GUILFORD, Maine — Four generations of the Herring family have survived economic valleys and a competitive market, family members say, by providing their customers with the freshest, hand-cut meat they can, whether it’s the locally raised beef many crave or the Western beef others prefer.
While other businesses in the region have closed or reduced their work forces, Herring Bros. Inc., a slaughterhouse, smokehouse, meat market and processing facility located on Route 15, has expanded its building and its employment.
Innovation and hard work have been key to the family’s success. It also helps that family members are so in-tune with each other that during a recent interview they easily finished each other’s sentences.
“It’s a real competitive business,” Tom Gilbert, company vice president, said. “In this little community, it’s one dollar and everybody’s after it.” If you treat customers the same way you would expect to be treated, then the payoff will be their loyalty, he noted.
That loyalty is evident from the business’ growth since Charles Herring opened a small slaughterhouse in 1920 to serve loggers who came down the Piscataquis River. The business grew in 1940 when his sons, Malcolm Herring and the late Loren Herring, added a retail meat market.
In 1987, Malcolm Herring’s daughter, Andrea, and her husband, Tom Gilbert, who had been employed at Herring Bros. Inc. since he was a teenager, and Loren Herring’s son, Stephen Herring, took over the business. Stephen Herring later left the business and the Gilberts were joined by their children Ellie Patterson, who handles the finances, and Trey Gilbert, who is responsible for product development. Under their ownership, the business expanded more.
Tom Gilbert believes part of the company’s success has been because of the ideas conceived by the younger generations. “We listened to them,” he said.
“Years ago, all we did at Herring Brothers was kill a cow, slaughter a cow, bone a cow, and sell it to Kirschner-Jordan,” Gilbert said. “When they went out of business, we stood here and said what do we do? What do we do know?”
He and the younger employees talked about the future of the business and from that discussion, changes were implemented. He said the company moved the meat market into a new facility separate from the slaughterhouse, began to do more custom processing for customers, installed a smoker, added a couple more employees, and created a niche market for marinated meats and Wicked Good Beef Jerky, which are the brainchild of Trey Gilbert.
“I listened. I didn’t say this is all I know. I changed with the times,” and those changes brought more growth, Tom Gilbert said. So much so, that in late November, the owners expanded into a 48-by-60-foot addition to accommodate the increased demand for their smoked and processed meats, which under USDA rules have to be kept separate from the slaughterhouse. Along with that Smokehouse addition, the owners added a second 600-pound smoker and new 52-foot commercial freezers.
“We just couldn’t keep up with the demand without the addition,” Andrea Gilbert, company president, said of the 13 employees.
Tom Gilbert, who often wears a T-shirt under his apron that reads “Buy Local,” lives by the motto, he said. The addition was constructed by local carpenters, plumbers, electricians and purchased supplies locally when possible, he said. “If I wear the shirt, then we’re going to honor what we say,” he said. “We do everything as lo-cal as we can.”
While the store sells some Western steer beef, it is the native beef that is most requested. Gilbert is picky about where his beef is raised and typically relies on one particular farmer for about 100 beef cattle a year, he said. To augment that, Gilbert raises about 25 cattle each summer for slaughter. The business, which has a USDA food inspector on site, furnishes about 100 sides of native beef each year for people’s freezers and it sells meat in bulk to Associated Grocers.
“That’s what has happened; everybody is buying local,” Gilbert said. He said customers want Maine pigs, lambs and beef. “You know, years ago you couldn’t sell a piece of native beef,” he said with a hearty laugh. “Now we have trouble keeping the local meat in the store, it sells so quickly.”
Because the company is certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, about 50 farmers use Herring Bros. to slaughter, process, and package their animals under the farmers’ private labels. The farmers, who come from throughout the state, then sell the meat at farmers markets.
Just as the company’s founder did, the business’ current generation custom slaughters farm animals and a bevy of animals provided by hunters from bear to buffalo to moose.
The up and coming star of the business, however, is the nitrate-free jerky. There are all kinds of jerky, but according to Gilbert, the Wicked Good Beef Jerky is miles apart from its competitors.
“I don’t know how many people have bought one package down at the store at $1.99 and get up the road and come back and buy a 1-pound box before they leave town,” he said.
The business produces about 40-50 pounds of the jerky a week for its store and is branching off into snack sticks.
“It’s quite a time consumer … we hand slice it and hand brine it,” Gilbert said of the jerky. While the owners have tried to speed up the process by tumbling the meat to marinate it, the resulting product just wasn’t up to their standards so they returned to the hand process. It has to look and taste just right to pass muster with Trey Gilbert, who has been known to smooth out a wrinkle on a vacuum sealed package.
It is that kind of attention, and Ellie Gilbert’s close eye on finances, that should allow the business to grow through future decades and generations, according to Andrea Gilbert.
“If we continue to expand our product line and continue to give our customers the quality that they deserve, then the business should continue well into the future,” she said.