Growth at Conger Meat Market leads to yet another expansion

Published 8:00 am Monday, February 26, 2024

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By Kim Gooden for the Tribune

CONGER — When Darcy and Jeremy Johnson purchased Conger Meat Market in 2004 it had been in the same family and the same location since 1935.

The Johnsons continued to operate the business in that location until 2017 when they moved into their new facility — the renovated Conger creamery building — right next door. The move doubled the space they had been working in.

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“We built it as big as we could afford at the time,” Jeremy said.

As happy as they were to have the extra space, they had barely finished it when the Mansfield and Manchester meat markets closed, sending many livestock producers their way with animals to butcher and process.

“We were already too small and we weren’t even a year into it,” Jeremy recalled.

The business continued to grow and, within four years, sales were three times higher than they had been when they moved into the new facility.

They needed more space for their growing business.

Having already taken on a great deal of debt, it took some time for them to come up with a plan for what they needed to accomplish their goals, and then to secure the grants and financing to move forward with another expansion.

The second expansion, which began in May of 2023, increased the size of their business to almost 8,000 square feet. It gave them more capacity, more processing space for making jerky, sausage and snack sticks, and more equipment space.

They added a huge smoker with the capacity to make 1,000 pounds of jerky per day, and a machine to package their products.

“We call that machine the Ferrari,” Jeremy said. “Because it cost as much as a Ferrari.”

Even though they’ve only had the packaging machine since October, it has already made Jeremy’s life much less stressful.

“We used to have trouble with the old one every day,” he said. “The new one never misses a beat.”

They also added an extra cooler and freezer because the ones they had were extremely full. Now they have one just for retail, one just for beef and one for pork.

“We could never have gotten any of that [new equipment] in the existing space,” Jeremy said. “Some of it barely fit in with the new overhead door.”

Much of the equipment in the new addition was formerly in the space created by the first renovation and it was getting insanely crowded in there, according to Jeremy.

“People ask us, ‘How did you get everything in that tiny space before?’” Darcy added.

The expansion has de-cluttered the space they work in, and the cooler has allowed them to buy pallets of meat, which saves them a lot of money on the meat they buy.

“We are able to buy in larger volumes and bulk now,” Jeremy said. “And having an overhead door and forklift make it so much easier.”

Since they were at the maximum of what they could hold in the butchering part of the business, there was no way to keep growing the business that way.

They needed to diversify.

So they started doing private labeling, which is making products for other people and businesses and putting their label on the product.

“We’ve marinated chicken breasts and smoked bones for other companies, and taken on a lot of outside work,” Jeremy said.

“More and more local producers want summer sausage sticks made with their label and their packaging, and with the new expansion we are able to do that now,” Darcy said.

Jeremy said the private label business was one of the main reasons for the new addition.

“It gives us a lot of opportunities to grow,” Jeremy said. “I’ve had people contact me for snack sticks. I’ve had several jerky people contact us.

“I don’t know which way we’ll end up going, but I think it will be the jerky business. It’s what we’re going after.”

Jerky production is what the extra space and new equipment in the recent expansion will allow them to do.

It will also allow them to grow their business two or three times what it is now.

But private labeling for others is not their only goal.

“Hopefully by February we’ll be selling jerky in convenience stores under the Conger Meat Market brand,” Jeremy said.

People often wonder how they make connections with people who want them to do something.

“To be honest, we just say yes when people contact us,” he said.

Darcy agreed. “We say yes to everything.”

And word spreads fast.

With the expansion, they have added two more employees and expect to add two more within six months.

“Packaging jerky is an all-day job,” Jeremy said. “We have lots of people who move around throughout the day, but we’re going to need a couple who are just dedicated to that.”

Fortunately for the Johnsons, they don’t have the turnover in staff that a lot of places do.

“We’ve never been without staff,” Darcy said. “We have a great team.”

They are also appreciative of the farmers they work with.

“I tell people that because of where we live, we are surrounded by successful farmers — cattlemen and pork producers — that make our job easy,” Darcy said. “They are always selling, so we always have work. Our processing schedule stays full so we’ve been very lucky to keep going.”

It’s been a busy five years for the Johnsons, who opened a store in Albert Lea to sell their products at the same time as they moved into their new location in Conger, and now they’ve completed a second expansion.

“With all the growth, we’ve been chasing our tails for five years,” Jeremy said.

While they hope the business continues to grow, both Johnsons agree that this will be their final expansion.

“Any further expansion will be up to someone else,” they said.

In the meantime, they are making plans and looking forward to celebrating 20 years in business in April of 2024.