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Hangin’ With Klecko: Our Roaming Report Found the Beef

It never ceases to amaze me how much there is to discover about my industry and my city. Recently I was getting a haircut, and as my barber and I made small talk I explained I was about to cross the ocean to Minneapolis, to pick up some sausage at Kramarczuk’s.

My barber actually shut off his clippers and gave me a confused look before asking: “Why wouldn’t you just go over to Mike’s Butcher Shop? It’s closer and they sell the best meat in the city.”

I wasn’t familiar with Mike’s, but apparently I had driven past its Robert Street location in St. Paul hundreds of times. So the next time I was in the neighborhood, I stopped in and asked a woman at the counter if Mike was available. She explained Mike had passed on and she was the new owner.

I had a feeling that I knew her, but I couldn’t pinpoint where we’d met. After several moments of sleuthing, it had been deduced that I was talking to Leslie Carlson, who attended Carl Sandburg Junior High with me the same year America celebrated its bicentennial birthday.

Leslie Carlson, the new owner of Mike's Butcher Shop, with her staff and fully loaded display case. 

That was a long time ago, and we had a lot to catch up on, but she was swamped. Customers were lined up so I bypassed my original sausage intention and went home with a couple of T-bones.

The steak was fantastic and when I called Leslie to tell her how much I enjoyed it and how nice it was to run into her, she invited me to come back at a less busy time so I could get a tour.

When I returned I started off by asking what she had been doing for the last 40 year. Had she been a butcher since high school? She laughed and explained: “Not even close. And to be honest with you, at this point, I’m not a butcher. I just own a butcher shop, but before coming here two years ago I worked in microbiology and food manufacturing.”

I asked why she shifted gears, and she continued: “I’ve always wanted to own a business. Like most things, it’s all about timing. I saw that Mike had built a wonderful business and was at the point where he wanted to retire. After doing some research I began to believe this place was an untapped gold mine.”

When I asked what made Mike’s better, Leslie was quick to point out: “We’ve got two butchers here with close to 50 years combined experience. These guys are more than technicians, they’re artists. One of my main functions here is to bring in business. One of the first things I did was work on a social media campaign. In a relatively short time we were able to achieve a five-star Google rating and you can’t imagine the impact that had.

“Through social media we’ve been able to introduce our products to people who didn’t know we existed. Many of these customers are young families that routinely drive across the city to visit us. When you add that to a 30-year customer base, you have to feel good.”

As we talked I watched one of the butchers greet a customer. He knew the woman by name. When I asked if that was common, Leslie said, “Yeah, recognition is a big part of what sells more than meat. It sells an experience. What we do here goes home with our customers and becomes part of their routine, and in many cases, their traditions. For instance, in July I had to get my order in for turkeys for customers who wanted to pre-order. I’ll bet we’ll move 200 birds for Thanksgiving.”

When I asked about Christmas, Leslie playfully rolled her eyes and said they’d easily sell more than 300 pre-ordered hams. 

When I asked what was changing, Leslie pointed out, “ I believe people’s lives are more complicated than they’ve been in the past. They don’t have a lot of free time so we make sure that when one of our customers comes in they’ll be able to purchase everything they need for an entire meal, not just entrées.”

As she explained this I put my glance on a swivel and spied a vast array of side dishes, condiments and beverages. I’ll bet there had to be 30 barbecue sauces alone, and most of them were produced locally.

At this point a vendor walked in and stole Leslie, so I sidled up to the meat counter and began a conversation with the butchers. Within five minutes I knew we were going to be friends. Our discussion covered Bob Dylan concerts, liver, head cheese, sauerkraut and red cabbage. 

When Leslie returned, I pointed to the bacon and she escorted me to three smokers. “That bacon comes to us smoked, and we smoke it again,” she said. “It’s light-years ahead of anything you’ll ever find in a grocery store.” When I asked if bacon was the store’s signature item, she paused: “I’m not sure we actually have a specific signature item. Yes, the bacon is wonderful, but we have a lot of people who stop by for our jerky and beef sticks.”

Their jerky is cut from whole muscle, with nothing ground up in it. "Over the years sausage has gotten a tough rap because much of it has been made with old stuff, or heart, liver and kidney. We’d never put organ meat in our sausage. Many customers don’t know why our sausage is superior, but they know it tastes better,” she said.

I was sold, so as the cashier rang up my pork chops, kraut, Polish sausage and bacon, I asked Leslie if she was making any money and she said: “Not a fortune, but we’re proud that we’re up 12 percent over the last two years. The work is hard, but this is the best gig I’ve ever had.”

With that I took my bundle and drove away realizing how fortunate I was to have stumbled upon this gem. And the bacon ... it was Father-Son-Holy Ghost-good. 

Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at kleckobread@gmail.com, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.

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