HOLSTEIN, Iowa | To say Tiefenthaler Quality Meats is a business known around the country isn't a stretch. That's what a host of U.S. awards and a customer base in 48 states will do for you.
But, did you know that one of best small-town business success stories maybe wouldn't have happened were it not for a well-connected high school teacher?
John Tiefenthaler, a native of Galva, Iowa, who owns and operates the business with wife Shelly and their children, smiles while settling into a story that explains the origin of this full-service processing center, wholesale and retail site on Highway 59 at Holstein's northern tip.
"I was a senior at Galva-Holstein High School back in 1981 and he had a trades and industries program where you had to have a job in order to be in the program," John Tiefenthaler says. "My choice was to work either at the meat locker in town or the elevator."
After a brief chat with his mother, Tiefenthaler headed downtown to see Bob Bagenstos, who ran the local locker plant called Food Locker Service, an enterprise most towns had 36 years ago.
Bagenstos, who took over the operation from his father, Ray, was an outgoing, gregarious business owner, eager to greet and welcome anyone and everyone into his plant. He met the G-H High School senior with a hearty handshake and booming voice.
"We'd love to have you!" he exclaimed.
John Tiefenthaler, a teen, was scared half to death. But, he didn't go visit the elevator as he assumed he had the locker job, all he needed for his including in the trades and industries program, one aimed in broad strokes at seniors not necessarily intent on attending college.
"A few days later, my teacher asked me, 'So, where is your job?'," Tiefenthaler recalls. "And then I said, 'I think it's at the locker, but I'm not sure.'"
That teacher, Harold Treiber, said he knew Bagenstos. So, Treiber went to the locker plant to inquire about Tiefenthaler joining the crew.
"Mr. Treiber came back and said to me, 'You got the job,'" Tiefenthaler recalled.
That was 36 years and several expansions ago. Tiefenthaler began making sausage and cutting meat for Bagenstos. They became partners in 1983 and John became sole owner in 1991 as Bagenstos remained on staff to continue assisting his prize pupil, teaching him all he could about the business until he retired in 1996, the year John's wife, the former Shelly Brummer, a Holstein, native, joined her husband in the business.
"Technically, Food Locker Service is still our name," John Tiefenthaler says. "We're doing business as Tiefenthaler Quality Meats."
Doing business? And how! John and Shelly have welcomed their children, Jordan Bremer and her husband, Jesse Bremer, into the fold, as well as their son, Austin Tiefenthaler and his girlfriend, Tasha Ronfeldt. Additionally, Doug Pauley, an uncle, is part of the award-winning mix, a team that ultimately consists of 25 employees in a sprawling plant complex built in 2004 and built on to four to five times in the past 13 years.
Tiefenthaler Quality Meats still slaughters pigs, cattle and a few goats and sheep for livestock growers that come from as far away as three hours. None of that meat, John says, leaves the facility until the customer returns to purchase it.
"We also buy some boxed product, because of demand," John says, noting, for example, how Tiefenthaler Quality Meats had to have 450 ribeyes for a recent fire department feed. That volume would represent about 15 head of cattle, an amount the plant might not be equipped to handle in a short time span.
The Tiefenthalers have competed in local, state and national cured-meats championships over the past 12 to 13 years, giving rise to products such as No Mess Chili Dogs (a hot dog with chili and cheese inside) and seven different flavors of Skinless Bratwurst, some of the many meat products the firm produces and sells in stores such as Fareway and Hy-Vee all across Iowa.
"We send gift boxes all over the country," John adds, noting how recent gift boxes have gone to executives running global firms like Neiman Marcus and Oakley Sunglasses, to name two.
The biggest change, or development in John Tiefenthaler's time with the firm, probably came in 1998 when he added a smoke house to the operation. To that point, he had kept more than busy butchering, running the saw, the grinder, patching the roof and painting the store when not greeting customers.
"The smoke house gave me a new job," he says. "It was something different I could learn."
Six years later, he and Shelly won their first state award for meats.
"We were going to the Iowa Meats Processors Association Convention, going there to learn and talk with other business operators like us, but we didn't enter any products in the contests," he says. "That changed in 2004 when we took some product and won four or five awards."
They haven't looked back and are likely running out of wall space upon which they can place the plaques for those cured-meats titles.
Tiefenthaler Quality Meats, for example, won a four-state competition for the best Smoke Brat Skin-On. In a national show in 2016 in Omaha, Tiefenthaler Quality Meats earned grand champion accolades in three Bone-In Ham classes.
John and now son Austin have prepared the firm's Smoked Turkey, which has won the top Iowa awards the past seven or eight years.
Beyond the awards is the satisfaction the family feels in seeing customers who continue to make Tiefenthaler Quality Meats a destination. There have been times when customers have driven three to four hours just to shop here. One couple from around Sibley, Iowa, says Holstein is on their way no matter which direction (except north) they travel from home.
"Austin and Doug trade off grilling duties during our annual June sale and we'll see people from Nebraska who take a day off from work to drive here and sample meat in our tent as they grill," John says. "There are people from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, (241 miles from Holstein) who come for it."
In addition to making, marketing and selling their products, the team also puts together "How To" instructional sessions, both on-line and in-person. In many ways, the former high school student who trekked here for his trade and industries class has become a teacher, as has his staff.
"We want to be an information source," John Tiefenthaler says. "We want your meat to turn out for you so that your guests recommend it to others."
That full-circle thought has Tiefenthaler smiling, sitting with daughter Jordan Bremer, as they reflect on the growth and versatility they've found while growing business in Holstein, their town. After all, this is an enterprise that has fed families, in some cases, across five generations.
"If Mr. Treiber hadn't gotten me the job," John asks, "where would I be?"