FAIRBANK — Steve Roffman, who owns and manages the Fairbank Locker and Processing, at 104 Grove St. knows he’s not the only mom and pop processing operation that’s seen a “tremendous” upswing in business. The change came after a spate of COVID-19 outbreaks this spring forced some of the larger plants in the region to operate at half-capacity.
As the supply of meat fell, customers scrambled to buy out the grocery store, driving up prices.
“It has overwhelmed us in fact,” Roffman said. “I think there’s going to be a change in trends. People are going to start trusting local plants more.”
In some ways, they already have begun to do so.
“When (large processors) emptied out and went to half (capacity), demand was through the roof,” Roffman said. “I booked my calendar. We’re out to March of next year for processing. You can only book how many you can put in that cooler every week, 12 or 13 head,” referring to the cooler where he stores carcasses slaughtered for local ranchers. “I was going through the book calling all the people to pick it up. It’s like this to eternity for us.”
Demand is also high for the award-winning custom meat products, such as beef sticks, that Roffman makes from suppliers of the USDA boxed meat program.
“All the products here are made right here ourselves, beef sticks, bacon and bratwursts,” Roffman said.
His products have fetched over 80 awards from the Iowa Meat Processors Association conferences each February, averaging more than two awards a year in the 32 years since he opened the shop in 1988.
This past February he had the Grand Champion Beef Jerky Whole Muscle.
“That probably has more plaques than anything,” Roffman said, giving the award wall a once-over. “I have guys that come in with a $100 bill and buy beef jerky, $100 at a time. It’s sold per pound.” They go so quickly that it’s rare to have all 12 flavors at once. One recent day, he had only three flavors, cheddar cheese, sweet teriyaki and beef-and-pork sticks.
Roffman’s custom cuts are no secret to customer Adam Nielsen of Oelwein, 35, for instance, who has been patronizing the locker with his family since childhood.
It’s all good, according to IMPA.
“Through the years about everything we’ve made has won one time or the other. That’s what we do here. We don’t buy any products and resell them, no Oscar Meyer. Everything we sell here is our products, our flavors,” Roffman said.
Another popular choice is cottage bacon, a cut that comes from the shoulder which is called “butt bacon” and is leaner than traditional bacon from the belly. (The posterior cut is called the ham hock.)
Roffman has seen some changes in meat cutting since his first job at the Oelwein Fareway in 1978. He grew up around the Hygrade plant in Postville. Although he lived in town, he enjoyed spending time on his grandparents farm. He worked at the local grocery store, graduated with the Postville Class of 1977, and took a meatpacking program at what was then Western Iowa Tech in Sioux City.
He found the Oelwein Fareway through a newspaper classified ad.
“I went in, and they hired me right there.”
At the time, Fareway was located across from the bowling alley. They bought the meat on the carcass directly from the Dubuque Packing Company and stored it in lockers.
The boxed meat program retailers including himself participate in was developed in the late 1970s or early 1980s, he said.
MEAT INSPECTION HISTORY
In 1977, the Food Safety and Quality Service (FSQS) was created to perform meat and poultry grading, as well as inspection activities, rather than the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). In 1981, FSQS was reorganized and renamed the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), according to USDA FSIS.
An outbreak of foodborne illness in 1993 in the Pacific Northwest that sickened 400 people and caused four deaths led FSIS to issue a landmark rule focusing on the prevention and reduction of microbial pathogens on raw products that can cause illness.
In a move away from inspections based solely on tough, sight and smell, FSIS stepped up its research on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). HACCP clarifies that industry is accountable for producing safe food, and government is responsible for setting food safety standards, maintaining inspection and an enforcement program for noncompliance.
HACCP was implemented in all FSIS- and state-inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing establishments across the nation, between January 1997 and January 2000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recognized HACCP as an important factor in the overall decline in bacterial foodborne illnesses since 1996.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The building began as a creamery in 1903, he said pointing to an old newspaper clipping on his wall.
“It’s been different businesses. They told me at one time it was a laundromat.”
He bought it in 1988 and fixed it up to his standards.
As for the lockers, they serve as storage for customers.
“We’re custom processing,” Roffman said, indicating the locker with the carcasses. “That means all those cows back there, they’re stamped not-for-sale. They go back to the customers.”
“Most of the lockers I have are rented by Amish people,” he said, noting custom processing is gaining traction with other customers as the large processing plants have reduced capacity.
He revealed the IBP boxes in the other cooler.
It is all USDA-inspected.
Working with carcasses before the boxed meat program, he learned to use a knife. Butchering as a skill wasn’t uncommon until electric refrigeration came to the farm world, he noted.
“It takes years to develop the skill with the knife,” he said, noting gratitude for his six employees. “It did for me.” Retail hours also require patience.
“I work minimum, 50-hour weeks,” he said. “That’s just my store hours not counting if I come down any other time.”
“Every guy in the world wants to butcher a cow now,” Roffman said. “Well you know what, it wasn’t a bad idea in the first place.”