Raber Packing Co. Interview: Quality, Rebuilding, and Legacy
We sit down with the 4th generation owner of Raber Packing Co., Buddy Courdt
If you are from Central Il, you have eaten the delicious food that comes from this iconic Peoria gem. Recently, we sat down with Buddy, the current owner and operator as he discussed the history of Raber's.
How was Raber’s founded?
So, Raber's was started by two gentlemen, my great grandfather, Fritz Wetterauer and Sam Raber in 1954. They met each other, my great grandfather was a German immigrant and Sam was working downtown, in the slaughterhouse district is what we call it. And they ended up getting together and wanted to do something smaller. That was, you know, they would be more in touch with the customers and stuff like that. And that's when they built Raber's in 1954. It was only designed to actually work with harvesting livestock locally, and then selling it to corner markets. Because back then, we had hundreds of corner markets that sold meat on every corner. Then things just, you know, I've transitioned over the years, where within maybe 10 years of 1954, we started selling retail to customers that would walk in the door. And then, you know, we started making our own bacon in our own hands. And then, you know, in the 90s, we started doing catering. And then you know, in 2018, we burnt down. We weren't in a great retail location in 2018. And more than half of our business was retail sales. So I, when we wanted to rebuild, we wanted to move locations, get to a busier road have more of a retail presence. And at the same time, our catering was a big part of our business. I think the catering is really good for us, because I think it's a good advertisement of our food. I think when we get to cook our food for somebody, and they get to try it exactly how we want them to try the food, I think it's always good for the business side of it. So, then we expanded on that side of it, we put in a full kitchen. And now we have a banquet hall where people can rent that out and do a lot of neat things with that. We've expanded on the catering side with the rebuild, and we opened in December 2021. So, we've only been open, you know, about 14 months. So we're really just kind of starting to get our feet under us. And you know, there's different aspects of the business that have grown since we've reopened more than what we thought. We do lunch everyday now, well, six days a week, we don't do it on Sundays, but the store is open seven days a week now. Used to be six at the old location. And now seven. And you know, we've grown a lot compared to the old facility. And when we rebuilt it was just my idea of what I thought the building and the business should look like for the next 75 years.
What was the rebuilding process like for you?
Oh, well, I mean, the beautiful thing is you get to start out with a blank piece of paper. So you're not just doing an addition or you're not just doing a remodel. You get to decide you know what rooms were too small, a place what needs to be bigger, where can we grow at, you know, what can we do as far as a banquet hall? You know, those things. I mean, then, you know, you're finding property because, we really didn't want to rebuild, spend the kind of money that we spent in the same location we were at. Then you're looking for property and you're dealing with different municipalities. And we chose to be very close to where we were and I think that made a lot of sense. We're just a half a mile from the old location. And then you're getting contractors and you're finding the right contractor and then dealing with architects and doing the final design and then and then once all that happens, then all of a sudden you start working on the construction and you're overseeing that on a day to day. Then looking for equipment and traveling a lot and picking stuff up. I mean, we, we drove a lot of miles on those few first years, picking up equipment from different states and stuff like that, and store them in a warehouse so that when we're ready for it, we'd have it. So yeah, I mean, I just basically became my own developer, then for three years, and then had to transition back into the meat business after that.
So you were like a start up?
To a certain extent, it definitely felt like a brand new business. But on the other side of that, we had a lot of experience, we had a lot of experienced employees come back. So that helped out a lot. As far as, you know, a third of my employee base when we opened if not a little bit more than that was people that have already worked with for years, many years. A few employees with over 20 plus years, a lot of them with 10 plus that came back. So you know, compared when you say startup, like I was lucky in the fact of bringing back those employees because it’d be very hard to start off with 70 employees that didn't know how you ever wanted stuff done and, and didn't know what their job really was. But it definitely felt like a new business and, and a lot of the aspects that we added new parts to it, like the banquet hall and stuff like that. And we still, I mean, to this day, I mean, the banquet hall has so many opportunities for different events.
So how did you pull your existing clients or customers back to the new location? Was that a challenge for you?
Um, I don't I don't think that part was necessarily a challenge. I mean, as soon as we opened the doors, the amount of people that were walking in was a lot more than just existing customers. You know what I mean? With the amount of sales we're doing now, I mean, we're not just selling to who we sold to before we're selling to quite a bit more than that. The reason why I wanted to be on the busier road was to have that presence and people see you, know the building and then you know, people were waiting, anticipating and open and it took a long time. I mean, we didn't get affected too much by COVID but then towards the end we did and we had some issues getting a few things at the end that did set us back a few months there and I know that there was some customers that were following it that maybe lost patience on how long did it took but on the other side of that you know, you're trying to build something that last 100 years you don't really want to waste the last month of shortcutting everything to try and get open too soon. But we really did want to try and get open in that December to you know, our Christmas hands are a big product and we wanted to really try and have those out there that year. So, we opened up in December and you know, it was just a roller coaster ride of figuring the whole building out and stuff for quite some time.
Someone was telling me that you can bring in a turkey that you buy, from anywhere, and you guys will smoke it for like $17
Used to be. No, it's more like $25 now. We started that years ago. You know the grocery store is selling 29 cent turkeys and stuff and what we were just allowing people to do is go buy that 29 cent turkey and then bring it to us and we'd smoke it. I mean, you know, when I was younger, I mean when I was little is probably $10 or $8 to do it and but it is a lot of work because you know you bring their turkey and you got to thaw it out. It always come in frozen and then you got to keep each one separate. we've tagged each one we curate each one separately, hang them in the smokehouse and then pull them out and then keep their tag with them. And then so it is a very labor intensive product to do one at a time kind of thing.
I heard it’s the best turkey you’ll ever have
Well, when we cure the turkey, we add water and salt and sugar and seasoning. So, you know, turkey can tend to be pretty dry. And especially when you're cooking for Thanksgiving and stuff, it's hard to keep them moist unless you're going to sit there and baste it every five minutes. So, we actually add moisture to them, and we add flavor to them. My grandpa always said that “A turkey tastes like whatever you make it tastes like.” Because they don't necessarily have a lot of flavor to them. They're very, very mild in flavor. So, with what we do with them, add the sugars and the salts, and then, you know, adding the smoke, we produce a really nice product that you don't just get with just roasted turkey.
So, did you grow up working in the shop?
Oh, yeah, yeah. Fourth grade, I think is pretty much when I was probably 10. I started working in the office on Saturdays, you know, help and count the money, stamp checks on the back pay to the order of and, and I don't know if that time, my grandma may have recounted everything that I counted. But that was my job was to count that stuff. And then, you know, just moved up maybe a few years later started working in packaging room. When I was younger, maybe probably 15 years old, or so I used to clean up on Saturdays, I used to clean a lot of stuff. And I thought it was a really important job. What I did on this part, I just always find the story funny. And then my grandpa moved me from the cleaning into the packaging room at one time. And I was so worried like, who was going to clean all this stuff up on Saturday? Well, I mean, you know, little did I know that employees just clean their own stuff up. And really the job wasn't even that necessary. So, I moved to packaging at that time. And then after doing packaging for a little while I moved to the retail store, worked quite a few years in the retail store and really got to learn that side of it. And at that time really got to learn more about cutting meat and stuff like that. And then after that I moved into curing and sausage making. We make all our own hams and bacon. And there's only been four people that have done that in the longevity of our company right now. And then sausage making on the same token, we've only had four people that have done that job in our history. So, I got to learn those. And I did those for about 10 years. And now two of my brothers one does the sausage making and one does the ham curing. So, it's all in the family on that side.
What was your favorite job?
Oh, my favorite job, I don't know, that's tough. So, I've always liked the retail side of things, I like dealing with the customers, I enjoy that side, you know, selling people stuff that I know they're going to like, I would say that's probably my favorite side. I mean, I don't dislike any of them, by any means they all have their ups and downs. So you know, you could say the packaging is nice, you come in you do your job, you leave and get paid at the end of the week. So that mean, that's there's just always something to do. But if you look at the building now in the store you can see that I have a big emphasis on retail sales that we really wanted to try and go out there and, you know, bring in more customers to West Peoria. And I think we've done a good job on it. On the other side, I didn't want to be a grocery store. So, I mean, we do sell a lot of items that go along with buying meat, you know, that you can make dinners and meals with so I wanted to be able to do that. But then on the other side, we don't sell toilet paper or anything like that. I think I think it turned out exactly how I wanted it to. I didn't want anything too big on the retail side. But I did want to be able to offer everything that we're offering right now.
At our old store, we didn't have produce and stuff like that. I mean, we had baked potatoes, but after that, that was about it. So, you know, as always, like, you'd come down there and want to get meat, but then you probably had to go somewhere else to get something else. And, and you know, I really wanted to try and solve that issue for us and our customers. And you know, on the other side of that, like you look at the store, and then you see the banquet hall and all the neat things that we can do in there. We've had me judging contests and stuff where high school kids or college kids come down and we're, you know, we have all the pieces put together there in the building of what we do. And we can offer stuff like that. And then we have the banquet hall where they can go and have lunch or dinner and give out their awards and stuff and it just really all ties in together really nice.
You mentioned you work with two of your brothers
Yes, two them. I have three brothers, two of them work at the plant and then my mom and dad have, and my great uncle, which was my grandpa's brother, and then his daughter was there.
Statistically they say 90 or 95% of family owned businesses fail. What's your secret? What makes it work?
Well, I mean, on that statistic, I think a fourth generation business has like a half of a percent of succeeding. I think for us, though, we've diversified just like any company that's lasted 100 years. I mean, if you look at companies that have lasted 100 years, most of the time there, they might not even be selling the same thing that they started selling 100 years ago, product wise. I think for us, though we've continually diversified. I mean, when we first started, all we did was harvest animals, cut those into big chunks that were then moved on to somebody else. And then we started cutting them into smaller pieces, then we started making them into hot dogs. And then we started cooking the hot dogs for individuals where they can eat them hot. So, we've continually diversified our company, into so many different, smaller businesses. And I think that is one part of it. I think the other part is the quality. I think we try and hold everything to the highest quality we can make. I mean, if you have a hot dog there, I hope that you think it's the best hot dog you ever had, or at least the best quality. We're doing all pork and beef, hot dog, we do an all beef hot dog, there's no fillers. It's not stuff that you can generally just buy in most stores. And if you can, it's very expensive, more expensive than what you can get with us. So, I think the quality of the products is one thing that brings people back continuously, like, like I said, Christmas hams at Christmas time, it's a family tradition for a lot of people, I think it's the best ham that money can buy. We make those right there at the plant. Our bacon is something that brings people in, those are recipes that come from the 40s and the 50s. Those aren't recipes that came from what people are trying to make now. They're just very old recipes that we haven't changed.
It's quite a legacy that you guys have created
Yeah, I mean, I'm the fourth generation. I have three daughters. One of them works there off and on. One of them, I've tried to get to come to work, and she doesn't really want to. And then one of them id only five. So, they've been determined, you know, I took the company over from my grandfather. So, you know, we still have a long ways before, we have to figure out what we're going to do as far as a successor, but I did not build it just for my generation. So, I mean, I built it out of concrete. You know, I built it so that a fire wouldn't probably ever be able to destroy, it'd be a very small percentage of the building, it would never be destroyed fully again. You know, I built a thing to last 100 years, I think it shows when you walk around it and stuff. So, you know, we plan to be around for a long time.
One thing I wanted to bring up, is you guys do a great job with your social media
I mean, well, it's just me, I do the social media. Started doing it…oh, man, I don't know, it's probably been 10 or 12 years, I guess. It just started out as a thing of just, you know, trying to get out what you do in sales every week on a product, promoting a product. And you know, the fastest way to get that to the consumer, I felt like was social media. So, we have very little Instagram stuff going on. But Facebook. I think it's harder and harder to use it. I don't think it works as well as it did 10 years ago, for sure. But I just can't quite figure out how the algorithms work these days. I'm not smart enough to do that. But it is the easiest, simplest way for me to get out what we're doing that week. I do have a really good following. I know it's probably up there in the top five in Peoria. It's hard to beat the Civic Center. But no, I mean, it's just the easiest way for us to get that out there and like one time it kind of started I had somebody wanting to sell me some advertisement for the holidays and they wanted to do a seven week campaign, and it was going to cost me $700 I think. I thought, man, I was just getting ready to sign the papers and do radio for seven weeks, and it wasn't going to be a lot of ads, but just a few ads. And I thought to myself, I was like, man, if I just gave $100 a week to my customers, like, I feel like I probably get more traffic than what I would probably get on this radio station. And that's what I did. I just gave away $100 gift card every week for seven weeks. And I got a ton of traction on social media. So rather than, you know, paying for advertisement, stuff like that, we just generally give that back to our customers and the middleman again. Yeah, I mean, I hate to say it that way. But that's kind of what we've done on it. You know, I mean, I may do like, say, chicken wings last week, for the Super Bowl, we sold five pound bags for each ad. And, you know, you get, oh, gosh, at least 1000 people that came in and bought that product. Well, that's 1000 people and you walked in my store. So, I mean, the cost of that, trying to acquire that customer walk in your store is very expensive. And I think it just I just give that money off the chicken wings and give that to the consumer for them to walk in. And it's just me trading money with them and not the middleman.
What are your thoughts on advertising online versus billboards or other traditional forms of media?
Well, it's a tough one that we discuss quite a bit and try to figure out but I mean, with the cost of like, what it costs me to acquire a customer, I think on Facebook or Instagram is generally fairly cheap. You know, I mean, for what I would pay for a billboard on a pretty heavy traffic road and stuff like that. And, if it's just my normal commute to work, then I'm probably driving by. And the other thing for us, it's like, we'd like to run weekly specials. And you can't do that on a billboard. I mean, we feel like right now that money wise, like it'd probably be in our best interest to put a sign on our property that we, you know, electronic sign that we can change frequently just to do sales on a weekly basis. And we have 12 to 15,000 cars a day. So, I mean, you know, but I need something that I can change frequently. We're not running a sale, generally, for a whole month, nobody's going to buy pork chops every week of a month. Like I said, give it back to the customers. It's just, I mean, that's what we've been doing for the last 10 or 12 years and that just seems like it works really well.
Who would you say is your most influential person or mentor or their personal or professionally?
Well, I mean, I have a lot of mentors. One that comes to mind would be my grandpa. I mean, my grandpa ran the company for approximately 50 years. My grandpa had three daughters. My mom's the oldest, two sisters, and he had no sons. So, when I was born, I was the oldest grandson at the time. And, you know, he just kind of took me in from a very young age, and I hung out with my grandpa. He was, you know, I have a lot to do with my, my dad also. But, you know, my grandpa was a father figure in my life. And, you know, he brought me up in the company, and that's why I was working at such a young age on Saturdays. We spent a lot of weekends together and spent a lot of time together. He passed away, right before we were able to open the building so he didn't get to see the building finished, he did see the construction of it. That was very dear to him to try and rebuild. He did really want to see that. So that was a big thing for him was getting to see that we got that far. But you know, I mean, he's the one that, you know, I grew up with in the business.
What would he think of the new place?
Well, there's a lot of things he probably wouldn't understand in the new business, that would confuse him a lot. We definitely use computers a lot more than we used to, that part would be very hard for him to get involved with. But on the other side of that, one thing I think my grandpa really loved is my grandpa really loved to feed people. He really, I mean, not just sell meat but to be able to cook it for them and be a part of that. And I think with what we're doing on the lunches now, I think that would be something that he would really love. We feed, you know, generally almost a couple hundred people every day on our lunches. And that would be something that I think he would really be proud of, and really love to see that part of it. And when we're building it was, you know, what was talked about in the plans and stuff. But I think if he could have seen what that actually turned into, I think that'd be something that he would he would really like. I'm not saying he didn't like selling meat and stuff like that. But he really liked going out to places cooking food for people and, and being a part of that. And I think now we've brought that home, and we're doing it six days a week right in our building. And I think that would really be neat for him.
I feel like no matter how much technology changes, I think that the tried and true principles of business, taking care of your customer, the quality, I think those things, no matter what happens, technology wise are going to be what makes a business successful
Well, I mean, on that note, you know, technology helps us do what we're doing with creating so many more sales now than what we had at the old place that technology stepped in and helped us be able to organize that better, right. But on the other side of that, like, you know, if you look at the grocery stores and stuff, you know, they keep taking away the personal effect of the shopping experience. And I absolutely hate that. And I know it costs money. I know it costs labor, to have cashiers, and I know it costs money to have people there, they can cut meat exactly how you want to cut. And I'm really hoping that for the future, you know, in the next 5,10,15,20 25 years for us that having that customer service that we offer, I really hope that there's at least enough of a percentage of people that still like that, and I think it shows and what we're doing down there. You know, there's a lot of places that are almost even getting rid of their delis and the grocery stores, you know, and everything's pre sliced. And, you know, you can't get what you want. But I mean, you can get stuff but maybe not exactly what you want it. The steaks, they're cutting are two per package and this and that, you know, well, you needed three, but you know where you can come down to Raber’s and you can get exactly what you want, you can get stuff cut exactly how thick you want, you can talk to a meat cutter or butcher or you can talk to the deli workers and you can ask them, you know, their suggestions on stuff. And I really hope that you know, as time goes on that there's still an amount of people that really want that. I don't think people want to go to the store and not deal with a cashier. I don't I mean, there may be a few people that like it, they think it's convenient. But I think a large percentage of people miss that interaction, you know, that's your time to talk to people and socialize and stuff like that. And I don't want us to ever get rid of that.
Just in general, what traits do you feel business needs to have in order to be successful? What makes a business successful?
Well, I mean, for me, I think quality. There's obviously a lot of businesses that have been successful off of selling low quality. So, but I mean, from my standpoint, I feel like it's our only option, you know, is to try and produce something that we're really proud of. I don't want to ever produce products that I'm not proud of. I think quality I mean, I think quality and customer service for us, you know, definitely customer service for the last year. You know, we had a lot of growing pains and you know I think we're continually getting better daily.
How do you keep all of your employees on the same accord?
Well, I mean, every department has somebody that they can go to that's in charge. Most of those employees, not all of them have been with me for a long time. So, you know, in saying that, you know, most of the time I'm dealing with maybe 10, people have exactly what I'm trying to get done, or how I want something done. And most of the time those 10 people have worked for us for a long time and know what I'm looking for and know what I mean when I ask for it. So, it's not that I'm dealing with 70 employees individually every day. But I do spend a lot of time, you know, walking around the plant and working on different stuff. And like I said, when we get done with maybe one project or one season, we take a look at that and see what we could do better, and then talk about it as a group of, you know, next year, I'd like to see us doing this or, or even next month, or maybe it's right now.
So, do you intentionally set weekly meetings or monthly meetings?
No, we don't really have any certain times where we meet or anything, it's something that we probably should do, we probably should meet weekly or monthly. But I definitely talk to those people every day, about different stuff. And we go over different things. And you know, as it is right now, just I mean, with everybody individually, and we talked about it as I'm walking through the plant and stuff in the mornings, or, or all day for that fact. I definitely just have, you know, employees that I depend on more than others to make sure that we're getting done what we're supposed to
Those people are usually your managers?
They're supervisory roles where it kind of gets separated into rooms, you have, you know, a fully cooked packaging room where there's one person that I deal with mostly there, but it's not that I don't talk to the other ones or anything, but tell her what, you know, I want to get done and stuff. And then we have one person in charge of the deli, we have a person in charge of the meat room, we have person in charge of processing and person in charge of the harvest floor.
What’s next for Raber’s?
One thing that was kind of something on my mind when rebuilding. I think there's a lot more that we can do with that banquet hall and the facility that we have there. So, I think, you know, in the future, I think it'll be neat to see that side of it grow.
So, if someone wants to reserve the banquet room for a graduation or wedding reception, they can do that now, right?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, I mean, really, this year, I mean, as far as between spring and fall, I mean, four out of five Saturdays most months are taken. But you know, there's a lot of Friday's, there's a lot of Sundays. There's a lot of week days. As far as next year goes, I would say it's pretty open. But you know, the Saturdays this year are filling up pretty fast.
It can be a great space for like a business or work event
It is yeah, we've done like breakfast for work events, safety meetings and stuff like that. You know, a lot of family reunions, school reunions, high school reunions stuff like that have been a big thing, also.
How do people find you online?
Well, we do have a website, https://www.raberpacking.com. You can email us directly from our website. To see exactly what's going on a week to week basis, follow us on Facebook, and we also have an Instagram page.