UNADILLA — For most of his adult life, MK Meats owner Tom Hruby has spent his working days with goosebumps on his arms and little room to stretch out.
The butcher and meat processor has spent his 24-year career working in the back of a chain grocery store and within the limited confines of his 100-year-old meat plant building in Unadilla.
But on Aug. 3, Hruby will host the grand opening of his brand new meat processing facility and retail store. Though he's still going to be working in a chilly environment, Hruby hopes the larger space, new equipment and increased staff will take his operation to another level.
"As we got more people coming in, someone would come in December with beef and I'd have to tell them it would take a month or two and they'd go somewhere else," he said. "I'm hoping we can get some of those people back now that we can process more."
Hruby said he and his eight-person staff will have more room to work and be able to vastly increase their processing output for their 1,200-plus customers.
"At the old place we would probably get through 10 heads of beef a week," he said. "Now I'd like to go through at least 20-25 heads a week and then do 20 hogs."
The idea to build a bigger plant had bounced around Hruby's head for about four or five years before he decided to look into taking the first steps. He said his business' struggle to satisfy its consistently increasing demand and growing customer base helped nudge him into looking for a facility designer.
"I'd been holding back on the whole thing just because I didn't know where to start, I don't know anything about designing a meat plant," he said. "But eventually I just got tired of telling people no."
Hruby and his wife, Joni, got in touch with consultant Brad Lodge of Clarksville, Iowa, who designed the facility. Lodge has built more than 30 meat processing facilities throughout Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota.
"I knew what I wanted, but I didn't know how to design," Hruby said. "He started making floor plans and we just kind of went back and forth. I'd say what I needed and he'd make it happen."
The new facility is 6,000 square feet and uses a customized ozone sanitation system, which uses a foam to sanitize equipment and rooms used for processing. The system uses ozonated water, which is free of bacteria, viruses spores, parasites and chemicals but is completely safe for humans. A Nebraska health inspector claimed MK Meats to be the only facility in the area with an ozone sanitation system.
"It's safe, there's no chemicals in the water," Hruby said. "It'll kill any E. coli on an animal, and at the end of the day, everything is sterile."
On top of the new sanitation system, the facility is powered by six compressors that Hruby can monitor remotely from a computer or his phone. The compressors act as the power system that controls the temperatures in each room of the building. The efficient power system also includes motion-sensing lights in each room except the retail area.
Much of the construction was done by local businesses and tradesmen, including but not limited to the building's electrical work, plumbing and concrete work.
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"I tried to keep everything as local as I could," he said. "I want the community to support my business, and I thought that I should also probably support other businesses in the community."
The facility also has a sausage-making area with a control panel that will allow Hruby to customize the exact dimensions and proportions of each link of sausage he processes.
"I'll be able to make Little Smokies if I wanted to," he said. "I want to spend a lot of my time in here and learn new recipes for different sausages."
The sausage-making area also has an industrial smokehouse and a storage area for sausages ready to sell.
The facility is a culmination of all the experience and business Hruby has gained over the course of a lifetime working with meat. The central Nebraska native first began working in the seafood department in the back of the Hy-Vee in Williamsburg Village while he studied wildlife management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
He remained in school for only a year before taking a full-time promotion as a meat wrapper.
"I was pretty broke at the time, as most college students usually are, and I thought I'd work for a while and then go back to school," he said. "Plus, $12 an hour in the mid-1980s seemed pretty good."
Hruby worked in the Hy-Vee meat department for 10 years, though the job's low salary ceiling led to his departure. So he took a job as a butcher at a meat locker in Eagle, and in 1995 he bought MK Meats.
"I didn't even know where Unadilla was at first," he said. "The first year was rough. I wandered around wondering what I was doing. I felt pretty good about doing 4 heads of beef in a month back then."
But since then the business has grown, and Hruby said he hopes the new facility will help grow the small Unadilla community. He plans to bulldoze the old MK Meats building once everything is moved over to the new facility and turn it into a green space and a parking lot.
"People have told me they think it's great for the town," Hruby said. "I really hope that it brings people into the town."
MK Meats' operations in its new home will officially begin on July 1. Hruby said he's excited to get to work and to continue providing meat processing and butchery to his community. During a tour of the plant on Saturday, he was already receiving requests from farmers.
"Meat cutting is all I've ever done," he said. "I don't want to turn anybody away, and I gotta pay for this place!"