In less than two years of ownership, Mike and Donna Uhl have brought a dramatic revitalization to Allen Meat Processing, increasing production, creating jobs in the community and expanding the services offered to the area.
And they’ve done it all during a pandemic that has left so many other small businesses across the nation shuttered.
The Uhls purchased Allen Meat Processing in July 2019, and at the time there was only Mike Uhl and one other full-time employee on staff. While they brought on another part-time team member to assist with racking meat, by November 2019, they had reached their capacity to fill customer demand.
And then, four months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and large meatpacking plants began to close down, causing a shortage both in grocery store products and in places for cattle producers to have their meat processed. It was left up to small meat lockers like Allen Meat Processing to pick up the slack.
“It was nuts. We had people calling every day,” Mike said. “We scheduled four months in three days. It was crazy. It filled us up and we’re still there.”
Some of the people who called Allen Meat Processing had no prior connections with the Uhls or their shop and came from as far away as Concordia, Wichita and Kansas City.
While business was good for the Uhls, it became clear that they could do so much more. But in order to expand, they would need some help.
Last summer, Lyon County Commissioner and Allen Meat Processing customer Scott Briggs connected the Uhls with Rob Gilligan, director of Ignite Emporia, to help them explore resources that would provide assistance with their expansion effort.
Together, they identified the Securing Local Foods Grant, which the state of Kansas provided to meat processing facilities, food processors, food banks, local direct-to-consumer producers and retail outlets utilizing federal funds from the CARES Act.
While the application process was tedious and at times confusing, the Uhls — with Gilligan’s assistance — sent in all the necessary paperwork in August and received the funds on Oct. 28. Their original intention was to expand their space, but when they learned that all of the money had to be spent and in use by Dec. 30, they realized they would have to focus their attention on more immediate opportunities.
“The next morning I woke up and just started calling people that had equipment and saying, ‘Do you have this? This is what I want,’” Donna said.
The Uhls used the funding from the grant to purchase new equipment to replace the equipment that had come with the processing shop when they purchased it, most of which was old, inefficient, difficult to care for and, in some cases, dangerous.
They bought a new meat grinder from Switzerland that grinds a half of beef in five minutes — as opposed to 40 — and that is significantly safer for the person operating it.
To replace the old saw that had been in use since 1950, the Uhls purchased a new one that is double the size of the previous one, safer and more orderly.
“We’ve replaced everything and it’s been nice because you don’t have to work on things all the time,” Mike said.
The improved machinery allowed the Uhls to increase their output from 11 or 12 beefs per week to 12 to 14 beefs per week.
To continue filling the influx of orders brought in by the pandemic, the Uhls realized they needed to grow their staff. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Allen Meat Processing has gone from one full-time employee to seven, all of whom are from the Allen area. Additionally, a local high school student comes in to work part-time as well.
“I love that everybody that works for us is from here,” Donna said. “We’re talking local. They’re all local. It’s like we’re a family.”
But as enhancements are made throughout the plant, new obstacles are revealed. The expansion of staff and technology have allowed for higher volumes of product, but the production speed is limited by other concerns, primarily hanging cooler space.
Most beef cannot just be killed and processed immediately. It has to hang for two weeks and age before being processed.
“We have a limitation based on our hanging cooler,” Donna said. “ … If we had that extra cooler, which we’re hopefully going to get, we’re planning on doing a lot more.”
Expanding the Allen Meat Processing building to install another hanging cooler is the next step in the process, and once that is accomplished, the Uhls can push their business to the next level. One goal, in particular, is to pass the state inspection needed to provide meat to local restaurants.
They have also put up new walls and are working on putting in new flooring to give the place a newer, more welcoming ambiance.
But more than simply advancing the success of their own business, the Uhls see an opportunity to play a part in the reinvigoration of the Allen community. Along with creating several new jobs for area individuals, the Uhls have opened a convenience store with tables and chairs in the front of their shop where people can gather and have easy access to food right in their own community.
“This was a food desert. There was no access to food in this region without having to drive 20 miles to Emporia or 25 miles to Council Grove or Osage City,” Gilligan explained. “Now they’re able to serve a portion of that and then hopefully the idea is they’ll be able to grow with their plans to expand in the future.”
The Uhls have made it a priority to sell local products out of their convenience store, including Alma cheese, Fanestils sandwiches, jerky from Schrockbier Old Smokehouse and Black Dog Salsa. They have also started working with the local farmers market, hosting it in the parking lot of Allen Meat Processing.
“We have all kinds of opportunities that have come up here and I still see us growing and growing,” Donna said.
Gilligan said that the growth that Allen Meat Processing has seen — in large part as a result of the Securing Local Food Systems grant — shows what can happen when the government invests meaningfully in small businesses.
“It’s a real success story,” Gilligan said. “I really hope the state, as they go back and look at these, that’s a one-time grant in a small business. You could probably put a number on it, but think about the fact that they’ve quadrupled the number of employees in 12 months, they’ve doubled and tripled the production that they’re providing to the community. … This is a true story of local entrepreneurs reinvesting in our community.”