By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD—Mark Tittel, longtime owner of Mark’s Meats in Halstead, said he typically works 70 hours a week. And that’s in a slow week.
“That’s pretty much year-round, except in deer season,” he said. “Then it’s probably 100 hours a week.”
Tittel has been in the process of selling his business recently, which he hopes will allow him to cut back on his hours.
“I’m not tired. I’m not worn out and ready to retire,” he said. “But I do have a couple grandkids that I’d like to teach to fish and hunt.”
The new owner is someone Tittel has known for years, Pete Molitor, one of the owners of Andale Ready Mix. According to Tittel, Molitor will find someone to manage the business for him. Tittel himself plans to continue working at the business for another year to help with the transition.
“So I’ll be here for a while, yet,” he said.
Tittel has owned Mark’s Meats in Halstead for 24 years.
“When I started here, there wasn’t much business here, but now we’re pretty near maxed out,” he said.
He and his staff (three full-time and two part-time) work hard to keep up with the demand, usually processing three or four cows in a day. Tittel works from 5 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. during the week, and until noon on Saturdays.
“We slaughter 13 beef in a week, which is all that my coolers will hold,” he said. “If we’re slaughtering beef and hogs, it just depends on the mix. It could be anywhere from 15 to 20 head.”
They also process around a thousand deer during hunting season between mid-September to mid-January.
“The biggest push is rifle season in December,” he said. “[…] During rifle season, all we do is deer.”
Tittel has worked with a bunch of other species, too, besides cows and pigs.
“We do some lambs, some goats, deer, elk, wild hogs, buffalo,” Tittel said. “I’ve done some exotic animals, like bear and emus.”
He estimated he’s done about four or five bears in his career, which people had hunted in Canada. He described them as a strange-looking animal when skinned, with very greasy meat.
Mark’s Meats has a customer base with a pretty wide circumference. Tittel said he has beef and hog customers who come from as far west as Stafford, as far east as El Dorado, as far south as the Oklahoma line, and as far north as Salina.
This past deer season, he had customers come from even further away than usual because some plants to the north weren’t available, so he had customers from around Beloit or Pittsburg making two or three hour drives for his services.
Altogether, Tittel has 42 years of experience in the meat-processing business, something he wouldn’t have imagined when he got started in the industry.
“I was 19 years old, and I was just looking for a job,” he said.
He’d been taking college courses at night and working at a farm equipment factory, but a rough patch in the farm industry led him to get laid off there, so he applied for a meat-processing job in Dodge City in 1978.
After three years, he moved to work at a plant in Wichita, with plans of later returning to Dodge City as a foreman, but in Wichita he found he didn’t like assembly line work, so he switched to a small plant in Belle Plaine for three years before buying his own business in Andale.
By 1996, he had outgrown the shop in Andale, so he brought his business to Halstead.
“The place in Andale was very small, and I outgrew it about two years in, but there wasn’t any place to grow,” he said. “We did what we could, but then this place came open, and it was close enough I could transfer my customers over.”
He estimated his building in Halstead is three times bigger than what he had in Andale.
Tittel noted there are fewer small meat lockers like his in Kansas than when he started, a decrease he estimated had gone from about 150 to the 50 to 75 range.
“It’s not hard to make money, but it’s harder to keep,” he said. “There’s a lot of in one hand, out the other. There’s a lot less room for error than there used to be.”
Tittel agreed that meat processing was a physically demanding career.
“It’s work,” he said. “It’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s a lot of lifting, a lot of long hours. On the slaughter floor, you’re working with live animals, and that’s always a challenge.”
Tittel said what sets his services apart is simply that they try to do a good job.
“That’s the main thing,” he said. “We really make an effort to do a good job. If we do make a mistake, I do whatever it takes to make it right.”
Sometimes he’s even gone to pretty extreme lengths to ensure customer satisfaction.
“I’ve driven 50 or 60 miles, one way, to deliver four pounds of sausage,” he said. “Anybody can make a mistake; it’s what happens after that that sets good businesses apart from bad businesses.”
The highlight of his career has been the 100-plus awards he’s received for his work, which, until recently, were on display on one of the walls of his business. He’s competed in the cured meats competitions of the Kansas Meat Processors Association since 1994, and over the years, he said he had won at least one award in every category.
“Winning those awards is something I’m pretty proud of, because it’s not easy to do,” he said.