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The Lamb Shoppe

Serving Top Buyers
(What They Want!)

By Tim King

Doug Rathke and Connie Karstens, of Liberty, Land, and Livestock Farm near Hutchinson, Minnesota, have taken their modest sized flock of 250 Dorset ewes and created a highly integrated set of enterprises that include the sale of breeding stock, consulting, video production, and on farm processing. The diverse enterprises might seem unrelated at first glance but each is related, or “stacked,” as marketing guru Joel Salatin says. Some of the enterprises have enterprises stacked within them.

Lamb Shoppe Logo

Doug and Connie started one of their major enterprises, the Lamb Shoppe, just short of 10 years ago.

“We live on a major highway and people would see our animals grazing and they would drive up and ask if they could buy a package of lamb chops,” Connie said. “This kept happening over and over so we finally thought we’d put up something to provide them with lamb chops. It was just an addition to our house so if it hadn’t worked we would just have had a bigger house.”

The 20′ X 30′ USDA-certified processing plant and retail store has worked. In the early years of the project sales of processed lamb through the Lamb Shoppe’s various markets quadrupled annually. In the last couple of years sales have reached a plateau that provides Connie an excellent part time job-at home!-while she raises her school age children.

The Lamb Shoppe is divided into a 7′ X 20′ retail and office space and a 15′ X 20′ cutting room. The store and the cutting room are divided by a wall. The rest of the space is dedicated to a walk in freezer and the toilet facilities required by the USDA. There is no place for slaughtering lambs.

“We have that done at another plant and we bring them here to be cut up,” Doug said. “We have a refrigerated trailer we use to bring the carcasses back.”

Doug does the major cutting with the saw.
Doug does the major cutting with the saw.

“The plant is only a half-hour north of here so we decided that for our purposes it made more sense to work with them than to build a slaughtering facility ourselves,” Connie said.

Lamb carcasses are picked up the same day that they are to be cut. The carcasses are left hanging in the refrigerated trailer, which can hold up to 12 carcasses, and then brought into the cutting room one by one.

“Whenever we cut meat we do it together,” Connie said. “Doug does the major stuff with the saw, breaking the carcasses down and I do a lot of the trimming and the labeling and all the detail stuff. We both have to help clean up, though.”

Since The Lamb Shoppe does occasionally buy lamb from other producers (to supplement their own supply), consistency of the cut meat is a concern.

“It’s our policy to purchase lambs from producers who have similar genetics and management practices to us,” Doug says.

“Producers who purchase rams from us frequently are a good source for us to look for when we need additional animals. Also since we work directly with the producers we are purchasing from, we can show them when a lamb is ready to market. Then too, because we process the meat, we can also manually manipulate the amount of fat by cutting and trimming. Some of our markets require more consistency than others, so for the very particular markets, we can match the cuts accordingly.”

The lamb that is going to be delivered to accounts that want it fresh-such as restaurants- is cut, boxed, and put right back into the Lamb Shoppe’s refrigerated trailer for delivery to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area the following day. Retail customers who want fresh rather than frozen lamb know what days Doug and Connie cut, and will come to the store on those days.

The Lamb Shoppe (left) forms an addition to Doug and Connie's house.
The Lamb Shoppe (left) forms an addition to Doug and Connie’s house.

“We do restaurant deliveries every two weeks,” Connie said. “On the off weeks we’ll do one day of cutting for the shop.”

A part of their sales into their urban market also includes retail outlets.

“We never try to compete with any established lamb marketer,” Connie says. “If another producer is selling to someone we never try to under-price another marketer or compete in any way. We believe it is better to build bridges rather than to burn them. We always try to seek out different niches, but lately it seems that those niches have sought us out instead.”

One of the niches that sought them out is the Ethiopian restaurant they sell to.

“He called us up and came out and showed us how he wanted it cut!” Doug said.

Doug and Connie have a clear idea of how much of their meat is going into each of their markets.

Connie reveals, “The breakdown of our sales is:

  • 40% the state fair booth,
  • 25% the store,
  • 25% restaurants, and
  • 10% the live sales from the farm.”

The live sales are primarily to Muslim customers, who often butcher their lambs right on the farm. Most of those sales take place around the major Muslim holidays. Doug has set up a bare-bones slaughtering facility to accommodate those customers.

“Those sales are often made to groups of people,” Connie said. “One time we sold 26 in one day.”

The store’s sales include everything from actual retail customers, a growing mail order business, and buying club deliveries.

Connie (center) at the state fair booth. On her left is Kate Rathke, her daughter, and on the right is Tara Ashburn, an employee.
Connie (center) at the state fair booth. On her left is Kate Rathke, her daughter, and on the right is Tara Ashburn, an employee.

The Minnesota State Fair booth sales involve an intense 12-day marathon of selling that requires the Lamb Shoppe to hire 15 people.

Building the booth to its cur-rent level of suc-cess was a long and sometimes discouraging process. While Doug and Connie were carefully ex-perimenting with products-gyro sandwiches with a special cucumber sauce are the foundation of the booth’s success-they watched other people invest heavily in their booths and fail. Their approach to the booth was the same as to the rest of their business. “Slow, careful, and tenacious.” Connie and Doug advise others to do the same:

  • “Don’t give up.
  • “Do remember to start off slow at first.
  • “Do not expect that you can quit your job in town the first year and make it a complete go right off the bat.
  • “Keep at it because it all takes time. We have been at our state fair booth for 15 years now and each year it is easier and easier.
  • “Always try to make things more efficient and try to be creative with fresh and new ideas.
  • “Listen to the customers, they will tell you what they want.
  • “Always, always, always create a top quality product-it will pay off in the end and will bring you repeat customers year after year.”

Doug and Connie will be offering a two-day seminar called “From Farm Gate to Consumer Plate Seminar” September 24-25, 2005, that will show attendees how to develop a business similar to theirs. Some of the curriculum topics include:

  • How to Get Started and Develop Your Plan,
  • Choosing The Market Best for You: Finding Your Unfair Advantage,
  • Government Regulations, Labels & Logos, Setting Prices,
  • Creating Appealing Images & Customer Relations,
  • Live Lamb Carcass Evaluations & Management Tips on Growing Lambs for Optimal Marketing.

“I want the seminar to help people to get where we are at,” Connie said. “There are so many untapped markets out there that aren’t developed so why not get more money in the pockets of the middle man?”

For more information you can contact Connie or Doug via their website www.ourfarmtoyou.com or by phone at 320-587-6094.

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