Hillsboro meat processor reopens with new ownership

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
“Give us a try, and we will work hard to give you the quality you deserve,” is the motto for Hillsboro’s meat-processing company under new ownership.

Steve Walker of Hillsboro recently purchased the former Hillsboro Lockers facility and equipment on S. Ash and said he plans to live up to his motto.

“That means to me that I want to give my customer a quality product,” Walker said about the business motto he coined.

“So when it leaves here, the customer can go home, cook it up, eat it and enjoy it. And they’ll be happy and satisfied. That’s what I want to see.”

Walker will offer processing, curing and smoking, all done on the premises. His services include deer processing and custom butchering. Refrigerated lockers will still be available to rent for meat storage, and Walker plans to eventually offer fresh-meat selections in a refrigerated case in the front lobby.

If a customer comes in looking for cheap products, Walker said he’s fine if they walk right back out the door without buying anything.

“Today, you talk to people and they want quality,” he said. “They don’t want to buy a car and have it break down ten days later. So why would you want to buy a steak and have it taste like shoe leather?”

The doors officially opened on Oct. 25. Hours of operation are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to noon, Saturday.

After 26 years working at his current job as a welder with Agco in Hesston, Walker was ready to make a career change.

In the past, he was an avid fan of the locker’s hickory-wood smoked sausage made on the premises. Discovering the local locker business was for sale and appreciating the sausage, he decided to purchase the lockers in late September.

“When I found out the previous owners were going to give it up, I thought it was a sad state of affairs to let all this go down the drain,” Walker said.

“This sausage is the only hickory-wood smoked sausage available anywhere around this area. All the other sausage you eat has liquid smoke in it. That’s what gives it its flavor. It’s the same with turkeys and other meats like that-they inject liquid smoke in there, and then cook them.”

While closed for remodeling, Walker said he met customers from Texas and Minnesota, who have stopped by in hopes of purchasing their favorite sausage from the lockers.

But sausage is not the only product to be smoked at the lockers.

“Everything we’re going to have here is all going to be hickory-wood smoked-all the way through,” Walker said.

“Sausage, turkey, pork chops-you name it-it’s all going to be hickory-wood smoked. And the beef jerky is something else to try here, too. It’s marinated for approximately five days and then also hickory-wood smoked.”

Wife Jane, who works for Hospira in McPherson, will be called on to help when needed at the lockers. Married since 1982, the couple have three daughters, who have all graduated from Hillsboro High School.

Walker said he hopes to be finished with his current job by the first of the year, to devote full-time efforts to his new business.

One of the first steps after signing on the dotted line was remodeling the facility he purchased. A new ceiling was installed in the front area, and tan paint was applied to the walls to brighten the interior.

The next step in the process of preparing to open for business was inspections. The first inspection gave Walker a better picture of what else needs to be done to raise the bar in his locker business.

“We found out that since I was going to change the name, and they had closed the place, we had to bring it up to 2004 standards,” Walker said.

“So what it comes down to is everything’s going to be up to current standards of inspection when we open. We’ve had to come in and paint and put doors on and put new motors in. You just name it, and we’ve had to do it.”

Walker said he also realizes he needs to educate the public about burying the past reputation of the local locker.

“The Hillsboro Locker, the way I understand it, has kind of had a bad name for a few years,” Walker said.

“That’s before the last two owners. There were problems way back. And the previous two owners have tried to run it by having somebody working here while they were working someplace else. You can’t do that. If you’re going to be an owner, you’ve got to be there so the people see you.”

Friend Jim May has been a butcher for the locker in the past and is staying on as main butcher. Jeff Chamberlain will also help with the butchering. And Walker plans to learn the butchering trade as time allows-giving him the opportunity to offer the community three full-time employees working on the premises.

In addition to running his new operation, Walker said he is determined to promote his products.

“My main job is going to be running the place and getting the message out about our sausage,” he said.

In preparation for extending his customer base, he is working with stores in the Newton area and other area outlets to stock his meats and sausage.

“And I’m planning to go to different stores to set up little test stands to let people try the sausage,” Walker said. “Once they taste it, it has a flavor all its own. You can’t match it.”

As far as he knows, Walker said the only other lockers actually processing deer within easy traveling distance are in Canton, Peabody and McPherson.

Basically cutting and wrapping a deer can be done within a week, May said.

“But it depends on what all you have done with it. Like making summer sausage out of it-that takes longer.”

The facility is set up to butcher once a week, on Mondays. An inspector is always on site whenever butchering takes place at the lockers. Spot inspections and are conducted, too.

“With two people, you can do five hogs and four beef a week easy enough,” May said. “And that’s just with two people so far.”

The lockers for rent will hold anywhere from 200 pounds of meat to 1,000 pounds.

“It used to be nobody ever had a deep freeze, so the only place you could store large amounts of meat was in a locker like this,” Walker said.

“A locker business today is still basically the same thing. You still process meat and a lot of times, people still rent lockers. We store the meat right in here until they’re ready to take it home and fill their deep freeze.”

Walker emphasized he’s offering custom butchering in his new operation.

“Whoever comes in and wants something done, they can specify how they want their meat cut,” he said.

“If they want two T-bones to a package and 2 1/2 inches thick, it’s all custom done. We just basically do what the customer wants. We’ll process deer, cattle hogs, sheep and goats. We smoke, we cure, we custom process, and we rent locker space.”

Is it unfair to compare packaged meat at chain grocery stores with local processed meat?

“No,” Walker said. “The truth of the matter is-what we’re going to offer here is locally grown beef and pork that they know maybe came from one of their friends in this area. We want to know where the beef and hogs come from so we know what quality of meat we’re getting.”

For the future, Walker said he is looking forward to installing a refrigerator case in the front area so customers can come in to purchase fresh meat.

“It won’t have a ton of stuff, like if you go to the big grocery stores where you can buy about anything you want,” he said.

“We’re just going to have the basics-smoked ham slices, hamburger, steaks, bacon, stuff like that-the stuff that people actually use every day.”

Walker said he was looking forward to growing his business and offering quality to his customers. His goal is to change preconceived notions about the lockers and build a business with a solid reputation.

“I’d like to see-when they go to their neighbor’s house to eat-they know what they’re eating came from our place, and it tastes good,” Walker said. “When I say, ‘Walker’s Quality Meat,’ that’s what I mean. I want them to have quality.”

For more information, call Walker at 947-5530 or 620-381-1016.)

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