by Jim Boyle
Kevin Westholter almost went to school to become an electrical lineman.
Organizers of the Minnesota State Fair are thankful he chose meat cutting instead.
They awarded him a booth at Minnesota’s Great Get-Together on his first application in 1988, and his business — The Jerky Shoppe — has been there ever since.
When the fair opens Aug. 23, he and his crew will be there for the 24th consecutive year. He’s been in the meat-cutting business one way or another for nearly 30 years.
This Elk River High School graduate was told upon entering trade school in the 1980s that his interests matched up well with that of a career as an electrical lineman or a meat cutter.
“Electrical lineman made sense because of the outdoors aspect,” Westholter said. “Meat cutting appealed to me, too.”
He went with meat cutting. After graduation from a technical college he got a job at Rademacher’s Red Owl in Jordan, where he spent the next decade. It was a match made in beef heaven until he cut his hand and decided to give it up for a time.
He didn’t flee too far, though.
He began to sell meat equipment and got to know the big names in the trade. He also learned a lot about casings and seasonings. He did that for about a year and a half, he recalls.
After reconnecting with Dave Jurek, a classmate from the technical college they attended, the two began to consider going into the meat-cutting business together.
They made an offer on the old Anoka Meat Locker, and to their surprise the owner of 30 years agreed.
“He said: ‘It’s yours,’” Westholter recalled.
The two meat cutters got a loan and went into business for themselves.
A few years later, Westholter had his eye on Maple Grove. He eventually sold his half to Jurek and opened Maple Grove Meats in Maple Grove.
It has become quite a family affair for him and his wife, Carol; their three daughters, Dashia, Brielle and Brenn; and Kevin’s nephew Dusty.
“We had an incredible business there,” Westholter said.
They guaranteed their product. And when someone came back to say they didn’t care for it, they refunded it or replaced it with another product. And they threw in something free for their trouble of having to come back.
“How can you bad mouth that?” he said.
Westholter’s business is still incorporated as Maple Grove Meats, but after 10 years there he sold that location and opened a manufacturing plant in Becker. That lasted for a number of years until Westholter moved the business to Big Lake this past year. Its manufacturing and retail operations are housed in the same building as Lake Liquors along Highway 10 in Big Lake. “That (the retail operation) smooths things out over the year,” Westholter said.
Because the Westholters take their beef and sausage products out of state, their business has its own federal meat inspector on site from the United States Department of Agriculture.
The Jerky Shoppe sells Ready To Eat beef jerky, turkey jerky and meat snack products online, at the store and at fairs and shows.
“We choose only the best skinless and boneless portions of top round beef and turkey breast meat,” the firm’s website states. “This food quality standard makes our jerky and meat products a naturally low calorie and low fat snack.”
It was entrance into the Minnesota State Fair that really took his business to a new level, however. He had the rare privilege of being accepted upon his first application. Some go years without being accepted, Westholter said.
State Fair took business to new level
Their idea was simple. Wouldn’t it be cool to sell a giant beef stick at the Minnesota State Fair?
The Great Minnesota Get-Together is the second-largest fair in the United States, and the largest state fair in the U.S. in terms of average daily attendance. (The State Fair of Texas runs twice as long and is the largest by annual attendance).
“We meet a lot of people at the state fair,” Westholter said. “To have a couple hundred thousand people on the grounds is awesome. We have watched some of our customers grow up.”
The Minnesota State Fair has also been their ticket to the circuit of state fairs and shows. The Jerky Shoppe has done as many as six state fairs in one summer. It averages about 20 shows year. The National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colo. is another highlight of the year.
But the Minnesota State Fair is the granddaddy of them all. It accounts for 50 percent of his annual sales.