As you walk through the electric sliding doors of Stemmler Meats and Cheese in Heidelberg, one of the first things you’ll notice – aside from the farm-fresh produce and the freshly-cut meats – are the red and white signs that say “Homegrown Ontario.”
The store is on the frontlines of the local-food movement, and has been for more than 25 years.
“We’re very lucky with the area we get a lot of great food here, so it wasn’t too hard to source it locally,” says Kevin Stemmler, son of Gerry and Mary Ann Stemmler who started the company in 1985.
“Twenty-five years ago we did that because we thought it was a better product, and 25 years later people are finally just getting it, which is too bad it has taken that long.”
Next Saturday, May 14, Stemmler’s is marking their 25th anniversary by inviting families and friends to a day-long celebration of local food, and for a company that started in the garage of the family’s St. Clements home all those years ago, there is certainly much to celebrate.
“We stuffed the sausage in the garage, and we had a grinder, and we cut up some pork and that’s how we got started,” laughed Gerry.
“I just wanted to have a butcher shop, and I wanted to have a market stand. That’s all it was.”
They only stayed in the garage for one winter, though, while their first store location – just a few doors down from their current site at 3031 Lobsinger Line – was being completed, and they also operated a stand at the farmers’ market. By Thanksgiving they had moved out of their 200-square foot garage into a 1,500 square-foot shop, and haven’t looked back since.
“Everything grew. The first few years’ sales were doubling, and we continued getting bigger,” said Gerry.
Right from day-one, Kevin said that the company wanted to focus on providing healthy food that was locally sourced. He credits their introduction of gluten-free products – nearly 20 years before it became mainstream – to their longevity in the marketplace.
“We were a young company and wanted business any way we could get it, so the changes came out of necessity to try to exist,” he said.
By removing gluten – which is used to hold the meat together and retain moisture – from the processing of their meat, they could target a large demographic that was not being serviced by their competitors.
Instead of gluten, the company uses anything from rice to corn and even collagen during the processing stage to achieve the same effect.
“We deal with three European spice companies, we have use of their labs and scientists, and we’re learning on the job all the time,” said Kevin. “When we have that kind of expertise behind us it makes things a lot easier, and we challenge those guys.”
The fact that the majority of their meat is processed on site allows the company to remain flexible in what they can produce, as well as keep their prices competitive by acting as their own middlemen.
The meat, including beef, turkey and pork, is sourced mainly within a 50-mile radius. They have since expanded into offering fresh produce, baked goods and gourmet sauces – while still retaining that local flare.
“The produce is off of local farms, and baked goods from local Mennonite bakeries. We think it’s really about families helping families, because these are local families too and they have kids and you want to support the people around you and we’ve always had that philosophy.”
The family has enjoyed success outside of the region as well. Their food is shipped from Windsor to Cornwall, and they have received countless awards. They took home three awards at the 2011 Independent Meat Processors Association; they were awarded the sustainable environmental award in 2010 by The Greater Kitchener Waterloo Chamber of Commerce; and they were also listed among the Top 100 Canadian Food and Beverage Processors in the September, 2010 issue of Food in Canada magazine.
The family also moved into a new 6,000-square-foot facility about five years ago, with plans to expand in the future as well.
“We’re a growing company still,” said Kevin, “but we’ve made the conscious decision not to grow too large, too quickly.”
As for the events next weekend, the family just wants to make it a pleasant experience for all of their customers and the members of the community, which they say have been coming into the store for three generations. Food diva Chef Maribel from the Food Network will be there to, as well as the “Blue Thunder” dragster that the company has sponsored for nearly 10 years along with its driver Jeff Moser. There will be other attractions and events for kids and adults alike.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the public for supporting us for all these years. We have to thank them, without them we wouldn’t have been here this long,” said Kevin.
“We have products that travel all over the province, but it was the local people who supported us first.”