Clarion Locker: ‘Doing big things’
Clarion Locker continues to grow
CLARION — Manie and Elmarie Nel, owners of the Clarion Locker are practically a world away from their home country of South Africa. They put in a lot of time and effort into running their business. And they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I love living in small town Iowa,” Elmarie Nel said. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Before opening the Clarion Locker, the Nels owned and operated a locker in Ventura. When they outgrew that business, they sold it and purchased the Clarion Locker in 2009.
“The locker had been closed down for five years,” she said. “We reopened it, remodeled it. Actually, we only have two pieces of the original equipment left. We have upgraded and updated everything.”
The fact the Nels didn’t have a smoker at their previous plant in Ventura is a main reason why they made the move to Clarion.
“At our previous locker we couldn’t smoke, so we had to outsource all of our curing and smoking,” Elmarie Nel said. “We couldn’t make snack sticks, jerky; we couldn’t do our own bacon or hams. We needed a bigger facility and there was no space to add on and we wanted to grow.”
When they came to the facility in Clarion, Nel said they saw all sorts of possibilities and since then have continued to grow on those opportunities.
“It was very risky, but sometimes you have to take those risks or you will always wonder if you should have,” she said, adding they were somewhat prepared due to their market research and business plan. “We knew we had a lot of work ahead of us.”
Ninety-percent of the business at the Clarion Locker is custom slaughter, Nel said.
“This is where you buy half or a quarter of a live animal from a producer, then we process it to your custom specifications,” she said.
What is available at the Clarion Locker?
“Anything that is meat,” she said. “We butcher everything that is hooved. We don’t do any poultry, but we do have Amish chicken available because there is a demand for it. We do ground beef, patties, smoked hams, bacon, snack sticks, jerky and one of the newest things we have put on the market is braunschweiger. We have something for everybody. Either it’s a snack or you want to grill for the weekend. There are a lot of different items.”
Many of their items are award winning products.
“Brats are the biggest thing,” she said. “Everybody likes our brats. They are award winning brats. We have taken first place four years in a row at the Iowa State Fair.”
Consistency, Nel said, is the key.
“To make a product and having it succeed, it has to be consistent. You have to make it the same way each time to keep up with that quality,” she said. “We are very proud of our brats.”
The Nels have also received reserve champion ham at the Iowa State Fair as well as reserve grand champion for their meat snack sticks.
“We offer award-winning products,” she said. “That is great for a small locker that has been here for 10 years. We have created our own recipes. We are here, in the locker every day.”
If you have had a pork patty in the last few years at the Iowa State Fair, there’s a chance it came from the Clarion Locker.
“We supplied 6,000 pork patties to the Iowa State Fair in the past,” she said.
Keeping up with the
Nel said if they are going to stay in the meat locker business, it is a must that they be adaptable.
“If you don’t adapt with the industry, you will be left behind,” she said. “You have to upgrade.”
New machinery during the past 10 years has been their biggest investment.
“To help save labor, we had to buy new machinery,” she said. “For us, it was to get into the market of snack sticks and those specialty items that people are liking.”
Nel said when they opened up the Clarion Locker, they were a custom plant. In 2013, they converted over to a state inspected plant.
“Not every locker can sell to the public, or to a gas station, grocery store or restaurant, you have to be state inspected,” she said.
With that licensing, came a store front where many of their items are available for purchase.
“We are growing so much,” she said. “We have people from Des Moines and Ames in addition to locally that come here to buy our products.”
To help meet that growth, the Nels are expanding their retail section and hope to have it completed in time for their customer appreciation day slated for the end of April.
The Clarion Locker is also HACCP certified, (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) Nel said.
“It’s the highest ranking of food safety that you can get,” she said. “We actually gone and have taken classes and we send our employees to continuing ed classes at the ISU meat lab.”
Nel said she has also recently become a labeling specialist.
“Before I can make a label for the product, you have to know the allergens,” she said. “What can be put in the product. There are restrictions. I am certified in that so that I know when I work with a third party and they want to add all of this stuff, they can’t. There are regulations. A lot of people these days have food allergies. It is a very important part.”
Third party labeling is also a service provided from the Clarion Locker.
“You raise the beef, you have us process it, package it and we put your sticker on it,” she said. “Our establishment number will be on it, but it’s their product. It’s their label. We are doing the packaging for them.”
Growth within in the
Small town lockers are growing in popularity, Nel believes is the growing demand of consumers wanting to know where their food comes from and eating locally.
“I think people are going back to the basics,” she said. “They want a clean label. People are starting to become more educated. People are getting more health conscience — they want the protein meat.”
Some lockers, however, Nel said seem to be going to the wayside, due mostly to the owners reaching retirement age and/or not finding qualified employees.
“That’s our biggest problem — finding skilled, able workers,” she said.
Also, owning and operating a meat locker is no easy task.
“When you own it yourself, you know you are going to have to put a lot of work into it yourself,” she said. “As a small business owner, you wear so many different hats from running the business, cutting the meat, doing your own bookwork. It gets hard, you want to work on your growth, but you are also so busy with what you are doing, sometimes you have to step back.”
Nel said they currently have eight employees.
“We are blessed to have them,” she said. “We work as a close knit family. We have to because it is physically demanding.”
Continued progress for the Clarion Locker
In addition to their storefront expansion, the Nels have updated all of their refrigeration, which happened just last year and they have also installed new LED lighting and other things to help save energy.
“When we bought this everything was outdated,” she said. “By updating our coolers and our refrigerators, we are trying to get more modern. In the next couple of months we will be installing an incinerator. In a plant like this, when you are working as a small business, you have to sometimes prioritize.”
Nel added they have been consistently upgrading for the last 10 years.
“If you don’t, your place will be run down and you will not pass inspection, and also it’s to stay up to code,” she said. “We are making things you are going to eat. You want it clean and you want it to be the best.”
Another plan for the Nels’ is to offer a “lunch box.”
“With our expansion, and having a full smoker, we have a lot of co-op workers and farmers with limited food choices in town, so what we are going to do, with our expansion, we are going to offer lunch,” she said. “Just a basic menu. One item a day. Maybe a brat sandwich, or smoked chop on a stick and potato salad. It will be in a box and you just take it.”
The lunch box offering, Nel said should be available next year.
One special offering the Clarion Locker has become known for, according to Nel, is their “March Madness Hog Sale.”
“That is our big sale of the year,” she said.
They offer a half hog for $225 or a whole hog for $420.
“We work with all of our local producers,” she said. “People get excited about that. People that may not normally buy from a locker get to and they get a half or whole hog all freezer ready.”
Nel said they are expecting to slaughter 300 hogs.
“So, if you think they’re going to be all sold in halves, that is 600 people that are getting it,” she said. “Every year we have been growing and growing. Even some other lockers around us have taken our idea and gone with it.”
The main reason the Nels decided to start offering this sale is due to the fact that February, March and April are a slow time for the meat locker business and helps to keep hours available for their employees.
Staying innovative in the meat locker business is what is keeping the Clarion Locker alive.
“For a small town locker, we have done some big things,” she said.