Time for a Change
For the better part of Tom and Paulette Kessinger’s marriage, Tom had been in construction and commercial roofing. As time went by and they neared their 50ss, Tom and Paulette began discussing work alternatives that would keep Tom off a roof and closer to home. As they talked, the topic of meat lockers came up, and they recognized many of the long-time owners were getting older and some lockers had closed altogether. Being in Grenola, Kansas – an area Paulette refers to as “cattle country” – the pair thought a new locker might be something useful for the community as well as their neighbors. And that is how Family Tree Meats got its start.
“I guess you could say this was Tom’s last big construction project,” Paulette explains. “Our friends thought we were crazy to start a business that we knew nothing about and build it on our family farm.” She continues, “Tom is an expert when it comes to research, so he went to work studying KS regulations and we visited a lot of lockers to get ideas on layout.”
Four different experienced butchers came in and trained Tom, as well as their son, Joshua, in the butchering process and master cutting techniques. Two years later, in May of 2002, Family Tree Meats was open for business processing hogs, beef and deer. Of course, there’s a retail shop for walk-in customers as well. There you’ll find quality cuts of beef and pork as well as chicken, deli meat and specialty cheeses. Family Tree Meats also offers Amish goods including jams, fruit, relishes, jerky and more.
“We had no idea when we started that ’word of mouth’ would bring in customers from so far away,” Paulette said with amazement in her voice. “Now, 60-70% of our customers are at least a 1.5 hour drive from us.”
Second and Third Generation Actively Involved and Learning
When you come into Family Tree Meats now, you’re likely to see their daughter, Joanna, who manages many of the day-to-day operations, and Joshua hard at work on something too. “I couldn’t do it without him,” Joanna shared. “He’s the mechanic on call and is a fantastic butcher. I don’t do machines, nor do I have time to teach new employees how to use a knife, haha.”
Joanna continues, “We both work together to keep things running and over the past year have become a pretty good “big sister – little brother” team! We have six employees who work in the processing room – four of whom are grandkids. Joshua’s son, Noah, is a butcher. Of course, mom and dad check in from time to time too.”
“Tom pretty much taught Joanna all the same things he was teaching her two younger brothers as they grew up, so she is very capable and she and Joshua make a good team,” Paulette added as she talked about the next generation taking over the business.
Paulette goes on, “when COVID-19 hit and schools closed, Joanna decided it was time to retire from teaching and help us out more. I had been doing all the office work and suddenly could not keep up. It seemed overnight our business nearly doubled and that was a pretty stressful time. We did more remodeling and hired more help… I still do most of the bookkeeping and can fill in at the office if someone is gone for some reason. Tom still does equipment or building repairs as needed, but Joshua is taking over some of that when he has time.”
Family Roots, Gravel Roads, and Technology
Tom is the fifth generation living on the family farm near Grenola. He was born and raised there. After he and Paulette met in college, they eventually made Burden, Kansas, their home where they raised their family. After Tom’s father passed away, moving back to the farm was an easy decision. Building Family Tree meats on the family property just made sense.
“The farm has been a wonderful place to live, and our city customers really have enjoyed the beautiful Flint Hills we live in,” Paulette said. “We hear a few complaints about the gravel roads, but many more comments on the beauty around us. They like taking a drive ‘into the country.’”
Tom and Paulette have been SKT customers, which is part of the Twin Valley Family of Companies, for 40 years. Over the years, they’ve seen many changes in business that have made the need for fast, reliable internet service a must-have.
“Fast, reliable service is a necessity for us,” Paulette explains. “Most customers use credit or debit cards, and we have to have good internet service to do that. We try to keep up to date with anything our customers need to know. We get cutting instructions by phone and by email. Plus, we email out tickets and Joanna uses Facebook to let our customers know what is going on, what services are available, and she uses texting with a lot our customers.”
She continues, “as business owners we use internet daily. Not just for customer service but for ordering supplies, retail foods, equipment parts, new equipment and even building materials. Tom has perfected online auction shopping! We have purchased equipment that we would never have had access to without the internet. It has saved us ’buckets’ of money over the years. Anything that saves us money ends up saving our customers money. It helps keep our costs down.” As for the future, only time will tell if a third generation of Kessinger’s will continue the family legacy. How Joanna and Joshua grow the business also remains to be seen. One thing Paulette is certain about, “the things Tom and I have focused on are the same things that our children are focused on – accuracy and good customer service.”