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Kristin and Chuck Carlson are the third generation to operate the Carlson Meat business in Grove City. It was purchased in January 1913 by Carlson’s grandfather, William, from L.O. Lawson. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

Grove City is local foods destination

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GROVE CITY — It was a few decades ago and Chuck Carlson’s dad was crossing the Canadian border when the officer saw his Grove City address and told him:  That’s the town with the meat market where he gets his best meat.

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Only recently, his son’s mother-in-law was shopping for potato sausage in Phoenix, Ariz., when the man next to her felt obliged to inform her: “I know where you can buy the best potato sausage in the country. It’s a little meat market in Grove City.’’

It’s also where Chuck Carlson continues to make potato sausage according to the recipe that his grandfather made his own 100 years ago.

Chuck and Kristin Carlson are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Carlson Meats in Grove City under the ownership of the Carlson family. William Carlson purchased the business in January of 1913. He stayed with the business until his death in 1954.

His son, Willard, returned from service in World War II to work alongside him. Willard and Luella continued the business to 1983, when third generation owners Chuck and Kristin Carlson formally took over. Chuck got started in 1975, one year after marrying Kristin, the co-worker he had met at Glacier National Park. Chuck said he had returned to help out “for a while.’’

Not all of their customers arrive from locations as far-flung as the Canadian border and the Arizona dessert, but many do come a ways. Carlson Meats is one of only a couple of dozen small- to medium-sized processing facilities in Minnesota that are United States Department of Agriculture Inspected plants.

Producers of everything from buffalo and lamb to yak for the emerging local foods market rely on Carlson Meats for their processing because of it. The yak man has his pastures north of Cold Spring, where he once served the meat to the visiting Dalai Lama.

The buffalo producers come from the prairies near Luverne, Montevideo and Dawson.

The beef producers — from those championing grass-fed beef only to those favoring specific breeds — hail from every direction.

They all come to Grove City knowing that the USDA stamp allows them to sell their meats to upscale restaurants in the Twin Cities and of course, to the finest of farm country families: Those that appreciate quality, wholesome meats.

That is exactly what brings most customers to the meat shop. Most of their customers remain small-scale livestock producers who want their animals custom processed for their own freezers, as well as those of their friends and other family members, according to Chuck and Kristin Carlson.

And of course, many of their customers are also those who would never think of raising animals in their backyards. They turn to Carlson Meats to buy a quarter of half of beef, or a hog, knowing that the Carlsons have a long-list of producers providing the best of meats.

Customers also drop by to purchase sausage, jerky and other retail meats made exactly to those 100-year old recipes, no exceptions or scrimping on ingredients.

The Grove City shop had originally been owned by L.O. Lawson. Like all small town shops of the era, it existed mainly to process locally-raised animals for retail sale as fresh cuts. The meat was kept cool on ice harvested from Diamond Lake. During much of the year, a wooden building in the town pasture — now the city park — served as the slaughtering location.

Starting in the 1920’s, much of the meat began arriving by train from St. Paul packing plants.

It all changed again after World War II, when chest freezers became a part of households and many families turned to buying locally raised and custom processed meats.

Chuck’s father Willard made the biggest changes, starting with building a new, modern processing facility in 1955. He realized that custom processing and flash-freezing of meats was the future.

It was around 1972 when he also became convinced that being a USDA inspected facility was the way to go.

The Carlsons like to laugh that having inspectors at the plant during the weekly slaughter is “like driving a car with the policeman in the back seat.’’

In truth, smaller scale operations fall under all of the same regulations as do the mega-sized plants, and that creates added burdens and costs.

Yet the opportunity to work with entrepreneurs looking for opportunities in the local foods markets makes it all worthwhile, said the Carlsons.

They also enjoy the challenge and variety that comes with custom processing. They literally have hundreds of different customers, with as many different preferences in what they want.

They’ve also appreciated raising a daughter and two sons in Grove City and in the business, where a strong work ethic is a must.

The children are grown and well into careers of their own, but Grove City’s famous meat shop is sure to carry the Carlson name for some years to come. Like he had once told his dad, Chuck said he and Kristin intend to stay with this “for a while.”

The business employs nine people, some part time, and their experience and skills make it possible for the Carlsons to enjoy a break now and then.

They intend to celebrate the 100 year anniversary in May. In the meantime, they are urging anyone with stories or histories of the meat market’s earlier years to contact them or visit their website: www.carlsonmeats.com

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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