King of the cuts
A Bemidji native is blazing a new path for processing and promotion to boost his family meat business.
Mychal Stittsworth is perfectly formulated to make a beef-based butcher business boom.
The owner and operator of Bemidji’s Stittsworth Meats is packing generations of industry knowledge, the design and efficiency know-how of two engineering degrees (civil and industrial), the discipline of the U.S. Air Force and a network of lifelong community supporters.
Remove any sense of self-doubt and you have the Six Million Dollar Man of the Minnesota meat trade.
“He’s just fearless,” said Corey Stittsworth, who sold Stittsworth Meats to his son Mychal in 2010 after 35 years in the business. “He’s very smart and so ambitious. He’s just willing to take that leap.”
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind, that’s for sure,” Mychal said inside his brand new Stittsworth Smokehouse, ten miles north of Bemidji. The new processing facility, in combination with Mychal’s innovative Mobile Slaughter Unit (MSU), is the product of his desire to take the family business to the next level of quality and reach.
Stittsworth Meats has long been known for its local smokehouse sales. Mychal wanted a larger facility to ramp up production and enter into the wholesale market. He used his design training to draft the most efficient layout from meat drop-off to delivery. He also incorporated state-of-the-art equipment to maximize processing, including a bratwurst cutter that saves 20 work hours per day.
During the building’s planning stages, Mychal found the Holy Grail of industry efficiency. He discovered the idea of a trailer that could travel directly to farms to process livestock on-site. By cutting out the stressful journey to a slaughterhouse hours away, the quality of the product remains at its peak.
“The animal starts burning calories. You lose marbling, and the farmer loses money because the cows are losing weight all the way to the plant,” Mychal said. He further explained that livestock lose up to 10% of their overall body weight on the ride, meaning farmers lose 10% of their profit and another 10% on shipping.
“That’s something I’m always searching for – how to be better and how to be different,” Mychal said. “This seemed like a slam dunk.”
He felt he had worked out a solid system, but Mychal wanted to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. In 2017, he entered his business plan into the IDEA Competition (sponsored in part by Minnkota), a process that connects entrepreneurs in northwest Minnesota with coaching and capital.
Stittsworth Meats won. Mychal had his proof.
A little over a year later, the MSU was traveling to farms within 50 miles. Stittsworth works with six to eight local farmers on rotation, timing trips to when the herds are just the right size and weight.
The MSU has visited the Bemidji-area farm of brothers Karl and Eric Gustafson twice, processing 18 head of cattle. Karl says he appreciates knowing their pay weight as soon as the Stittsworth team leaves and he doesn’t have to worry about transport or shrinkage of the livestock.
He also understands the economic benefits.
“If Mychal can take our animals, put a name to it, put the locally grown label to it and make a premium because of it, then maybe that trickles down to us,” he said. “He needs to establish markets, we need to be paid for our product and we think we will be taken care of.”
“If people had never heard of us as a brand, for our homemade smoked products, this was something to fall back on – how we got our meat and the economic impact,” Mychal explained. “It’s 8-to-1. If you spend $10 million with the farms, that’s an $80 million impact.”
The success of the Smokehouse and MSU pairing won Stittsworth Meats the Chamber of Commerce’s New Business of the Year Award, which now sits nestled between several other awards in the shop.
Mychal’s connection with the community goes beyond economics. In the Smokehouse, Bemidji Brewery kegs stand ready for collaborative beer brats. In the Stittsworth shop on Paul Bunyan Drive, you’ll find sauces and sides from other local businesses. But it’s Mychal’s relationships with his customers and crew – discussing fishing with patrons and catching up with the meat cutters between slices – that truly show his lakes-area link.
His network of friends grew substantially when he decided to change the way he promoted his business, moving his budget from print ads to something more digitally engaging: Facebook.
“Instead of just saving the money, I gave it all away,” he said, describing mega meat giveaways that summoned an onslaught of likes. “I would watch our followers grow and grow and I would see if I was doing things a certain way. I would just watch the trend.”
Now, Stittsworth Meats connects with more than 76,000 Facebook fans, unheard of for a small business that has no marketing arm.
“It’s all just right here,” Mychal said as he picked up his smartphone. The self-taught promotion master is now chatting with Facebook representatives about how he can shift from marketing as a store to marketing as a brand – an essential step to nationwide distribution.
Mychal worked with Beltrami Electric Cooperative to route three-phase power from the nearest substation to the new Smokehouse, making the rural location a possibility. The partnership is more than power supply. The cooperative started an incentive program that offers meaty rewards to contractors for installing more kilowatts of electric heat and off-peak load.
“We bought Stittsworth gift cards for them for the value of what they had installed for the year,” said Beltrami Electric’s Angela Lyseng.
For Beltrami Electric’s 75th anniversary, Stittsworth was on-site to grill brats, and the co-op hopes to have them out again for a future celebration. The entities have formed a bond.
“For someone who has personally grown up in the community, it’s really exciting to see that wherever I go and stop in convenience stores, I can always find Stittsworth Meats,” Lyseng beamed.
With products already in nearly 600 stores, Mychal has set a goal of reaching a couple thousand by summer’s end. The Bemidji meat shop alone is producing 500% over the record sales set before he took the reins and, between the new facility and the storefront, Stittsworth has grown a team of three into a workforce of 28.
The king of the cuts is not slowing down.
“It’s kind of cliché, but you just can’t quit,” he said. “If you’re stumped, you don’t quit – you just find an answer.”