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A Pound of Questions: Q&A With Dan Malone

October 13, 2009

Whitewater, Wisconsin is located on US Route 12 in southeast Wisconsin. If you pay attention while driving on US 12 you’ll see signs calling it the Iron Brigade highway. It honors the Iron Brigade of the Union Army that were pivotal forces at Gettysburg. A good portion of the brigade was made up of big Wisconsin German farm boys.

Dan Malone is the proprietor and sausage artist of Dan’s Meat Market. After interviewing Dan I think he reflects the iron resolve of the brigade. He has a clear vision and determination to make the best products. That iron quality might normally be enough but Dan’s battle with cancer also brings to mind iron determination.

When I walked in late in the afternoon Heather, his daughter welcomed me and said Dan was at home. He was resting after chemotherapy. Amazingly, he wanted to talk sausage and came to the store. There’s lot to be said for iron determination.

It should be also be noted he makes some of the best sausages you’ll ever taste and he benefits from having his own livestock supply his store. This is vertical integration of a business very few consumers will ever taste. Go taste Dan’s sausages and whatever else he has in his cases.

You’ve got a family business here and you’ve been farming for how many years?
Basically all my life.

So what prompted you to want to get into the butcher business and sausage making business?
We use to have venison sausage made in the Marshall Sausage Kitchen up in Marshall (Wisconsin). One of my brothers ran the IGA, one ran the sausage kitchen and my brother who ran the sausage kitchen passed away.
We couldn’t find any place in the state that made venison sausage the way they did. So I took a class at UW extension in sausage making with a cousin of mine, an then over the next two years I worked making venison sausage to try to get a recipe like theirs.
Well, we got the venison down. Then we did summer sausage. Then we made a batch of smoked polish and friends and family really liked it. Then I had a guy who worked in product development for Hormel for 30 years and he said it was the best he ever had. So those things stick with you.
Then when my daughter graduated the University of Wisconsin (Madison) this store was a way and they wanted to do something with her before I was too old. It was just a natural step to open our own meat market. From our farm, our beef, our chickens, right to the public. In August, 2009 it marked two years that we’ve been open.

Was it hard to get started?
It still is hard. All the public is educated to the low price. And basically people that are 55 and younger also can’t cook. They also don’t know a good cut of meat from a poor cut of meat so they look at the price and it’s the only thing they understand.
So the big stores put 10 steaks out with way different prices and 80% of the people grab the cheapest one. They sacrifice quality. They eat more additives than what they need because when you go to the big box stores their meat is packaged with a preservative or gas to fight bacteria or botulism.
The big package plants wash animals down before they are even slaughtered and then they are washed down again. And a lot of it is just ammonia, bleach solution, but it not only kills the bad bacteria but it kills the good bacteria. To properly get beef aged it has to age 14-17 days before it goes to market. That costs refrigeration time, and time is money. The meat processors also think that they have to turn it over quickly and 3 days is better than 21 days because time is money.
I say this is my product and I get $5.45 a pound for my bacon. The next guy makes it similar but he’s going to try and compete with Oscar Meyer and pay $3.99.
OK – if you’re the big 10000 employee company and do tonnage fine. But we’re not, we’re doing something special that our customers look for and they want to know when they put a slab of bacon in the pan that it’s not all pumped full of water and it shrivels up. Our customers want to know where it comes from and they want to know who was taking care of them. So, with our quality the price matters a lot less. And our customer’s get that.
One of the topics I ask people about as a sausage maker where do you stand on adding additives to sausages. It sounds like you don’t like to add anything but spice to it.
We use salt and spices that’s it. You have to have salt. We don’t have to have a lot of salt.
On my bacon I’m allowed 750 parts per million and we’re running about 145 – about a quarter to a third of what the USDA says we can use. Granted we don’t have a 4 month shelf life. If you don’t use it right away you freeze it. We make the small batches.
Our brats are boneless country style ribs and that’s it. I don’t buy a 60/40 trim and fat from all over the body. I don’t believe in that. Our brats are about 80% lean. If you overcook them they’re dry and crumbly.

Your sausages were so lean and flavorful; do you have a philosophy on having a certain amount of fat and meat because yours seem very lean?
We stress the cooking of them. Don’t over cook them. Cook at 360 degrees, a lower temperature – slower. I ‘ve had some people tell me they want more fat in them but I’ve had other people, the majority, who said don’t because they have learned that if they overcook them that they get crumbly.
We could add water – I don’t want to buy something that’s full of water. So basically what I tell them is that if you’re going to take it, take it home and cook it right.
We do also custom batches. We have people come in from northeastern Illinois. They come in and have their little favorite Italian or German sausage shop and they’re all gone. They say that they have grandmother’s recipe from when she made it. I look at it and sometimes it’s for 100 pounds, sometimes it for 5 pounds. I say how may pounds would you like and I try and duplicate it. And I enjoy that. We have a tremendous following from Elgin, across Rockford, people that come from Superior Michigan, Minnesota.

If somebody calls up from Missouri or Florida, can you ship?
If they ask me to ship, yes, I can ship it.

Has the State of Wisconsin been supportive of your efforts? Have they been good to work with? Or the USDA? Do inspectors come out?
They’ve been nothing but fabulous. We’re very picky. When our inspector walks in and says he was a meat cutter for 20 years before he was an inspector – he said he never had been in a meat room as clean as ours. It costs us more labor, but there again if I’m going to make it in there then I want it the way I would do it for myself. And we are very anal about making sure we’re clean.

What types of sausages do you make? How many types of sausages do you make?
We’ve probably made 15 different brats, 10-12 different smoked sausages. We’re making our own slicing bologna and slicing summer sausage. When I get done with my treatments, I’m working on a ham and cheese bologna. It will look like a slice of bologna but it will have cheddar cheese in it.
I have a breakfast sausage for campers. I’ve made a couple of test run batches because when people go camping or hunters go out west, they buy a pound of breakfast sausage or make it because they don’t have a very good cooler they have to use it up quicker. If I make a smoke and cured breakfast sausage in a stick like a summer sausage, they throw it in a frying pan, slice some if off, it’s cooked and cured,. They can heat it up in the pan like a breakfast sausage and it will last for 3 weeks if they keep it at 50 degrees. I work on a lot of items just so many different things as people come in. I don’t have them all in the counter every day. I rotate. We’ve got around 14 brats that I rotate from the mild Italian on up.

You mentioned that you accept other people recipes. Do you make game sausages?
We’re the only ones in the area where if you bring your own meat in you get your own meat back. We only bring in boned venison. Because the guys that bring their venison that’s boned, they’re very particular and take good care of it.
We don’t make jerky. We make snack sticks, we make chub snack sticks with pepper jack cheese, regular cheese and just on and on and on. Last year I tried making 10 pound sticks of slicing bologna out of venison. The response was amazing. It’s fine-ground like an Oscar Meyer but it’s awesome. A little toasted rye bread, a little mustard, and lettuce – it’s fabulous.

In the two years that you’ve been running your shop, what’s been the biggest surprise?
The biggest surprise I think was the amount of rib eyes. I didn’t anticipate the amount of rib eyes that I would sell. But there again you go to a typical grocery store and an animal is slaughtered on Monday, by Wednesday it’s cut and bagged and it doesn’t get a change to properly age. Then it’s at the grocery store sliced and out at the counter and you get panty liners under the mean to soak up the blood.
I cut a slice of meat that is 28 days old and put it in a tray and it don’t run blood and it’s never been frozen. So it’s a very expensive cut of meat to most people, but we go through a lot. And our bacon is just like it was done in 1890 where we take a slab and we hand rub the salt cure on it for seven to fourteen days in the cooler at 34 degrees. Honestly that bacon has gotten to a lot of people from all over the place.

Where do you get your spices?
I’m very particular about my spices, that they’re fresh, where they come from. We buy from several different places.
I had one place sell me Hungarian sweet paprika. It was a Spanish paprika – they didn’t know the difference. They were probably just third or fourth down the line. Little things like that.
My Hungarian sausage calls from sweet Hungarian paprika and when you Spanish and taste it you can tell. Many of my recipes, Italian and the Hungarian have come from families. All my summer sausage meats they’re all mine. I don’t give them out to anyone.
I don’t make bulk spice buys because then they could sit. The summer sausage sometimes makes a week ahead of time but we don’t pre-mix spices I grind the spices myself and I roast the garlic.

How many pounds of sausage a year do you go through?
Well I know we just tallied up the venison in the calendar year from November 1st through October 1st, and we’ve done over 4000 pounds of venison. That’s the venison that we brought in, and we only ever ran one ad. It’s all word of mouth or people asking. Our average turnaround time is about 14 days.
Many people that get venison in Wisconsin, they take it in in November and they get called in March that their sausage is done. We’ve been very fortunate and we had only two that we didn’t get out in 14 days this year.
If I’m just a retail customer coming in on a Saturday, is it typical that you will have venison sausage available, or are there better times of the year that it will be available? The license that we have – If you bring your boned venison in, you get your own venison back.
I can buy farm-raised venison, but prefer to customers bring in their own. We haven’t had the time or ability to do the farm raised venison. Typically there are enough guys around here in town that if I need stick of venison summer sausage, I can say to the person, can you call Joe, and he’ll give you a stick. Some people want came into town and wanted to take back it out east last year. I just called a friend and they shared.

What are some of your favorite sausages?
My summer sausage, my garlic brat, garlic onion brat, a beer brat,. We use Leinie’s red (Leinenkugel Red Beer). We can buy beer flavoring, but we actually use Leinie’s Red. We tried the dark hoppy beers they didn’t work out. I didn’t get the flavor. My Canadian bacon and regular bacon are favorites. I can eat bacon a lot.
I use a 48 hour cure on chicken for smoked chickens and they are so tender. I do a 72 hour cure on turkeys and smoke them and people just warm them up for Thanksgiving. People say they have never had a more juicy turkey. If I had to close up and only could make one thing, I think I’d make the stick summer sausage and my snack sticks, the slim Jim’s.

Do you have your meats going into restaurants or other facilities?
We are licensed. We can sell certain dollars amount of meat, like burger, or we can have restaurants call to order rib eyes every week. I have one restaurant give us his spices and we put his spice on it, shrink-wrap it, and he gets that.
We’ve got a number of them that get the ground pork or have us cook the pork and they add their own spices for pulled pork.
I’m working on a Hawk Dog, which is for the war hawks (the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater mascot is the War Hawk). It turned out very nice. It’s like a light Oscar Meyer, but it’s 50% ground chuck and 50% boneless country style ribs and it’s 80% lean. We do them in jalapeño, cheddar, regular, and garlic.

What sausages are your best sellers?
Summer sausage, snack sticks and chubs. They’re the same recipe. Summer sausage is in a 2-1/2 inch diameter, and then the snack sticks in a 22 mm. lamb natural casing. We don’t use any paper casings. That has a different flavor because the smoke penetrates different than the stick sausage. Stick sausage retains more moisture. Tastes like two different recipes but it’s the same one. Then you add cheddar or pepper jack cheese and the snack stick at 22 mm.

Have you made any big mistakes, where you said “Boy, I’ll never do that again!"
I wouldn’t say big mistakes, we’ve never had a batch that we’ve made that we couldn’t rescue, like part way through the smoking we forgot to turn on the exhaust fan, which raises the temperature. We monitor the temperature so closely that it’s easy to catch.
Whitewater’s a difficult, very fickle town to do business in. I didn’t know 18 months into it I would come up with cancer. There are a number of things I would have done different. Hindsight’s 20/20 but the Lord’s got a plan for me.

Dan’s Meat Market
210 W. Whitewater St.
Whitewater, Wisconsin 53190
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