WESTERN PEORIA – Buddy Courdt doesn’t want the new Raber Packing Co. to just sell meat.
He wants to sell an experience.
The sprawling, sparkling new facility has a much larger footprint – in size, capacity, and offerings – than the original Raber, which burned down in 2018. Courdt, president of the 67-year-old family business, envisions families s ‘stop to grab lunch and hang out while watching the meat-cutting process before buying some beef or pork to grill at home a few hours later.
“That way we’ll be with you all day,” said Courdt, 41. “This is my dream.”
Of course, as always, customers will be able to rush to grab takeout orders in white butcher’s paper. But the selections will be wider, both in meat and in novelties, which will considerably broaden the scope of the clientele coming to Raber.
“It was a local meat market. Here I did it,” he said from inside the new address, 3000 W. Farmington Road. “But now I think it’s more of a regional market. I think it will attract people from Bloomington, Springfield and other places.”
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There were many delays in construction. This week, Courdt was waiting for one of the last key supplies: steel (in global shortage) for a conveyor system to hang and move sides of beef and pork. The 35,000 square foot structure – almost triple the size of the old facility – spans 23 feet, sparkling all around white walls, gray concrete floors, and stainless steel fixtures.
Courdt hopes to be open in August – certainly by Labor Day.
“It’s getting there,” Courdt said.
And the new location is important to more than meat eaters. Mayor Jim Dillon sees the Risen Raber as a raffle that will help surrounding businesses, such as restaurants and pubs, to the point of sparking new business investment.
“I think it’ll help,” Dillon said.
Rising from the fire
In 1954, the original business was started just outside the city limits of West Peoria by Sam Raber and Fritz Wetterauer. The latter’s son, Carroll Wetterauer – Courdt’s maternal grandfather – then resumed the operation, which ended with the devastating fire on the night of November 8, 2018.
The fire, the cause of which has never been determined, rocked the community, where generations of patrons had grown up condescending Raber. Enter the city of West Peoria, which had gained experience in the commercial reconstruction of the 2011 fire that destroyed the West Peoria Market in Haddad.
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Although Courdt has heard offers for reconstruction in other municipalities, West Peoria has cobbled together a 10-acre site from five commercial and residential plots along West Farmington Road, about half a mile from the original property. City Council approved the purchase of the properties in May 2019 for $ 912,000 and then formed a Tax Rise Funding District. The property has been ceded to Raber, who over 23 years must repay the city with the property taxes generated by the appreciation of the property.
Courdt declined to specify Raber’s overall investment, which (aside from TIF aid) was funded by the private sector. A previous Journal Star article put the cost at $ 8 million, although Courdt says that figure was exceeded.
Since the walls began to rise, the public has been speculating on the interior. Equipment has been shipped from all over the world, and some of the improvements will be obvious to Raber employees. For example, advanced processing technology makes old machines look almost prehistoric.
“At over 60, some of this stuff was painful,” Courdt said.
For example, in some parts of the processing process, workers previously had to lift and lug heavy slabs of meat. No more: an “air assistance” system will mechanically move the meat suspended from hooks at ceiling height.
“It will be easier for the employees,” said Courdt. “It’s important for, say, twenty years of work. I’m trying to make everything easier.”
‘Nothing to hide’
As at the old location, cattle (mostly cattle and pigs, although Raber can also process sheep and goats) will arrive at the back of the building and be taken to the harvest room. The meat slices will then be hung from the overhead conveyor system so that butchers can cut specific cuts.
From the slaughterhouse, visitors will be able to peek through the windows of the retail area and observe the process of cutting the meat. Courdt wanted such visibility in the new facility, in part to show customers that Raber serves local farmers.
“Not many people knew that,” he said.
He also wants to educate a world of chicken nuggets about the work of meat processors.
“I bet less than 10% of people have seen half the beef,” Courdt said. “… I want this to be an open relationship with what we do. We have nothing to hide.”
The new equipment and system will significantly increase Raber’s production capacity. For example:
- The old Raber site processed 12 to 15 cattle and 50 to 70 pigs daily. That rate can easily be tripled now, maybe quadrupled, said Courdt.
- In the past, Raber needed six to eight hours to grind a ton of sausage. Now this amount can be done in 15 minutes.
- Each year, Raber produced 125,000 pounds of sausage, and smoked 60,000 pounds each of ham and bacon. Now? He could do 10 times that charge, if necessary.
Hot dogs and more
Meanwhile, at the other end of the production wall, there are now two retail outlets. One, right next to the processing area, will look familiar to long-time customers, with a butcher’s area surrounded by counters and coolers. As before, customers will be able to request specific types and cuts of meat, with the temperature (as always) kept at 38 degrees.
“It was designed to look like the old place,” Courdt said. “This was done for nostalgia.”
To this end, children can always request a free, cold frankfurter sausage. Courdt doesn’t know the origin of the seven-decade tradition, but it was a marketing stroke of genius, with many of those kids growing up to be Raber customers.
“There are adults – 50 or 60 – who come and say they remember it when they were kids,” Courdt said.
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The other shopping area stretches along several axes. One is a large delicatessen. Another is a restaurant with a handful of tables and chairs, although Courdt plans to sell mostly take-out. There, windows overlook the smokehouse, where juicy hams and bacon will be on display.
“My goal is for a 12-year-old to come and look forward to seeing what we’ve cooked,” Courdt said.
Although the former Raber’s business consisted of 98% meat, Courdt is expanding its offering, including craft beer and wine. Products will also be available.
A banquet hall will provide catering and bar services. Rooms can be divided to accommodate the size of an event – such as a wedding reception – up to 250 guests. Apart from the roller garage doors, an outdoor patio is available for the warmer months. Courdt hopes to organize Friday meals, similar to fish fries at veterans and fraternal clubs. He also has other ideas, like inexpensive movie nights for kids and families.
“I think it will be great for the community,” he said.
The economic impact too. The former Raber had 42 employees, most of them unionized full time. About 30 are expected to return when the new facility opens, which will employ around 70 workers.
Ready to open
The old Raber sign still stands along West Farmington Road, but getting to the old location involved a bumpy ride along a gravel road. The new location is not only more visible to the 15,000 cars that drive West Farmington Road every day, it is also much more accessible.
“It’s not that people didn’t know we were there,” Courdt said. “But (the new site) is all about convenience.”
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As for the leveled Raber site, Courdt plans to create a composting facility. The company creates 25,000 pounds of waste weekly, which is taken away by a rendering company. Composting would be more favorable to Raber’s bottom line as well as the environment, he said.
But for now, the focus is on opening Raber as soon as possible – possibly next month. For some customers, it can’t start early enough: the business has received up to 40 calls a day to request the opening date. Courdt shares their enthusiasm for finally opening the doors.
“I think it will be exciting to watch,” he said.
Phil Luciano is a columnist for the Journal Star. He can be reached at [email protected] and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.