by Magda Dakin
You might drive past this funky looking building on Route 169 in Charlton many times and wonder what it is and what does it have to do with the Stearns Meat sign nearby. Rick Stearns, co-owner of Ed Stearns Dressed Meats, happily explains that all the signs and colorful art work on the outside of the building were created for their favorite local cause, “Relay for Charity.” He says, “We’ve put all this work into the signs and it seems a waste to just put them away and ignore them. Why not let it be a reminder all year long?”
But don’t let the fun exterior fool you. Inside is a serious business: they’ve got beef—and pork and ham and veal and chicken and turkey and hamburger and hot dogs and baby back ribs and sausage and jerky (9 flavors) and smoked pork chops and bacon and cooked chicken wings (7 flavors) and marinated sirloin tips (6 flavors) and prepared meals and duck breast and all sorts of other smoked items from their own smoke house and all at competitive prices!
Tammy Mitchell and her brother Rick Stearns have been running the Stearns family business for quite a while now, taking it over from their dad Ed Jr., who took it over from the original founders Ed and Margerite Stearns.
There’s something special about a successful family-run business. The chilly interior is a direct contrast to a warm welcome; the friendly hellos when you come in the door are genuine, not just part of the job description. New customers as well as the regulars are immediately greeted. During the busy seasons in the summer or holidays there may be lines out the door waiting to get in. Rick says he serves warm drinks and plays music outside during the winter holidays to keep his customers comfortable while they are waiting. When you come on Tasty Thursdays in the summer there are free samples for everyone to get you in the mood for summer grilling. And to keep it fun there are raffles and chances to earn gifts certificates for free meat.
Ed Stearns Dressed Meats, Inc. was started by Ed and Margerite Stearns in 1932 as a custom meat slaughterhouse serving the local farmers and hunters. They took in the animals and dressed the meat making it ready for the farmers to store in freezers, mostly for personal consumption. In those days the local Massachusetts area was largely farm based and many people raised a cow and pig or two to be used for their own needs. Rick says there was a butcher in every little town around and there was lots of business for everyone. These days, Rick says,” I’m a niche business with very little or no real competition.”
As the face of the area changed and cattle farmers were gradually pushed out by commerce and the need for more housing the specialists serving the farmers were also gradually pushed out of business. Stearns Meats was willing and able to adapt to the changes as the market changed. During the blizzard of 1978 it became apparent that the need for a specialized meat butcher was changing and there might be a market in serving the consumer directly. So in 1978 Ed Jr. and his wife Irene opened a retail store two days a week. And in 1998 it was increased to four days with regularly scheduled days Wednesday through Saturday with changes made for holidays and holiday weekends.
All four of Ed and Irene’s children grew up in the meat dressing business but only Rick and Tammy stayed on after school. They both say it’s in their blood and wouldn’t do anything else. As to the next generation, it’s too soon to tell if there is any interest in the fourth generation of Stearns, but in the meantime Tammy and Rick have lots of loyal employees who also love what they do.
Steve McCloud has been with Stearns Meat for more than 25 years as a wrapper and in shipping and receiving. Rich Wallace has been a butcher here for more than ten years and Laurie Meehan has been serving the customers in the store for more than seven years. Dave Steelman has been a weekend cutter for more than 15 years and Jeremy Raymond has been packing and serving in the store for more than seven years. Tammy says, “The people who work here like what they are doing and it shows in the way they help the customers.” She has been the main business-end of the partnership while Rick handles most of the wholesale shop, butchering and smokehouse duties. But Tammy is quick to point out that they can all do every job and she has dressed more than a few cows and pigs on her own.
Rick says the meat handling business has changed drastically in the last eight to ten years. With the demise of the “gentlemen farmer,” the winding down of local animal husbandry, and the ever expanding grocery chains, the smaller business has to be flexible to stay in the game.
The retail store now represents the bulk of Stearns Meats business and Rick and Tammy say they love it. Their storefront brings in a wonderful mix of people, the regulars who already appreciate the quality of the meat and the service, and the newcomers who are about to experience a unique event. The cool temperature in the store, much appreciated in these 90-degree days, feels much like walking into a meat showroom. When Rick or one of the other meat cutters is standing behind the counter with his white apron tied around his middle and a full array of meat in front of him you see how unique this store actually is. You want hamburger? They cut up the meat and put it in the grinder right that second. You want a superior extra thick steak, you got it. You are on a diet and want a specific amount from a certain cut, no problem.
Tammy and Rick are proud of their store, their staff, their regular customers—especially the second generation ones—and most of all the quality of their meat. Rick says all the meat is the best quality available, purchased from reliable sources and the higher rated Choice Grade, unlike many chain stores that usually have only Select Grades available. Stearns Meats has its own smoke house and there is a big variety of smoked meat available. Specialty items like Kobi beef, grass fed beef, and dry aged beef are also available on request.
Rick loves to chat so don’t be afraid to ask for help or suggestions for what to make for dinner tonight. He says “I love knowing we are part of people’s traditions and it makes me feel good to be a part of their life. So don’t be shy, come on by and give us a try. “ Although Tammy may not be as chatty as her brother she values her customer relations and says, “Service to my customers is the most important thing to us. “
A tip from Rick for successful summer grilling, “Cook your steaks a little less than the doneness you want and let the meat rest for a few minutes before you cut it. This will keep in the juices and you will have a better tasting steak.”
Ed Stearns Dressed Meats—no it doesn’t mean they put a bowtie on it—is located at 137 Southbridge Rd. , Route #169, Charlton, MA 01507, 508 248-7866 www.stearnsmeats.net Watch for the large sign with a cow on it and Stearns, pull down the driveway and prepare to enter your new meat adventure. Www.facebook.com/edstearnsdressedmeats