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For the love of meat

A sight customers will no longer see after April 18 -- Waidelich surrounded by beef and pork carcasses. 1 / 7
Jesse “A” Waidelich, second generation meat-cutter and owner of Deer’s Food Locker in Deer Park, slices up a ham. (Photos by Tom Lindfors)2 / 7
A wall of post-it notes outlines the day’s orders and reminds Waidelich his memory isn’t what it used to be. 3 / 7
The Deer’s Food Locker crew (from the left) Tracie Steinberger, Dan Eastman, Jesse Waidelich, Denver Curran, Barbara Coleman and Lynnette Waidelich in the background. 4 / 7
Jesse Waidelich plans to spend more time making sausage and riding his favorite mule, Ruby. 5 / 7
A whiteboard mounted above the doorway to the locker spells out what fresh cuts are available. 6 / 7
A rack in the cutting room displays a collection of well-worn ink stamps used to identify the various cuts of meat.7 / 7

On Monday, April 18, two things many local folks have come to love and take for granted in Deer Park changed forever.

Jesse “A” Waidelich, proprietor of Deer’s Food Locker since taking over the business from his father, Jesse “J” in 1978, will be turning 60 years young and the butchering clients at the locker will be handed off to other local butchering operations in the area.

To celebrate, Waidelich and company invited everyone to join in the celebration on April 16, including the unveiling of Jesse’s brat stand with food and drinks at the locker, followed by drinks and “fun with the old fart” in person until closing across the street at Deer’s Bar & Grill.

“Cutting meat, it’s kind of like farming, you walk into it and you can’t get out of it. It’s something that dad always did and I followed in his footsteps. The school of hard knocks he used to call it.” said Waidelich.

Jesse J. bought Deer’s Locker and moved to Deer Park on St. Patrick’s Day in 1952 after starting his career as a meat cutter at a Jack Spratt’s in Iowa. He left Spratt’s to work as a manager at Engbereg’s Locker in Cambridge, Minn. Within a few months of purchasing Deer’s, Waidelich moved his wife, Evelyn, and their four children from Cambridge into an apartment above the bar and operated the locker out of the basement of the building. Jesse A. was born while the family still lived in the apartment while his younger sister, Jody, was born after the family moved to a farm outside of town.

Jesse A. got seriously involved in the business after the death of his older brother, Douglas, in a car accident.

During his more than 38 years at the helm of Deer’s Food Locker, Waidelich has seen the business change considerably.

When his father initially started the business, it was a one-man operation serving mostly local farmers.

“Years ago, from here to the corner there were six farms. Now you can’t find one. Ninety percent of people used to raise and butcher their own cattle. But they only had little ice boxes at home, they didn’t have freezers. So dad built the large freezers and rented out lockers they could keep their meat in,” recalled Waidelich.

At one time, Deer’s had grown into the largest butchering operation in the region out producing even the factory operations. Waidelich Senior generated more volume because by then he had contracted with two farmers who would travel to local farms to butcher cattle and pigs on-site then delivered the meat back to the locker.

“Initially dad worked with two local butchers, farmers beside himself who would go out and butcher cattle and pigs on local farms and then deliver the meat to the locker. Tracie Steinberger, the gal who wraps for me, her grandpa Lorne was our main slaughterer years ago. He’d milk his cows in the morning and then go out and kill three or four beef a day and deliver the meat to the locker,” said Waidelich.

The other big change, one the junior Waidelich is an outspoken opponent of, is the amount of inspection his operation is subject to by the state.

“The government made 10 million new jobs, but they’re all inspectors to watch the working man work,” said a frustrated Waidelich.

He feels the constant inspection borders on harassment.

“Inspections are the biggest change. They drive me crazy. Nowadays I spend more time on paperwork than I do cutting meat. My dad used to get inspected once every month or two. Now I get inspected every day for two hours,” said Waidelich.

Waidelich has seen the face of his customers change, too. No longer do farmers make up the bulk of his customers. Today his business is split 50/50 between farmers and other retail customers, many of whom are walk-ins off the street.

“Dad used to know people and their locker numbers by heart. He didn’t need to look them up. Years ago, farmers had five, maybe six kids and they’d eat six beef a year. Nowadays there are less farmers and they don’t have that many kids. One milking parlor has replaced 10 cattle farms. Instead of four steaks in a package, customers today want one steak and two-pound roast. It’s a lot more tedious. Folks want steaks with fancy names when it’s really just a T-bone by another name. It drives me a little nuts being from the old school,” explained Waidelich.

There aren’t many hands-on businesses left out there more physically demanding than meat-cutting. Lugging hundreds of pounds of carcasses a week and nicking fingers on saw blades all in a refrigerated environment takes its toll over the years, especially if you’ve been doing it since you were 13 years old. It has taken its toll on Waidelich and his enthusiasm for that part of the business.

“Today, in an average week, we do 20 beef and 10 hogs a week. Back in dad’s day, he did maybe 12 beef a week, but he had a lot smaller cooler. He’d cut six days a week and stay open until 6 p.m. on Saturdays. I knock off at noon on Saturday and I don’t cut on Saturdays. I can only cut legally 8-10 hours a day otherwise it means more paperwork for the inspectors. The cutting room’s 50 degrees, the freezer’s 40 degrees and that’s hard on the joints. I’m just getting tired. My bones are wore out, my knees are shot. Two hernias, a shoulder that’s been fixed once and will probably need to be fixed again and I’ll be 60 this week. Life’s getting too short. I’m losing too many friends and relatives and money doesn’t’ mean as much as it once did. It’s time for a change,” said a tired but smiling Waidelich.

In 1976, just out of high school, Waidelich attended a six-month meat-cutting program in Fennimore where he learned among other things, how to make sausage. All these years later his love for sausage-making has stuck with him.

“My goal is to just make my sausage. Making sausage is fun because you can add different things, like my jalapeno bratwurst. I call them my Packer brats filled with jalapeno and cheddar cheese. I make a pretty good summer sausage, too, and I make all the same sausages with venison in the fall, deer brats and deer bacon. I want to see if I can roll with the big boys making sausage, that’s my goal. I’m going to put a little brat stand out front Fridays and Saturdays and sell my brats, have a different flavor every week and see if people get hooked on them,” said Waidelich.

Waidelich already has a record hot dog on his resume.

“In 2006, I made a hot dog over 120 feet long. Gregory’s Bakery from St. Paul came in to make the bun. We used a pizza oven. It took four hours to feed the bun through the oven. That night it took another four hours to feed the hot dog through. We had to keep it on ice overnight until the Guinness Record Book people came the next day. It was a fun challenge,” recalled Waidelich.

Waidelich’s plan to concentrate on making sausage is his retirement plan. Hopefully he’ll be able to still do what he enjoys but without the all the heavy lifting and long hours, leaving him with more time to fish and ride Ruby, his mule.

“Growing up on the farm we had 35 horses, 11 buffalo and a llama. The buffalo on the wall out front, that’s Bernie. Ruby, my mule, is 10 years old. I raised her from a colt. She’s part of my plans if my knees can hold up. Ruby’s buggy trained and I’ve got two buggies. You’ll probably see me more in the buggies than on her back,” said Waidelich.

Waidelich’s son, Adam, and twin daughters Holly and Heather all live within driving distance of home, something for which Waidelich plans on taking full advantage.

“I’ll have eight grandchildren soon and it looks like I’ll have more time for my grandchildren than I ever did for my kids because I was always working,” said Waidelich.

“It was always our goal, my wife and I, for our kids not to have to work as hard as we worked. It’s family pride that your children have a better life than you did. Adam’s a computer design engineer in Milltown. He talks about wanting to come back, but we keep pushing him away, not like my dad pulling me into the business. I told him, if my sausage business survives, and he wants to run it, I’ll will it all to him,” said Waidelich.

Looking back, one of Waidelich’s favorite parts of the business just as it was his dad’s, is meeting people.

“Best part of job, meeting all the different people, different cultures, different quirks. I’ve met people, got postcards from people all over the world. I’m always happy to give students a tour, meet with FFA and 4-H kids. Like my dad, I pretty much know everybody in town by name. It’s not the like the cities where you don’t know your neighbor,” said Waidelich.

As Waidelich prepares to step back from his lifelong business, he’s grateful for all his customers.

“I don’t really have a lot of hobbies, this is my hobby. I catered to farmers because that was my dad’s business. That’s what kept my dad going. But today, instead of it being 100 farmers, it’s only 30. I thank all the farmers for the business they gave me all those years, but I can’t keep doing it. I’ve told my competitors that I’m going to be sending them clients that I care about. I’m going to keep doing my ham, bacon and sausage, and deer during the season. I’ll still need a crew of at least four people. Lugging beef’s not a money-maker, but It’s a good way to meet farmers,” said Waidelich.

On Monday, April 18, on his 60th birthday, Jesse A. Waidelich lugged his last side of beef, hopefully still with all his fingers and enough spring left in his knees to enjoy his semi-retirement.

“My wife’s half the business. She does all the books, answers the phone and talks to all the people, but she also has her own quilt business across the street. Now she’ll be over there instead of over here. We’ll have both sides of the street covered. I guess you could say I’m semi-retiring, that’s what I call it. I’ll have a brat stand out front and plan to be around for a few more years. It’s been a good living but a hard life,” said Waidelich.