All About Our Meat Conventions
Not something most people attend, or have even heard of, throughout the course of their lives, but for us - it’s something we look forward to.
It seems there is a convention for every line of work, and most of them have a few things in common: a trade show full of vendor booths, a social event or two for mingling and networking, and hopefully informational sessions to help you learn tips and tricks to further your business.
Whenever we tell people we are going to be out of town for our annual meat convention, it’s normal to hear a giggle or a surprised, “MEAT convention? What does one do at a MEAT convention? Eat a lot of meat?” So I thought I’d take the opportunity, fresh off of our state convention (there’s a national one in the summer as well) to tell you a little bit about it.
In late February or early March, we have our annual Illinois Association of Meat Processors’ annual convention and trade show along with a cured meats competition. This past year the association welcomed more than 80 exhibitor booths into our trade show, many of whom make sure to come each year, building business relationships as well as personal friendships with many of the other members. These supplier members range from companies selling seasonings that we can either sell in our stores or for making our products, to sausage casing manufacturers, to industrial flooring, to software for tracking cooking temps, to large machinery like stuffers, smokehouses and so much more (labels, packages, knives, etc…). And yes, there are some great food samples on the trade show floor - even prime rib sandwiches!
For operator members, like us, it’s interesting because all of our businesses are very unique. We’re all small operators (no big guys like Tyson). Some of us do slaughter, some don’t. Some make many dozens of types of sausage, some maybe one or two or anywhere in between. Some of the meat processing plants are multigenerational family businesses like ours, some are brand new. We have a variety of different machines in our plants and varying numbers of employees. Some are in big cities, others in rural small towns. We certainly have our differences, but we have so much in common.
During hours that the trade show is not open, we have informational sessions. They can be on a variety of diverse topics such as humane handling of livestock, food safety, governmental updates, and product specific sessions, some hands on, such as a bacon class where members of the association will speak on, and demonstrate, how they make certain products, how they’ve overcome challenges with that product: maybe the problem was a chewy casing on a snack stick, a too-dry sausage, a too-wet jerky, a boneless ham that didn’t quite stay together, etc. There will be “outside” industry experts for some sessions, but many are led by the operator members themselves…
That is the great thing with the two meat associations we’re a part of (the Illinois Association of Meat Processors or IAMP and the American Association of Meat Processors or AAMP): the membership is very involved. Not only are our sessions often led by the members, but when there are no planned events you can find groups of meat processors talking shop at the bar or at lunch. We don’t see each other as competitors as much as we see each other as friends and mentors.
With a fun exception: we do compete with each other during the Cured Meats competitions. We bring products in a variety of categories to be judged by experts in the meat industry. Some judges will be retired former processors with a long history of making top-notch products, and we’ll also have other industry experts as well as students and faculty of college meat programs, for instance at our state show we had the U of I - Champaign Meat Science students and advisors as many of our judges. The judges work through categories such as: external appearance, internal appearance, aroma, taste, and mouth feel/texture. I always feel sorry for the judge of the jerky class where at national there may be 30 or more entries! Ouch! The judges take their jobs very seriously, working through the whole class on one category of judging before moving onto the next. They’ll often make notes of things for the producer of the item to consider or work on (‘too much salt’, ‘bland’, ‘rubbery casing’). Then all of the scores will get tallied up and they’ll find the winner of the class. Next, all of the 1st place products will face off for the Best of Show award - a great honor. There will also be a Best of Beef and a Best of Pork, as well as awards for products that are innovative.
Later there will be an awards ceremony where everyone finds out if they won any awards - that’s always a lot of fun, especially when you see someone place for the first time, or win an award for a new product that they were maybe unsure of. The next day at the trade show the suppliers are so excited for the operators, congratulating them on their wins.
We were fortunate to receive 7 awards for our products at this last state convention: Grand Champion (1st place) for our custom recipe Cheddar Brats (Tom Eickman came up with the seasoning blend all on his own - an extra proud win), Grand Champion AND Best of Beef for our Dried Beef, Reserve Grand Champion (2nd place) for Barbecue Pulled Pork and Andouille, and Champion (3rd place) on our Bone-in Ham and Elk Summer Sausage.
There are even events for the kids - we start them early with teaching them to judge hot dogs. One lucky plant will receive a Kids’ Choice Hot Dog Award. There is also a Kids’ Snack Tray Competition. Many of us make meat, cheese, and veggie trays at our businesses, so the kids get those ingredients and some toothpicks and make creations with them. It’s a lot of fun! Then there is often a pizza and swim or movie event, and a magician or clown at another event. There are adults in the association now that have known other operator members most of their lives - they grew up at the meat conventions together.
The whole event just has a great energy to it. While it is work to an extent - especially for myself as I’m not only there for Eickman’s, but as treasurer of the association (IAMP), and Tom is on the board as well (meaning meetings for us to attend), we always say it’s like a family reunion - getting to see everyone again, talking shop, breaking bread, and celebrating together.
We close the convention with a Saturday night social that has a great meal and entertainment, the next morning heading back home to reality - hopefully an award or two carefully packed in the suitcase next to our new seasoning samples, our heads full of ideas for Monday morning.