When Amanda Franseen was a young girl doing small tasks in the shop at her family’s meat-processing business, she probably never imagined she would one day own it.
“I started out labeling snack sticks,” she said. In 2018, she and husband John Franseen became the fourth-generation owners of Hewitt’s Meat in Marshfield. She rejoined the company that her great-grandparents founded in 1939 after leaving to study business in college and working at AgSource Laboratories in Marshfield.
That same year, the Franseens opened the new Hewitt’s Meat facility at 210 Downwind Drive on the south side of Marshfield. That brought to town an operation that had begun about 15 miles away in the town of Lindsey, moving it literally and figuratively into a new era.
“The facility worked fine for what it was,” John said. “There was a railroad that went through there, and it was a ‘locker plant.’ When it was founded, most people didn’t have refrigeration in their homes, so they could rent a locker at the plant.”
The Franseens are adapting Hewitt’s to modern times, including one that fits well into this socially distanced COVID era.
“At a lot of bigger meat processors, they might have people working shoulder to shoulder,” John said. “We have a smaller staff, and with the technology we use, we don’t need to do that.” Some of those techniques come from his education in the Meat Science curriculum at the University of Wisconsin. Some come from networking and visiting with colleagues around the state, picking up on best practices that have worked elsewhere.
“We’ve not had to rely on more physical labor,” he said, “and we grind our sausage right inside our stuffer, which is not something every processor does.”
Franseen added that Hewitt’s has focused more on “clean label” processing, an industry trend that involves fewer and simpler ingredients. This helps customers see and understand what’s in their food, and the lack of additives does not hinder their ability to ship products ever-farther.
“It doesn’t involve additives, it involves a different way of (processing) the meat to make it shelf-stable,” he said,
If plans go accordingly in 2021, a lot more shelves a lot farther away could be holding Hewitt’s Meat products. The Franseens launched online ordering during the holiday season of 2019, just months before the pandemic took hold, kept people at home and helped propel online orders.
“Our online sales grew about 400 percent since we launched it,” Franseen said. Brian Hanson, a former director of distribution at Figi’s for 25 years, joined Hewitt’s Meat as a vice president and brought a truckload of expertise in online ordering.
Hewitt’s partnered with Right to Evolve in Tomah to develop the website but got word out about it the old-school way.
“We started simple, with mailers,” Hanson said, borrowing a page out of the longtime Figi’s model. “When the customer enjoys an order, then others can taste it, and they’ll order something and so on.”
Direct and indirect feedback from customers also gave Hanson indicators of the COVID effect.
“I could see messages coming through,” he said. “People saying they’re sorry they can’t be together this year but maybe soon, but we also saw a number of companies ordering for holiday parties.”
The processor saw its sales grow about 20 percent overall over the past year, after approximate 5 percent annual growth in years prior. Their Tomahawk location initially opened as a retirement project in 2018 for Amanda’s parents, Tom and Barb Tasse. It’s fully transitioned to the Franseens now and continues to tap into tourism in the Northwoods area.
“There’s a ton of potential up there,” Hanson said. “So many people travel up there from the Marshfield area and from Chicago. They can take advantage of our free shipping.”
It’s one way Hewitt’s will focus on growing its
brand and distribution of products regionally and even nationally.
Hewitt’s Meat was the Marshfield Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Small Business of the Year for 2020. While Hewitt’s has been recognized by organizations such as FFA, this was its first such chamber award.
“We’ve been involved in a lot of different ways, whether it’s cooking brats at football games or donating to (causes),” John said, adding credit for their staff of 16 (10 full time). “This says a lot about our employees, too, and the way they serve our customers.”