger.
The preceding couple of weeks had been strange with talk of Coronavirus, and with the cancelation of State Basketball, NCAA Championships and Professional Sports. We saw quarantines of cruise ships and reports of illnesses and deaths in Italy on the rise.
I arrived to work at 6:30 AM and had only a small handful of retail staff and our sausage crew on hand.
The first half hour was typical for a Saturday morning in March, slow. We received a strange phone call at around 7:45 AM. “Are you still open?” The caller asked. “Why yes of course, until 4 o’clock,” we said. “Do you have any meat left?” they asked hopefully. “Of course,” we answered, somewhat perplexed at the question. His last question to us, “Will you run out?” We replied, “No.”
All of us at Wisconsin River Meats that day thought that the call was very odd. We were puzzled when within a few minutes we received several more calls. Each caller inquired the same as the first. They wanted to know if we were still open, if we were out of meat, and if we would run out of meat.
I told our boys that we had better make an extra round of fresh ground beef, just in case the store got busy.
Customers began to trickle in, many we had never seen before and had trekked an hour or more. The store quickly filled with people. The influx of hoarders had hit, they were coming and going in droves. They began buying ground beef; 20, 40, 50 pounds or more at a time. Any and all pork that was merchandised in the store was quickly wiped out as fast as we could fill it. Steaks and discount bundles disappeared by the carload. It turns out that Big Box Stores and small local grocers in outlying areas had run completely out of meat by Friday evening. Desperate to find meat to get them through this crisis, customers came out in mass, families with each member holding arm loads of meat, and shopping baskets overflowing.
Our butchers made two more rounds of fresh ground beef and cut everything we had available. We made it through the day without running out of any product and had just enough to get through the second surge of shoppers who came in Sunday.
Monday morning Wisconsin River Meats was beginning to run short on product. Fortunately, our suppliers were able to provide us with meat for sausage and fresh ground beef Monday morning, which we immediately rushed to process ensuring we were able to keep our meat cases stocked for the record number of customers that continued to stream in throughout the day.
While the rush continued on with no signs of slowing, I reached out to our local livestock producers. I ordered double the usual head of beef and pork, which our wonderful local livestock producers were able to provide for us the next day.
Meanwhile, the hoarding of meats nationwide caused boxed beef, pork and chicken prices to explode, and retail prices in meat cases to soar.
As Monday the 16th progressed, we were still filling the store as fast as we could, barely keeping up with the onslaught of customers. We ran out of Pork Butts and Pork Loins in the store midmorning. We began to offer up our frozen overstock and promptly sold out. We had made plenty of Corned Beef for our usual St. Patrick’s Day rush, and had plenty to go around. Monday left our meat cases half empty, we had made over 500 pound of fresh ground beef which sold as fast as we filled it.
Fortunately, Tuesday the 17th was slaughter day; we were able to restock with fresh Beef and Pork from the previous week’s harvest. Wednesday our Butchers broke down the increased number of hogs and merchandised them all. Every bit of pork we had was merchandised and sold as soon as it hit the shelves. Any beef we were able to break down and merchandised simply vanished into shopping baskets and our meat cases were soon wiped clean.
All the while shoppers continued their frenzied purchasing; at the big box stores and big name grocers the supply chain broke. They were unable to order product in quantities to keep up with the demand brought on by the panic buying customers had participated in over the last several days. Their shelves and meat counters stood empty for days.
Wisconsin River Meats helped some of our neighboring independent grocers by supplying hundreds of pounds of beef and pork so they could have something to sell to their customers.
By the end of Tuesday it was apparent that we would soon run out of product again. We reached out once more to our local farmers and producers and secured another round of hogs to slaughter. We bought more hogs and scheduled a state inspector for a second slaughter date on Thursday.
Thanks to our local farmers rushing to supply us with hogs and our butchers working long hours to process them and cutting what beef we could, we managed to keep our cases full through the weekend. Though, we began to run low on just about everything on Sunday the 22nd.
The week of the 23rd remained busy. Once again, with credit to our local livestock producers, we ran double the amount of hogs and tripled the number of beef for slaughter. Our Butcher’s worked long and hard to keep our store’s needs and our customers supplied with meat for their families.
To get through the “Safer At Home” order, our customers purchased more in our store than ever before. They have purchased a record amount of Beef halves and quarters and also Pork wholes and halves. All locally sourced.
Unlike our competitors, we did not raise Pork prices a single penny, and did not have to raise Beef prices at all until March 23rd, saving our customers thousands of dollars.
This series of events during the March Pandemic scare illustrates the efficiency and value of a local food network and the resiliency of a vibrant local food chain. A healthy food chain benefits not only local consumers, but the local livestock producers/farmers, local processors and local retailers who work cohesively to bring food and products to the public.