Meat processing plant planned for New Underwood, SD
Ken Charfauros is booking animals for slaughter into June of 2022. That’s nothing new for the owner of Wall Meat Processing. The difference is that these bookings may end up for the meat processing plant in New Underwood, South Dakota.
While they haven’t broken ground for the plant just off I-90, about 18 miles east of Rapid City, the plans on location are pretty concrete. He is planning to make final decision on the exact type of plant, whether it will be brick-and-mortar, or a “module” style manufactured in either Washington state or Wyoming, by Feb. 10, with the plant finished and running by January 2022.
Charfauros is still ironing out the details of the building and all the functionality, and he’s working with producers to make sure the plant he builds best serves what they need. He’s held producer meetings to gather input from the people who will use it. About 90 people–mostly beef producers–attended one of his meetings in New Underwood on Jan. 27, to learn more and share their own ideas.
“Our decision now with the producer is what format and structure do we use,” Charfauros said. “It’s important they help to decide that. Without them we’re just a building. The input by the producer is the most important thing we have to achieve. They need to know where their product is going in and coming out a certain way. High quality, wholesome and safe.”
Charfauros is planning to obtain federal inspection status, which allows the meat processed there to be labeled for retail sale, sold through restaurants, across state lines, and even internationally.
The plant design will be about 24,000 square feet and have a slaughter capacity of 1,300 head per year. It will feature an up-to-date slaughter and processing plant, a ready-to-eat product production area, and an education center segment. He plans to bring 36 jobs to New Underwood, population 720.
Charfauros looked at several sites, but arrived at New Underwood thanks to its proximity to Rapid City for a workforce, easy access to the interstate and airport, and benefits of economic development in a small town.
Teresa Bale Hall, New Underwood mayor, said the city is excited to welcome the facility. “I think this is an exciting opportunity for the city of New Underwood and its residents, to bring some economic growth. It’s also a great opportunity for area ranchers looking for an outlet for their meat.”
Charfauros is also planning to have a mobile slaughter unit, with a capacity of around 10 beef, which will travel to area ranches. The animals will be slaughtered at the ranch, which reduces the stress on both the animal and the producer. The trailer will then take the hanging beef to the plant in New Underwood for aging and processing.
Charfauros bought Wall Meat Processing four years ago, and has expanded from a processing plant into a farm-to-table restaurant in Wall, a food truck and a meat trailer to sell retail meat in Rapid City. His next step is a retail storefront just off Elk Vale Road in Rapid City, which should be open by March 1.
He’s planning investor meetings in March, and is hoping to break ground on the new plant in July or August. Charfauros is counting on investors, and Small Business Administration and economic development grants, to provide some of the estimated $6-10 million for the project.
Running a meat processing plant wasn’t Charfauros’ first profession. He grew up on the island of Guam, and moved to Delaware when he was 15, where his first job was as a meat cutter. That first experience was a good one, thanks to the constructive criticism, positive reinforcement and encouragement of his mentor. After high school, Charfauros joined the Air Force, which eventually brought him to Ellsworth Air Force Base, where he retired, and started his second career, as co-owner with Janet Niehaus of Wall Meat Processing and Red Rock Restaurant. Two of his sons, Glen and Daniel, help manage the meat plant and restaurant.
It’s that positive first experience Charfauros wants to bring to his new facility, while addressing one of the biggest issues in the meat processing business–the labor shortage. He is working with Western Dakota Tech to develop a meat-cutting curriculum, with a third of his facility being dedicated to education, providing hands-on training and internships. He also intends to offer competitive wages and benefits, a rotational job schedule, and the tools and encouragement to enable employees to be successful and take pride in their jobs.
“I never thought back when I was 15 or 16 I’d be a butcher,” Charfauros said. “Never dreamed of it. Learning from an older person that was fair, firm and honest, you get to take that and run that through your noggin. He complimented me and I learned. That was the right way to do it, and that’s perfect. Those kinds of reinforcement work.”
He’s seen first-hand how that works with his own employees. One of his own employees left an IT job to become a butcher. It started as an interest, but with the right guidance and encouragement, he learned he loved it and wanted to make it his career.
“They get to talk to their customers,” Charfauros said. “Customers come back. They get priceless feedback from customers, and make lifelong friends with customers and producers. It’s their product, it’s their hard work. That’s what we try to concentrate on. All the work the producers do to get their product to us, we cut it up and make it even better. And when we hear, ‘Do it like you did it last time, that was awesome,’ it’s all win.”
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