Talking Meat with Mike Bakalars — the Sausage King
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Full Transcript [ generated by AI]
buy[00:00:00] Mike Bakalars: we sell Boxed beef, pork, poultry, seafood, cheese items, and portion cut steaks to the food service industry, hotels, restaurants, and institutions.
[00:00:10] Vicki Markussen: Welcome to BizCast Greater La Crosse, a weekly podcast from BizNews. We bring you news from the business community. I am your host and founder, Vicki Markussen. Today, I have the pleasure of having Mike Bakalars. I said, what’s your title? And he’s owner, president, CEO, along with your wife, Bethany.
[00:00:29] Vicki Markussen: So you are a multi generation company though. You’re not the first Bakalars running this.
[00:00:36] Mike Bakalars: That is true. My grandfather and his brothers started the company back in 1935 as a small corner grocery store in Mississippi Street. And over the years, my two uncles wound up owning the business and back in 1990, I moved to lacrosse and worked for my uncle Glenn and worked for him for 13 years.
[00:00:58] Mike Bakalars: And then my wife, Bethany, and I had the opportunity to buy the company in 2013. teens or 2003. So it’s been 20 years already. Wow.
[00:01:08] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. And so you started out as a grocery store. You’re now just specializing in sausage, correct?
[00:01:15] Mike Bakalars: We have grown, evolved into a company that has two divisions. We have a retail sausage division, which is a distributor base manufacturing model, which is comprised of the Schweiger brand, which we purchased from the cargo corporation back in 2016.
[00:01:34] Mike Bakalars: And then we have a DSD which is in the business called a direct store delivery business, which comprises of the Bacalar’s. brand, which we sell more locally within about 120-mile radius of La Crosse. And we have a sales force that goes out and sells the product, and then we have our own trucks deliver it.
[00:01:54] Mike Bakalars: And then that also includes our food service division, which we sell Boxed beef, pork, poultry, seafood, cheese items, and portion cut steaks to the food service industry, hotels, restaurants, and institutions.
[00:02:08] Vicki Markussen: Now that’s the piece I didn’t know about. Got it. So how does a company, let’s start with the history, how does a company go from being a grocery store to what you are now?
[00:02:18] Vicki Markussen: And how long did it take?
[00:02:20] Mike Bakalars: That’s a great question. I guess it would be out of necessity. In order to grow and continue. To have a thriving business, you need to change and take business and market opportunities that are out there. And as the grocery store business became consolidated, if you just drive around La Crosse, you can see the old buildings that have the window storefronts.
[00:02:44] Mike Bakalars: All those were old grocery stores. I remember my grandfather saying, geez, we had 35 accounts on the south side alone, where he was selling our sausage products to all the… Local markets and as over time, the grocery business became consolidated. There was less room for the smaller independence, and he felt that the opportunity was in the wholesale side of the business.
[00:03:06] Mike Bakalars: So we evolved into being more of a distributor and manufacturer than actually the retailer. And then We also got into the food business over time and became portion cutting steaks and chops and distributing boxed beef and pork to restaurants and institutions, hospitals, nursing homes.
[00:03:25] Mike Bakalars: So
[00:03:25] Vicki Markussen: you went from grocery store. Were you a wholesaler of all groceries, or were you really? Specializing in meat at that point,
[00:03:32] Mike Bakalars: specializing in meat at that point. They had a strong following with their meat department in their little grocery store. My grandfather was a salesman, Ray and his brother Frank actually started out in the meat business with Farley Sausage Company and when they decided to buy a grocery store at a sheriff’s sale.
[00:03:50] Mike Bakalars: Back in 1935, the two of them got together, and then their brother Ted also joined the business and Ted was a sausage maker. My, my grandpa was a salesman and Frank was the meat cutter. So between the three of them they were able to work it out and they each had their own specific role, and they were able to bring that to the business and that’s how they evolved and grew.
[00:04:10] Vicki Markussen: Amazing. And so when did the location on the south side along?
[00:04:15] Mike Bakalars: There on South Avenue in 1962? They, the original building on Mississippi street they had all grown that, that facility, and we’re looking for bigger buildings, bigger opportunity. And the sisters, the Franciscan Sisters wanted to buy the property to where the terrible fine arts building is now was right in that area.
[00:04:38] Mike Bakalars: So they wanted to acquire that property. So it was an opportunity to sell the property and move in. The building was on South Avenue was abandoned at the time it was sitting empty, and it had previously been part of the Gund Brewery and when they closed during Prohibition it was an armory for the 32nd Division, so it was sitting empty and my grandfather brought it from Leo Murphy and the Gateway Transportation Company and turned it into, to Bakalars Sausage Company.
[00:05:08] Vicki Markussen: Interesting. . So they outgrew the space on Mississippi in 1962. They bought the location on South Avenue. Any idea roughly how many employees were there?
[00:05:20] Mike Bakalars: Maybe 12 and
[00:05:22] Vicki Markussen: was this 12 just servicing the lacrosse area at that point? Yes. Yes. Okay. So things started moving because obviously people heard how.
[00:05:31] Vicki Markussen: large you are now, you’re acquiring other companies. So how did that progress from 1962? For Baklars?
[00:05:39] Mike Bakalars: We became more and more specialized in sausage manufacturing and center of the plate protein for one. And as my Grandfather retired, my two uncles wound up taking over the business and continued to build on what they had started, my grandfather and his brothers.
[00:05:58] Mike Bakalars: And so like I said, over the years we’ve been able to take advantage of opportunities within our industry to grow and to specialize and take advantage of those opportunities.
[00:06:11] Vicki Markussen: So you have your uncles running the business. When did you get involved?
[00:06:17] Mike Bakalars: 1990 I had gotten all this service, and I was living in Charleston.
[00:06:23] Mike Bakalars: South Carolina at the time and trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life and was thinking about going back to school and doing some other things and my uncle called me and said, Hey you ever thought about going into the meat business? And as I was standing on a beach and flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt, I said no.
[00:06:41] Mike Bakalars: But after a while I started thinking about and said, Hey, that might be fun. We got together, and I said, Hey, look, If you like it, let’s give it a try and see where it goes. And I really enjoyed working for him, learned a heck of a lot. And it was like getting a PhD, it really was.
[00:06:56] Mike Bakalars: And like I said, we were fortunate enough that Bethany and I had the opportunity to buy them out in 2003, and it was the best movie ever made. Been a great ride. It has been.
[00:07:06] Vicki Markussen: I’m guessing you have an amazing recipe, if you will, for your sausages.
[00:07:10] Vicki Markussen: That makes it very popular.
[00:07:12] Mike Bakalars: Yeah, we think so. I guess the test of time is our reward. We haven’t really changed the recipes since 1935. And I remember, gosh, I think it was back in 2000. 10 or 11 already. Bethany and I went over to Frankfurt, Germany. They have what’s called the IFA convention, which is a huge meat convention and equipment show.
[00:07:34] Mike Bakalars: And they have it once every three years. And in conjunction with that, they have a sausage contest and with over 1500 entries from around the world. And I said, Hey, you know what? Let’s take some stuff over there. It was just a last-minute thing. put it in a cooler and took it on the airplane with us.
[00:07:50] Mike Bakalars: And we took seven products over there and one, three gold medals and four silver medals. So I was like, Hey, that’s right. We’ll be lucky to win anything. If we don’t win anything, we don’t have to tell anybody, but so we’re pretty proud of that. So that was really neat. To do that.
[00:08:06] Mike Bakalars: Like I said, I think we’re on the right track.
[00:08:08] Vicki Markussen: So I’m going to ask a side note to this because your uniqueness, if you will, is your flavor of your product. So how do you protect that? Cause obviously you’ve had many employees coming and going. It’d be easy for someone to pick up that recipe.
[00:08:24] Vicki Markussen: How do you protect what makes you uniquely you?
[00:08:28] Mike Bakalars: That’s a great question. We have, we work with spice companies that we have proprietary blends. that are made under non-disclosure agreements. And they send it to us just as bratwurst seasoning or hot dog seasoning. That’s one, one reason, or one way that we can protect our proprietary recipes.
[00:08:50] Mike Bakalars: Got it.
[00:08:51] Vicki Markussen: So what happens in the plant? Give us a walkthrough of how how you make sausage is the same goes. All right.
[00:08:58] Vicki Markussen: Yeah,
[00:08:59] Mike Bakalars: It’s really not as bad as you think. I think Winston Churchill said that there are two things you don’t want to see made. One is lost and the other and sausage, right? But it really isn’t that bad. But we have what’s called a HACCP program, which is hazard analysis and critical control point, which is the backbone of our quality control,
[00:09:19] Mike Bakalars: so from the time that we receive a product until the time it is shipped, we monitor temperatures, quality throughout the entire process. So that’s really how it starts. And we buy from the major packing companies in the Midwest, whether. be a JBS or a premium Iowa American foods Tyson. So that’s who we buy our raw materials from.
[00:09:43] Mike Bakalars: It comes into our plant in 2000 pound combo bins, which are cardboard plastic line bins that hold the beef or pork turnings, which is basically all it is straight beef and pork. So we received that in our warehouse. And then from there. It goes into our kitchen or our blending area where it gets formulated into the raw batter mix, whether it be brats, hot dogs, summer sausage.
[00:10:10] Mike Bakalars: And then from there it goes through our stuffing equipment where it gets stuffed into the casings, whether it be a fibrous or a natural or a cellulose type casing. And then from there it goes through the cooking and smoking process. And then after it’s cooked, fully cooked, and It goes through a cooling process in our holding coolers, and then from there it gets packaged, and then boxed, and then shipped out to a local distribution center for sale at the local grocery store.
[00:10:39] Vicki Markussen: How many employees do you have? We
[00:10:41] Mike Bakalars: have 55 employees at the lacrosse facility, and then we have another facility business we acquired last fall up in Maple Grove, Minnesota, which is tri star foods and it’s sausage. And we have 28 employees up there. So I guess to make all the wheels turn, we have roughly 85 employees. Yeah.
[00:11:03] Vicki Markussen: So you’re growing, which is fantastic.
[00:11:06] Vicki Markussen: So I joke as I think about this. Are you like the sausage king of lacrosse?
[00:11:12] Mike Bakalars: Maybe in my own mind, But no, my friends joke about it, and said Hey, here’s the sausage king. I said, yeah, the king’s in the house. Here we go. All right. But yeah, it’s it’s fun to joke about it. It is.
[00:11:24] Vicki Markussen: So then you own the sausage company, how I’m guessing you have to implement your own vision for how you wanted it to grow. So how has it grown from you owning it?
[00:11:36] Mike Bakalars: That’s a great question. Obviously, when we bought the business we had, A vision of trying to grow the business and continue to build upon what we’re able to take over, which is the legacy that my grandfather had started and his brothers and my uncles.
[00:11:56] Mike Bakalars: And so there was already, how shall I say, a road that got us to that point to where we were back in 2003, which was great. Our whole mantra is pretty simple. It is that we provide value to the consumer. We put out the best quality products that we can at a competitive price. We’re not going to be the cheapest by any means.
[00:12:17] Mike Bakalars: We might not be the most expensive, but when you buy our stuff, it’s going to be good. And that’s been our mantra. And the other key to our success has been our employees, right? We’ve had just tremendous employees throughout the years. As a matter of fact, I’ve been with the company for 33 years, and there’s two people that we have right now that have more seniority than I do.
[00:12:40] Mike Bakalars: Wow. And we’ve had people work there 50 plus years. Wow. Those two key components have been really the secret sauce of our success, right? Is and we’ve been able to perpetuate that. But from a business strategy, I felt the best way to grow our business was a growth through acquisition because it’s very difficult for a company like us to grow organically, particularly at the retail level.
[00:13:10] Mike Bakalars: Brand recognition is so huge. If you take the beverage industry, for example, you just think back of how many different brand, huge brands have come and gone and the hard that is to get traction at the retail level. So to grow our sausage business, which is what we really wanted to focus on.
[00:13:30] Mike Bakalars: The best way to do that, in my opinion, was a growth through acquisitions. And we did that in 2016. We bought Schweiger Brand and then Tristar and Elliott’s here last fall. And along with that growing our food service business, which was a big part of our business and hiring the right people, the right salesman to, to pursue new geographical areas and expand outside our existing territory.
[00:13:59] Vicki Markussen: So when you’re acquiring, it has its benefits because there’s existing recipes, their existing customer base, and then it expands distribution of. All of your products, right? So I’m guessing you acquire, and you don’t change recipes because you want to keep that customer base or do you like, are you doing it for capacity?
[00:14:21] Vicki Markussen: Are you doing it to add to your product lines? What is the acquisition look like strategically
[00:14:26] Mike Bakalars: for you? That’s another great question. Market share, we wanted to pursue market share, or we still want to pursue market share. It’s a day-to-day pursuit that we have. And it depends, it really depends upon the product, not necessarily we’re going to say we’re going to revamp this whole label, but there are certain things that we could bring to the table that, maybe we can make this natural casing hot dog better.
[00:14:49] Mike Bakalars: Maybe we can make this bratwurst better, maybe. Maybe what they have is it’s working and we don’t want to mess with it, right? So we did some things with the Schweiger brand. We upgraded the natural casing hot dog formulation, but we left the summer sausage the same, because it’s the number one selling brand by volume in that twin cities market, minneapolis st.
[00:15:10] Mike Bakalars: Paul that’s something you don’t want to mess with but if we can By a brand or a company that helps us gain market share. That’s something we take a look at.
[00:15:20] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. And then the interesting thing that we were talking about before I hit record was, as you’re looking at now you have Is it two facilities, production facilities?
[00:15:31] Mike Bakalars: Our Minneapolis facility is a distribution center. So we only have one manufacturing facility. Oh, okay. So along with that Elliott’s acquisition our current. Facility in lacrosse is pretty much at capacity, we’re running two shifts. We’re thinking about possibly adding a third but that is a challenge that we face going forward is, how do we grow our manufacturing capacity?
[00:15:57] Mike Bakalars: And like I said, our current facility in La Crosse is reaching capacity if we haven’t already.
[00:16:03] Vicki Markussen: So in your head, you’re going, okay, we can add a shift and hope to get the workforce. You can acquire a company that could. produce out of somewhere else and expand your reach as well, depending on how strategic you’re looking at it.
[00:16:18] Vicki Markussen: But there’s different ways that you have to look at how you continue to grow is my guess. Yeah,
[00:16:24] Mike Bakalars: absolutely. And from a manufacturing standpoint, we’re looking to automate our processes as much as possible, which at our current facility is somewhat limited because of space issues. The meat industry is still a very Yeah.
[00:16:39] Mike Bakalars: labor intensive industry. Manufacturing sausage hasn’t changed from the beginning of time, but the equipment has, the principles are still the same. But buying modern automated equipment to help maintain or expedite those processes is what we’re looking for. But unfortunately, some of that equipment’s really large and, robotic arms putting finished packages into boxes and things like that requires a lot of space.
[00:17:07] Mike Bakalars: So that’s one issue we have going forward at our current facility. But acquisitions falling. Our original business plan of a growth through acquisition strategy is something we’re always looking for. If we could find another regional manufacturer who has excess capacity that might be looking to take on a partner or sell the business outright, we’re always looking for those opportunities that we could bring our product in and help fill out that plant from a production capacity point.
[00:17:38] Mike Bakalars: So
[00:17:38] Vicki Markussen: it sounds like the sausage meat industry hasn’t gone the way of breweries and like I had someone in here produced a protein powder. So you can have companies that white label produce, right? Just say, give us your recipe. We’ll produce it and put your label on it. So I’m guessing that hasn’t happened in the meat industry.
[00:17:59] Mike Bakalars: No, it has. Oh, it has. Okay. And we. Right now do have partners that do manufacture certain products for us under our formulation and our proprietary blends, which has been key for us to be able to continue to grow until we can bring some of that manufacturing. back home, if you will. But yes, that is huge.
[00:18:22] Mike Bakalars: Yes, it goes on. You’d be amazed that who’s making product for everybody else. Matter of fact, for a long time, we’re making product for old Wisconsin. And then, so they’re, they’re competitor, but yet are they friendly competitors? Is there such a thing? But yes, there’s a lot of manufacturing that goes on.
[00:18:41] Mike Bakalars: What we call private label. Yeah. Or co packing, I
[00:18:44] Vicki Markussen: should say. Sure. And that’s another opportunity and numbers you would have to crunch of going, okay, if we expend, if we spend the money on a big expansion, could you actually package for, do some of that private packaging or co packaging and that would be a revenue source to offset that expense.
[00:19:03] Mike Bakalars: Yeah, absolutely. It’d help you hit those fixed costs much faster. Yeah, for sure. Sure. And. If you did build a facility, that would certainly be part of the business strategy going forward.
[00:19:13] Vicki Markussen: One of the things that we talked about, because I knew I had seen your seen Bacalar’s out there with a sports team affiliated with it. It’s the Vikings and the Twins, correct? So what caused you to become the, what’s the title? Sausage
[00:19:29] Mike Bakalars: of we’re the official hot dogs, Minnesota twins and the vikings. We no longer have those sponsorships. We gosh we’re a sponsorship for the twins from 2016 through the first part of COVID.
[00:19:43] Mike Bakalars: And then when. They were playing baseball, but the parks were empty. We decided to drop the sponsorship and We decided that with the Vikings, this was our last year of the sponsorship as well. The sports sponsorships are great and, but they’re expensive and you do, there are great opportunities as far as selling the stadiums and we can use the retail marks of the Vikings and logos at the retail level, which was huge in the twin cities market.
[00:20:18] Mike Bakalars: But we did that in order to try and legitimize our brand and legitimize us as a manufacturer in that Twin Cities metropolitan area, which is our big reasoning for wanting to buy the Schweiger brand. It’s a metropolitan area of. Not close to three million people with all the suburbs and it was a great opportunity for us to grow our business.
[00:20:41] Mike Bakalars: So the sports marketing at the time was huge. I remember when we took this viking sponsorship were the first supplier at U. S. Bank Stadium and we’re able to they had the Super Bowl there in 2018. So we’re the official hot dog of the U. S. Bank Stadium and the served at the Super Bowl was pretty.
[00:20:59] Mike Bakalars: Kind of fun to be part of that. And but yeah the sports sponsorship at the time A good part of our marketing strategy, but I think it did what we wanted it to and it was time to move on to different types of marketing.
[00:21:15] Vicki Markussen: Yeah. And just so the average listener, understand. So there’s different strategies as to why companies do that.
[00:21:21] Vicki Markussen: In some cases it’s brand awareness. Did they know about you? So the desired outcome is they now recognize your name. There’s other strategies, which is let’s increase sales. Hopefully. Those go hand in hand, but sometimes if you’re coming, if you’re new to a market, it’s just raising awareness of who you
[00:21:40] Mike Bakalars: are, right?
[00:21:41] Mike Bakalars: And all those, all the above what you just described is why we want to be part of it. And it also came into play with our plant capacity, right? So we were selling product to the stadiums at Let’s say a discounted price over what our retail margin would be on a different style product. They were, we made specific products for the stadiums and it’s hey, we’re selling this at a less margin than maybe our natural casing hot dogs. So does it make sense to continue to sell U. S. Bank and Target Field and be a sponsor of those great teams? Or do we want to focus on where our margin is, which is our natural casing product? And that’s the conclusion we came to.
[00:22:28] Mike Bakalars: And it was a great partnership. We enjoyed. every step of the way and both great organizations. But in business, sometimes certain strategies run their course and that’s what happened there.
[00:22:41] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, those are business decisions made along the way. So So in your timeline, let me go back to your timeline.
[00:22:49] Vicki Markussen: There’s a piece that we missed, which is the tornado.
[00:22:52] Mike Bakalars: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Thanks for reminding me.
[00:22:55] Vicki Markussen: I’m sure it would come back to you, but that painful memory. So you own Baclar’s down on South Avenue and where three rivers meet tornadoes are not supposed to go and they did.
[00:23:05] Vicki Markussen: And so for the people that were in the community, then it was, it came by Gunderson. It came by Kmart right in the middle of La Crosse there. And So there was significant damage to your building.
[00:23:17] Mike Bakalars: Yeah, that was, as a business owner, you worry about a lot of things when you go home at night and, but a tornado hitting your building in the middle of La Crosse was not one of them.
[00:23:29] Mike Bakalars: But we, my wife and I, Bethany, were coming back with the kids We’re visiting my sister in Milwaukee at the time, and it was a Sunday afternoon and we pulled in lacrosse. I said, you know what? I usually check the plant on the weekends or I always do. It’s let’s just stop by and make sure everything’s okay.
[00:23:45] Mike Bakalars: The refrigeration and things like that. So we pulled into the parking lot and I looked off to the west and it was just black and green. It’s a tease. There’s a heck of a storm coming. So I ran in it. And we’d taken the minivan, which was Bethany’s car. I said, ah, shoot, I left my keys at home, which I never do.
[00:24:04] Mike Bakalars: So we got in the car and started heading home. And by the time we hit the quick trip on South Avenue there. It started raining. You could see wind gusts coming across. And then by the time we got home, which we just lived on the south side, it was like, geez, people were calling and said, Hey, a tornado just hit your building.
[00:24:19] Mike Bakalars: There’s bricks flying off and the roof’s pretty much gone. I said, You’re kidding me. So I said, Okay, I gotta go back into work. And, as soon as I got there, where Bethany and the kids park, to with the minivan, that whole corner of the wall came down with bricks. So had they, I hate to think what could have happened, actually, God was looking out for us, otherwise I would have been inside the building and the kids and Bethany would have been there.
[00:24:42] Mike Bakalars: So anyways so yeah, I go down there and obviously the power was out and we received significant damage to the building and that was like an, Oh my gosh, kind of moment. So now what do we do? And you realize, Hey, we’re going to be without power and so what’s going to happen to all our products and, how are we going to build a.
[00:25:02] Mike Bakalars: Go to work tomorrow morning on Monday. We have part of our HACCP plan and we have what’s called a recall list with our key employees. So we activated the recall list, and you talk about great employees. We had everybody there, and we call Kwik Trip and Transport refrigeration, and they borrowed us like 14 semis.
[00:25:24] Mike Bakalars: So we offloaded all the product we had. We worked all night, stored it on semis, and so we’re able to save the product. Monday, we didn’t ship anything, but we’re back in business on Tuesday. Wow. Yeah.
[00:25:40] Mike Bakalars: And so yeah, so that was, you talk about great employees, that was huge. And then, we had, Weiser Brothers as a contractor came in, we’re able to stabilize the building and secure it enough to where the USDA would allow us to go back to work. And we’re making sausage again by Friday.
[00:25:58] Mike Bakalars: So we hardly missed a beat. And, it was really certainly without challenges going forward from there to keep the building safe for manufacturing. But we’re able to do that, and able to really come out stronger than we were before the tornado because we had the opportunity to move into our new facility in the industrial park and looking back on it, I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, but it was a good example of making, lemonade out of lemons, right?
[00:26:31] Mike Bakalars: You deal with the hand that’s dealt, and you make the best of it and we were able to do that and actually thrive. Thanks. Thanks.
[00:26:36] Vicki Markussen: I think that’s the piece that gets forgotten about. So first and foremost, kudos to your employees because they recognize this is a, it’s not life or death, but for the company it could be if they didn’t rally and assist. You’re trying to ramp up manufacturing and you have. insurance to deal with and then long-term plan of okay, this is like the building was not salvageable, correct? Or at least financially didn’t make sense to repair it. And so then you’re having to make the decision of moving.
[00:27:08] Vicki Markussen: So what did that all entail?
[00:27:12] Mike Bakalars: Going back, in our business, our customers obviously rely on us every day for deliveries, right? and at the retail level and in the food service, they need a product on their shelves. So had we been out of business for weeks or months, it would have been devastating to our business, and we would have lost that.
[00:27:32] Mike Bakalars: Retail shelf space in a lot of areas customers get used to buying from our competitors. It would have been harder to get back but yeah, so As far as the building goes and like you said, kudos to our employees. They recognize that the necessity, right? But from A building standpoint.
[00:27:52] Mike Bakalars: Yes, all the above. The building was damaged beyond a salvageable amount, which is what, the insurance companies in the city, they have certain if a building is damaged beyond a certain amount, that’s supposed to be rebuilt, right? Condemned and torn down and rebuilt, So that was an issue with the insurance companies.
[00:28:17] Mike Bakalars: And in the end we were able to say look, you know what? We’re going to do what we’re going to do, and we were able to buy the building in the industrial park, and we started building our new facility and we’re able to work things out with the insurance company in the city and which all were good to work with, the city of lacrosse was great matter of fact we had a lot of advice from LATCO.
[00:28:41] Mike Bakalars: Yeah, and they helped us get into that facility. And one thing we wanted to make sure was that we rebuilt our facility in lacrosse. It was great that we were able to find that building from Dick Walls over at Walls Craft. And we were able to modify it And moved to our current location.
[00:28:58] Mike Bakalars: Yeah,
[00:28:58] Vicki Markussen: and now it’s full. It is. Who foresaw
[00:29:01] Mike Bakalars: that? Yeah. When we moved in 2013, I was like, geez, how are we going to fill this place, right? And, for the past few years, it’s been an issue. As far as capacity, yeah.
[00:29:13] Vicki Markussen: So let’s talk about, is you talked about the automation of, okay, let’s try to use technology, if you will, to probably speed some things up and relieve some of the workforce shortages and challenges as you’re trying to expand.
[00:29:28] Vicki Markussen: Let’s talk about workforce. What is it like trying to hire at your company these days? And what’s that piece that makes them a great employee?
[00:29:37] Mike Bakalars: Just a willingness to work. All right. Very simple. Yeah. Yeah. All we ask is that you show up on time and be ready to work. We’ll take care of the rest.
[00:29:46] Mike Bakalars: We’ll train you we’ll provide you growth opportunities career paths. So there has to be a willingness to want to. To achieve and work and find a career from the employee. We’ll take care of the rest. That’s all we ask. We talked a little bit about this earlier.
[00:30:09] Mike Bakalars: The unemployment rate in western Wisconsin right now is roughly 2. 6 percent if I’m right. And which is, from an economic standpoint, full employment. And so that recruiting pool is pretty narrow we have to, and I’ve never been afraid of competition, but we’re competing with other businesses in town for that 2.
[00:30:32] Mike Bakalars: 6%. And it really makes us better employers, it makes us better recruiters, and we’ve been able to do that. It certainly hasn’t been without challenges. But we are able to hire employees because of that. So I guess that’s the upside of it. Yeah.
[00:30:53] Vicki Markussen: One of the things we talked about as well as we were, as I was getting ready to hit record, is what’s happening in the Meat production industry.
[00:31:04] Vicki Markussen: So how are you seeing where you were talking about consolidation happening, and where do you see yourself position? So let me bring you up to speed of what we were talking about of where you are. Like there’s. The small mom-and-pop shops, there’s large manufacturers like Carmel and where are you in this and where are there opportunities, and where are their challenges?
[00:31:26] Mike Bakalars: From a meat production standpoint or food service production, we’re still considered a small manufacturer being a regional. player. There are a few of us left. And that’s the good and the bad news. I can count on one hand what I would consider regional sausage manufacturers in the upper Midwest.
[00:31:47] Mike Bakalars: And as I mentioned, you’re either an extremely large company like Tyson or Smithfield or some of the other manufacturers, or it seems like you’re a smaller retail meat market. So it’s created opportunities, but it also creates challenges. The opportunities are that it. Believe it or not, it’s created with less local brands or regional brands.
[00:32:16] Mike Bakalars: It’s created an opportunity for us to go after some of that market share from the bigger manufacturers, going back to our business philosophy of quality and value. We certainly can’t compete with Tyson on production levels or even on. But we think we can provide a much better product.
[00:32:34] Mike Bakalars: And that’s how we’ve been able to survive and grow for the past 88 years. But in some of the challenges are that you’re a smaller regional manufacturer, you don’t get those economies of scale that the bigger guys get as far as and have the ease. Some of the bigger manufacturers, all they do is manufacture one product, a huge plant.
[00:32:58] Mike Bakalars: Yeah.
[00:32:58] Vicki Markussen: Over and over again. Yeah. Repetition.
[00:33:00] Mike Bakalars: Yeah. That’s right. And we’re still what we call. What’s considered a batch manufacturer. So I’m more of a specialized manufacturer and, like I said, so it comes with opportunities, but also challenges.
[00:33:12] Vicki Markussen: Yeah because as you switch to a new batch, you probably have equipment cleaning that happens.
[00:33:19] Vicki Markussen: So there’s just labor that isn’t necessarily captured in a, in one. product running through over and over again.
[00:33:26] Mike Bakalars: Yeah line changeover, we call that. That having said, we are big enough that we primarily concentrate on one product a day. We’re able to at least take advantage of that.
[00:33:36] Mike Bakalars: We set up the equipment in the morning, and we’ll run that all day, that particular product. And then, obviously on the backside of that, through the packaging, they can set up our packaging equipment to do the same thing. And, obviously, that’s what we try and do, but sometimes, like you said, you have to stop and do a line change over because you run out of a particular product, let’s say.
[00:34:00] Vicki Markussen: Yeah, and I assume that you’re like on demand, whereas the demand for a certain quantity of products, you’re not overproducing and selling. Storing is this literally it’s going out the door and out to customers right away.
[00:34:13] Mike Bakalars: Storage is an issue, and we lease a lot of outside storage space. The shelf life on our products are anywhere from 90 to 120 days.
[00:34:23] Mike Bakalars: We do. Have sales histories, and we anticipate, peaks in manufacturing holidays, Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day. So we manufacture ahead to anticipate those increase in sales. But, yeah it’s a balancing act, there are a lot of wheels. You talk to our production supervisors and our buyers, and they’ll tell you there’s some real balancing act there to make that all work.
[00:34:48] Vicki Markussen: So my common closer question is what makes you passionate about what you do?
[00:34:54] Vicki Markussen: I
[00:34:55] Mike Bakalars: love of hot dogs. That helps. No, I tell you, I wake up every morning and I love the challenges of being a business owner in this community offer. And at the end of the day, there’s. You always have problems, right? But there’s a lot more good things going on than problems.
[00:35:15] Mike Bakalars: And I thrive on those challenges. How are we going to grow our business? How are we going to increase our margins? How do we hire the right people? Those type of challenges it’s… That’s what I get up in the morning for and, it’s not about the bottom line either.
[00:35:33] Mike Bakalars: Obviously, we’re all in business to make money. And, but it’s there’s more to it than that. It’s really the bottom line is a gift package, if you will, but it’s everything that goes involved into making a profitable business that I really enjoy. And when I get up for every morning and the people we work with and our customers that we have it’s just it’s been a great experience for us and I have no interest in slowing down.
[00:36:02] Mike Bakalars: And like I said, I get up every morning and get excited going to work. That’s
[00:36:07] Vicki Markussen: fantastic. You’ve been listening to Mike Bacalarz. He is the owner, CEO, president of Bacalarz, along with his wife, Bethany. And you have been listening to BizCast Greater La Crosse. We’ll catch you next week.