It all started with a small grocery store in St. Joseph, Mich. But 30 years later, Zick’s Specialty Meats has become a head-turning dynamo in the nation’s small meat processor community.
The enterprise run by Chief Executive Officer Garry Zick is a combination of processing services, custom and private labeling, retail store, mail order sales, and an exotic meat snack line called Buffalo Bob’s Snack Foods. Each of these business segments are operated with flair and zest.
The 10,000-square-foot meat processing plant is the mainstay at the company’s new location in Berrien Springs, Mich., about 30 minutes from South Bend, Ind.
Zick’s is an industry standout due in part to an owner committed to coming up with new and exciting ways to tickle the taste buds of his customers, all while preserving generations-old and new recipes, many that have been created by sausage maker Terry Lorenz.
Perhaps a few examples would help explain what seems like a dichotomy:
Zick’s offers over 30 flavors of snack sticks and jerky, and another 30 kinds of bacon, sausages and other smoked meats. The variety of protein sources are mind-boggling. Of course, there are the beef and pork snack items. But then take a quick look at the website, zicksmeats.com, where visitors are introduced to beef and pork treats mixed with alligator, buffalo, elk, duck, venison, wild boar, antelope, caribou and even kangaroo.
Normally hard-to-find specialties like smoked linguica with red wine, authentic Landjaeger, and other Old World type items can be found among the bratwurst, German, Italian and Polish sausages. The more standard summer sausages, hot dogs, and salamis are also available.
Zick reminisced about his childhood working in the family grocery store in St. Joseph where, from the age of 7, he helped out sorting bottles and doing odd jobs.
“The store had a heavy emphasis on meats, doing deer processing, catering and making sausage. We had a sausage maker named Max Wolf who came from Germany,” he said. “I began helping him out, never realizing that I was getting an education in meat science. When I learned some tasks and was doing them right, he moved me into other aspects of making sausage and smoking meats, dried and fermented items.”
After attending Anderson College where he studied business, Garry and his wife Pat joined the family business. However, in 1981, because of injuries from his father’s 1969 airplane accident, the grocery store was sold. Zick continued to work for the new owners but was on the lookout for a chance to venture out on his own. Finally, in 1983 the owner of a locker plant wanted to sell his business, located about 15 miles away in Berrien Springs.
“I really didn’t have the money and interest rates were hovering at close to 20%,” he reflected. “The owner agreed to help finance it himself.
“We took out the lockers which were no longer in vogue and turned that space into a sausage kitchen. One of the products that interested me was Slim Jims and it inspired me to make something similar. I developed what we called Zick’s Sticks, a shelf-stable meat snack stick. When I look at a meat block, I try to imagine how many units of a product I could get out of it.”
Zick and his dad Harry liked to hunt and fish and their favorite place to buy gear was Cabela’s. In 1994, Harry was on the phone with Cabela’s ordering some fishing supplies. Before he hung up, Zick asked the lady he was ordering from a question.
“I asked her who could I talk to about my jerky and snack sticks and she gave me a name,” he recalled. “I sent them some samples in hopes they would consider selling it. That was my ‘blue sky’ business planning kicking in. After 2 ½ weeks, I heard nothing back and thought they just ate the free jerky. Then the phone rang, and Cabela’s asked me to send some more samples. Again, I thought they just wanted some free meat snacks.
“I asked why they wanted more samples and they said it was to take pictures of them. The representative said that the Cabela brothers had gone north on a hunting trip and took the samples in the refrigerator with them. They apparently returned with the wrappers and said they wanted to feature my beef and buffalo products in their catalog.”
In the ensuing years, Cabela’s wanted more of Zick’s sticks and similar meat snack items and the line was expanded to include other exotic meats. For Zick, the time had arrived to crank up production. The two brick smokehouses he previously needed were put on hold so he could purchase modern thermal processing equipment, the latest of which was a Kerres smokehouse he once only dreamed about.
Then he added a KG Wetter angle mixer grinder to help perfect his products further.
“I knew it was time for modern packaging as well and we obtained VC999 rollstock equipment,” he said. “My son Garrett came on as the technical guy, new products manager and is our vice president. My daughter Katie (Tondy) began handling our mail order and phone orders, while another daughter Sarah (Sprung) took over the retail end and social media, as well as our website. My wife Patricia once worked at the store but has fulfilled her dream of being a stay-at-home mom. My mother Shirley Zick is now 86 years old, but still comes in a few days a week to tackle our bookwork and accounts. We have 13 employees including family.”
Operated under USDA inspection, Zick’s does a booming mail order trade. Most items are available in 8-oz and 1-lb packages. There is an $8 charge for shipping, unless the order totals $35 or more. At that range, the shipping is free to the customer.
The family business sells no meat items that are not produced in their plant and believes that product consistency using natural spices and the highest quality meats is paramount. In 2015, Cabela’s parted ways as the meat snack part of the business was growing fast.
“It was a wonderful customer to have during those years,” Zick said. “We learned a lot having the opportunity to work with a first-class company.”
Sportsmen can find a dream-come-true for their wild game at Zick’s. Although the shop only accepts trimmed meats from hunters, they promote those special items like finished venison hams, smoked sausages and jerky and they also cure and smoke wild turkeys. Zick’s even has its own wild game seasoning for sale.
For those wanting their meats privately labeled to market for themselves, the company features snack stick and chopped and formed jerky production. Sausage chub and cheese gift boxes are available during holiday periods.
Zick’s does a tremendous trade in what they call “Ends & Pieces” marketing. They sell 29 flavors of gluten-free bite-sized meat snacks in both jerky and meat snack stick formats. Today about 10% of the company’s sales are from its 800-square-foot retail store and mail order, another 10% is generated from custom processing and a hefty 25% is the result of private labeling and co-packing. The balance is attributable to the firm’s Buffalo Bob’s snack line-up.
Zick, now 65, thanks his many equipment suppliers for their assistance over the years.
“In earlier years, I used to go to the AMI Show in Chicago to look at equipment and get ideas,” he said. “Most of it was out of my league, but I sure go a lot of help and vision from exhibitors who talked about the options their equipment could provide.”
Zick has also served on the board of directors for the Michigan Meat Association and feels there is a great network of small processors who are open to sharing with each other.
When asked about any life lessons learned during the development and growth of his company, Zick responded quickly.
“Two things: First and most importantly, stay close to your employees and treat them like family. Some have been with us for 30 years. You must invest in their lives and to do that you become more of a servant than a boss. And secondly, stick with and continue to do business with those companies that helped you the most when you needed help.
“I would say that things don’t just happen,” said Zick. There was some divine intervention to allow our business to grow and follow the right track.”