A devastating fire and now a recession that is putting a crimp in the average family’s beef budget: Nothing seems to stop Byron Center Meats for long.
The 63-year-old family-owned business has just moved into its new 17,000-square-foot facility on the site of its previous building, destroyed almost two years ago in a spectacular blaze.
Jim Sytsma, who owns the business along with his son, Steve, said the new building is “more than double the size of the facility we had,” with a larger freezer and cooler, larger retail space and room to expand.
When asked how much is invested in the new building, which houses both a retail business plus meat storage and processing facilities, Sytsma said the fire in July 2007 destroyed more than $3 million in property and, he added, “It’s probably going to take that (much) to get back in shape.”
Only days after the fire, the Sytsmas had the business up and running again, operating out of a vacant former bank building that the family also owned on the same parcel.
“We had a remarkable recovery within just a few days,” noted Sytsma.
Byron Center Meats employs about 35 mostly full-time employees, and is actually three different types of business: a retail store that draws loyal customers from up to 50 miles away; a freezer/processing operation for West Michigan farmers who raise cattle, hogs and lambs; and a wholesale business.
“We’ll process as many as 60 cattle a week for home freezers, and also a lot of pork — sometimes as many as 100 head of pork a week,” said Sytsma.
The animals are butchered elsewhere and the quarters brought to BCM where they are cut up to the customer’s specifications. Last week they were scheduled to process eight slaughtered buffalo that had been raised for meat here in West Michigan.
Then there is BCM’s big wholesale business.
“We actually do the entire fresh steak program for Sysco Food Service of Grand Rapids,” said Sytsma. Last year BCM provided “probably between 2 and 3 million pounds” of beef to Sysco, but BCM also has other retail and wholesale accounts.
The wholesale business may spur an increase in hiring at BCM.
“We’re dealing right now with a couple of potential new accounts,” said Sytsma. “If that comes through, then, yes, we would do some hiring,” he said. “That has to happen first, but we feel pretty good about it.”
BCM’s retail business, it also expanded. Last year, BCM held its 13th annual truckload meat sale, its biggest ever despite the fact that the fire had occurred about eight months earlier. BCM wrapped up this year’s truckload sale “5 percent above” the sale the year before, said Sytsma.
Sytsma said the recession has had little impact on BCM, which “actually showed growth in the first quarter of this year,” but he said there may be a consumer trend now to more ground beef instead of steak.
He said there is a restaurant trend in regard to beef — smaller portion sizes — which apparently isn’t a result of the current recession, but rather something that has been noted over the last couple of years or more. The smaller portions mean that restaurants can still offer steak on the menu at “an attractive price,” said Sytsma.
Systsma attributes the success of BCM to several factors.
“We have a good company — a lot of good people working here,” he said, adding that BCM takes extra time to produce high-quality cuts of beef.
“We age all our beef for 21 days,” said Sytsma. “That’s not done most places. Most places want to turn over the dollars quicker — get it in, get it out — but aging definitely has a tenderizing and flavor effect on the product.”
The new retail area at BCM is much larger than its previous retail space and is offering “hundreds of more products,” said Sytsma, which includes food products that complement meat — spices, rubs, sauces, oils, and noodles — and also ethnic meat products popular in Europe, Asia and Mexico. And, of course, there are usually buffalo steaks for sale.
The business was started by Jim Sytsma’s parents, Gerald and Gert Sytsma, who bought a lot for $300 and built a locker plant, which opened in April 1946 with 650 freezer lockers. In those days there were no home freezers, so people would rent a locker for one dollar per month. The plant also had a cooler where farmers brought their beef and pork to be cut up and packaged and then stored in a locker. Soon the Sytsmas added fresh meat cases with cuts for sale to the public. The Sytsmas had six children and the family worked together.
The introduction of home actually increased Americans’ demand for meat to fill them.
Jim and Ruth Sytsma bought the business from his parents in 1966, and in 1968, an addition doubled the size of the building. In 1983, a new freezer was added, allowing expansion of the cooler and production space. A sausage room and smokehouse were also added at this time.
In 1984, a new opportunity opened up when Sysco Food Service of Grand Rapids was looking for a supplier of fresh cut steaks to be distributed by Sysco to hotels, restaurants and institutions throughout Michigan and parts of Indiana.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture “has an office in our place, and there are (meat) inspectors here every day,” said Sytsma.
Mike DeVries, in charge of BCM’s business development, was also “very instrumental” in the new construction just completed, because he has a long career in design and construction of federally inspected meat plants.
Prior to joining BCM, DeVries was employed by Michigan Turkey Producers, where he was responsible for construction of its two meat processing and packing plants. He has also worked for Sara Lee, Bil-Mar, Henry House and other meat processors. DeVries Meats in Coopersville, started by his father, is now operated by his brother.
There is no industry more regulated by the government than meat processing for interstate shipment, including the nuclear power and pharmaceutical industries, according to DeVries. “We have an inspector on-site every single day.”
“If you have certain processes (involving meat), you cannot even begin operations until they’ve approved your facility on a daily basis, in the morning,” said DeVries. And if the regular USDA inspector doesn’t show up for work, “You are going to wait until a relief inspector shows up,” he added.
But the USDA presence within meat industry plants ensures that “the U.S. does have the safest food supply in the world,” said DeVries.
The new building at BCM, which was built by Dan Vos Construction, is a combination of insulated metal panels and concrete blocks on an internal skeleton of structural steel.
Because of the government’s sanitary regulations, meat processing facilities are designed for constant extensive cleaning with lots of hot water and/or steam. Construction designs and materials at the new BCM building also reflect a diverse range of temperatures that have to be maintained within the building, which require thermal breaks between the freezer, cooler, processing and retail areas, and the offices on the second floor of the building.
Another challenge was the limited space on which to build the new facility.
“What we did to compensate for that was, we went up,” said DeVries. The maximum interior height in the former plant was probably 16 feet or less, he said. “Now we’ve got ceilings at 38 feet,” he said, with racks for frozen and chilled meat stacked up to the ceiling.
Other key members of the BCM staff include Jim Systma’s son Doug, and Rob Lacey, the company’s full-time quality assurance manager.
Byron Center Meats is planning a grand opening event in late January to celebrate the opening of the new facility.