The neighborhood butcher has a long-held tradition of trust with livestock-raising customers in the U.S.A. since handling key meat investments is an upmost responsibility. Add to that a skill for processing fantastic-tasting meat products for the customer off the street, and relationships can last a lifetime.
So it went for Nick and Diane Grote who operated the Braham Food Locker Service for 40 years. They bought the downtown butcher shop on July 3, 1972 then sold it to Dean & Lavonne Sundeen on June 4, 2012. Over that span, they not only cut, wrapped and smoked tons of meat but became a solid piece of the Braham retail environment.
“We have made so many friends– so many customers who have become friends. And I think that was one of the hardest parts about selling the business was to lose contact with them on a daily business,” said Diane during a June 29 interview at their home on the east side of Braham. “We’ve enjoyed the people so much. We’ve had the support from the community to stay in business so long. And, in turn, we’ve supported the schools and activities around town. It’s been a great relationship.”
A “Retirement Open House” for the Grotes will be celebrated this Saturday, July 7 from 3 p.m. to whenever at the Dan & Jonelle Klemz home (3956 413th Ave NE in the southeast corner of Braham). Friends, family, former employees and customers are all invited to share memories with Nick and Diane.
How the Grotes got into the meat business
Nick was a Greeley native, graduating from Rush City H.S. in 1958. He began working at the same locker he would eventually own when the “PICK Processing Co-op” was run there. He got into construction work after that, then spent one more year in meat processing at the Ogilvie locker while also serving in the Army Reserves before getting back into construction.
“I’m from Anoka, and after we were married we lived in the Cities. Nick always wanted to move back up here, and I despised that idea!” said Diane. “‘This is the sticks up here!’ she always said back then,” laughed Nick. “I didn’t want our kids to be any country bumpkins,” countered Diane.
Meanwhile, Glen Christensen bought the locker from the co-op in 1961. He wanted to move to Colorado in 1972, so he contacted the Grotes to see if they were interested in buying it.
“Being stupid, young and naive, we said we’d meet with him. We more or less bought it on a handshake– it was just so simple,” recalled Diane. “I think it was less than a month from when we first started talking to when we were in the locker.”
The longer the Grotes hung on, the more they learned about meat processing, creating hams, bacon, summer sausage, dried beef and bologna, along with Diane working as the main bookkeeper all along. Much knowledge was gained when they joined the Tri-State Meat Processing Association where members shared their tricks and secrets.
Soon, Braham Food Locker was respected across the region when it began dominating Tri-State’s annual conventions. Nick, who served on the board and as the Minnesota association president, brought home Grand Champion awards for four years running for his smoked turkey. He also won awards for hams, bologna and beef sticks.
“He looked sharp in his suit and cowboy boots!” said Diane, looking back at the old newspaper articles.
“I was worried whether the new smoked meats were going to come out or not. It was kind of a trial-and-error thing at first, getting the mixes just right,” said Nick. “Our employees were our guinea pigs! We also got into smoking fish, especially when local guys were bringing salmon back from Lake Michigan.”
The job worked great for Diane to raise children Chris and Nicole, since she could get them off to school in the morning, work at the locker, then get home to spend the afternoon with the kids.
“During the prime part of the meat-cutting season (September to April), we worked 50 to 60 hour weeks,” recalled Nick. “Once in a while, we’d get asked ‘why don’t you expand the building and business?’ We thought we had the perfect size to keep all our employees busy– so we didn’t have to have layoffs during the slower months.”
Passing on meat skills
Over the years, many young men learned the handy life-long skills of meat processing at the Braham Food Locker.
“The kids we’ve had over the years have been so fabulous. Over the 40 years, I bet we could count on one hand the bad ones,” said Diane. “Scott Laugen was our very first employee. Back in the early 1980s, Jeff Johnson stayed on with us a long time. He was one of the best employees we’ve ever had– he learned everything. He went on to a good career with Cub or some big store in the Cities, plus he worked on the deer butchering with the Bakkens all these years,” said Diane.
“We had almost all the boys from Carl & LaVerne Anderson’s family work for us,” said Neil. “We had all the Aleckson boys, the Heikes boys, the Klemz boys….”
Added Diane, “We had some high school kids that we knew went out and partied on Friday night. If they came in in tough shape, they would be cleaning the gut barrels the next day! That was one way to teach them!” chuckled Diane.
After retiring, the Grotes bought a meat grinder and a smoker so they can keep their hands on their own special projects at home.
“We will be spending time with the grandchildren. We have lots of home projects that got left behind. Gardening, that kind of stuff,” said Diane about retirement plans. “I love to road trip, so hopefully we can get in lots of them, too.”