SOLDIERS GROVE - It was a proud group of Soldiers Grove Village Board members and Driftless Development Board members, who gathered for a tour of two new Soldiers Grove businesses on Thursday, June 6. Both Driftless Brewery and Solar Meats are up and running after several years of preparation and hard work.
Solar Meats, a meat locker plant, is currently working to complete construction on their kill floor, and has two coolers, a freezer, and a cut-and-wrap room, up and running.
Driftless Brewery has completed their new taproom, and has been operating in their expanded brewing facility for several months.
Village board members present for the tour included Soldiers Grove Village President Steve George, and trustees Roy Davidson, Paul Nicholson, Jerry Miller and Harrison Heilman, as well as Soldiers Grove Village Clerk Tammy Kepler.
In addition to Jim Bowman, four members of the Driftless Development Board participated in the tour - Duane Rogers, president; Artie Johnson, vice president: Pete Flesch, secretary; and Steve Lidberg, director.
Driftless Development Executive Director Jim Bowman kicked off the tour at Solar Meats.
“Throughout this process in Soldiers Grove, it’s been fun, I’ve learned a lot, and I foresee exciting times ahead for the Village of Soldiers Grove,” Bowman said. “This (meat) locker is going to benefit our entire region, and I believe, stimulate interest in raising livestock in our area again.”
Bowman listed the benefits expected to accrue to the village from the two business development projects:
• Create jobs
• Grow the tax base
• Help other businesses
• Provide local foods
Solar MeatsRich Sitarski and Duane Johannes are the two partners in the new Solar Meats business. The business will include butchering services for cattle, hogs, and sheep (no poultry), a smokehouse, and eventually a retail store.
Right now, the business has a crew of five, including Sitarski and Johannes. Both described their employee Jason Pelock as “a key part of the business.” Pelock has a background working in meat processing, and will work as butcher’s assistant and run the cutting floor. Dan Morrison will work in cutting and be the sausage-maker and Jay Rethwrisch will work as a wrapper.
Sitarski explained that plans for the business had really kicked off in 2017, when he sold his fire alarm company in Illinois. He had originally moved to the area in 1999, settling near Steuben. In 2003, he moved his farm upriver to the Petersburg area, where he raises elk and “large gardens.”
Upon the sale of his Illinois-based business, Sitarski became interested in investing in a new venture in this area. He had gotten to know Duane Johannes through his on-farm butchering service. Through discussions, he learned that Johannes was interested in expanding his mobile-butchering business into a fixed location.
Sitarski and Johannes developed their business plan with the same engineering company, Delta-3, that had assisted Driftless Brewery. After looking at several buildings, Sitarski closed on the Soldiers Grove Creamery building in August of 2018.
The plan to remodel the building and get the business up and running is taking place in three phases:
1. Get Johannes’ butchering service into the building with two coolers, a freezer, and a licensed cut-and-pack room – this phase is now complete;
2. Complete the kill floor renovation and get the smoking and sausage room up and running – this phase is in progress. As of June 28, the facility will be licensed by the State of Wisconsin for retail business;
3. Complete the sausage room and smokehouse, open the retail store, and spruce up the outside of the business. The group expects retail sales to begin out of the facility by July 1, with “brats available for the Fourth of July.”
Sitarski explained that he had begun to work with Jim Bowman and Driftless Development when he was looking to secure financing for phases two and three of the business launch.
“At first when Jim approached me about applying for a grant, I was reluctant,” Sitarski said. “But then, as I began to understand the benefit both our business and the surrounding area would gain from the grant, I decided to move forward and apply.”
Bowman helped Sitarski apply for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation ‘Community Development Infrastructure’ grant in the fall of 2018. They learned the funding had been approved on Thursday, June 6. The grant funds, in the amount of $89,700, will be used for construction of a sausage-making kitchen, purchasing smokehouse equipment, and completion of the inspected slaughter floor and holding pens.
“It has really been a blessing to have met Jim,” Sitarski said.
Johannes talked about the interest he has observed among people in using the services of the business.
“We will offer both conventional and organic butchering services,” Johannes said. “I have heard interest from producers who had previously gotten out of raising meat animals because of lack of processing, and organic producers who were having to drive their animals to Missouri or Minnesota. These folks are very excited about our business, and people are starting to see a future in raising livestock again.”
Johannes explained that by November of 2019, the facility would be covered under the Cooperative Interstate Shipment (CIS) Program of USDA, which will be federal licensing and will allow producers to sell their products worldwide.
Driftless BreweryThe Driftless Development ‘Tour of New Soldiers Grove Businesses’ moved across the highway to the other exciting new business in the village – Driftless Brewery.
Driftless Brewery was started by master brewer Chris Balistreri with Michael Varnes-Epstein and business operations manager Cynthia Olmstead. The trio has been joined in the business by Scott Noe.
The brewery was recently notified that they had received a ‘Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin’ grant, which will allow them to hire a part-time taproom employee.
“We love our work, and are excited about our expanded facility,” Olmstead said. “But with all the work of running the brewing side of the business, and handling the sales, marketing, and distribution, we really need some help now that the taproom is open too. The grant will help us with that.”
Balistreri and Varnes-Epstein handle the brewing side of the business. Varnes-Epstein and Noe run the bottling, and Noe runs the “cold side” of the business. Olmstead and Balistreri work together on the sales and marketing effort, and Olmstead is responsible for managing the business operations.
Balistreri spoke to the tour participants about the process of converting the brewery’s original ‘small system’ to their new bigger system.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work translating our small system recipes to our new system,” Balistreri explained. “We’re fortunate that we still have the small system, which we can use for piloting when we are developing new recipes.”
A big part of the brewery’s marketing message revolves around their local foods brand identity.
“All over the world, people brew different kinds of beer,” Balistreri explained. “A lot of what drives all the different recipes is the kinds of ingredients available to brewers locally. In our brewing, we try to focus on ingredients available in our local area.”
In addition, Olmstead explained the local origins of many of the wood features in their taproom.
“The tables by the window are made out of salvaged bowling alley pieces that I found,” Olmstead explained. “And our rail is made from a repurposed beam that was part of this building when it was the grocery store.”
Olmstead was enthusiastic about the economic development that is happening in the village, and foresees a brighter economic future as a result of all of the activity.
“We have identified what will be our four core beers, and are bottling and distributing those in both six-packs and kegs,” Olmstead said. “Our beers will be available at Johnson’s One Stop in Seneca as of Friday, June 7, and we are working very hard to secure other distribution in our area as well.”
Those six core beers are Local Buzz–a blonde ale, Kick-Axe Pale Ale, Dirt–a brown ale, and Saison de Jardin. In addition, other selections will be available in their taproom, which is open on Fridays from 3 to 9 p.m., and Saturdays, from 1 to 9 p.m.
Olmstead explained that the brewery is also planning a couple of upcoming events.
“On Saturday, July 20, we will be holding a large event – kind of a grand opening – but it will really be a village-wide celebration,” Olmstead said. “In addition, we have also been contacted by Wisconsin Public Television about showing their documentary about the Driftless Area, ‘Portraits from Rural Wisconsin.’ The brewery was featured in the piece. More details about that event will be available soon.”
Jim Bowman summed up the economic development success story that is unfolding in Soldiers Grove.“Having Solar Meats and Driftless Brewery in Soldiers Grove are great examples of what makes Crawford County cool,” Bowman said. “When we shot a video in the brewery, for instance, and uploaded it to our Facebook page, we almost instantly got 10,000 views and added 130 followers to our page. This is the kind of economic development that we need to stimulate our rural economy.”