Spokane Journal of Business

Spicing up the meat industry

Michlitch Co.

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The pleasantly mixed smells that permeate Michlitch Co.s building near downtown Spokane are difficult to distinguish, but leave little doubt as to what the business does.

Theres a teasing hint of garlic, perhaps a bit of nutmeg and basil, and a robust presence of pepper. The resulting aroma evokes a mood-elevating image of fine food being prepared and seems quite natural for the more than 50-year-old food-processing equipment vendor and bulk-seasoning supplier.

To Joyce Bailey Vannoy, part owner and general manager of Michlitch, its the sweet smell of prosperity.

Those smaller, recurring sales are what keep us alive, even though its nice to sell somebody a $3,000 slicer, she says.

Michlitch (pronounced MICK-lich) occupies a 20,000-square-foot building at 210 W. Pacific, where it has an equipment showroom, a retail-products area, an adjoining warehouse area that ships products daily, and a service department. The company also operates a spice-mixing room there in which it produces its own blends under the Michlitch and more recently introduced Spice Traders Northwest labels.

The company employs 12 people, 10 of them full time. Its primary service area is the Inland Northwest, but it ships products throughout the country and occasionally overseas based on orders received through its Internet site, at www.spicetradersnw.com, and it hopes to expand that online trade, Vannoy says.

Aside from a few computers in its office areas, though, the business has a traditional, low-tech feel, and even has devoted a sizable area near the front of its building to a display of old-fashioned butcher shop equipment.

Michlitch caters mostly to butcher shops, grocery stores, and custom meat cutters. That customer base has shrunk over the years, though, due to tighter government regulations on meat cutting, she says. As a result, probably 75 percent or more of Michlitchs customers now are outside of the Spokane area, in rural communities where theres a greater concentration of such meat processors, she says.

Thats really what has kept this place goingout-of-town, repeat customers, Vannoy says. We do sell to grocery stores in town, but its not the main part of our business.

To diversify its customer base, the company has stepped up its retail-focused marketing efforts, such as to home-based meat processors who like to make their own specially seasoned sausage and jerky. It currently, for example, is revamping a space in its building to accommodate how-to classes for meat-processing hobbyists, and it plans to begin offering classes later this year, Vannoy says.

The company also is bringing in new retail products, such as barbecue sauces not offered in other stores here, and is expanding the labeling and bar coding on its own seasoning blends to make them easier to sell off the shelf and more attractive to other retailers that might be willing to stock them, she says.

The blends it sells under its own labels range from sprinkle-type seasonings for use on buffalo wings, barbecued meats, prime rib, and fajitas; to hot beer sausage, wild game, and pepper stick mixtures for use in smoked sausage; to lemon pepper, Cajun, and mesquite grill marinades. Altogether, the company now offers nearly 40 blends under the Spice Traders label, including some that it has been producing for bulk sale for many years, Vannoy says.

It also sells seasonings made or distributed by other companies, such as Vecchi Seasonings, of Salem, Ore.; Heller Seasonings & Ingredients Inc., of Chicago; and the Garlic Guys, of Spokane. Aside from blends, Michlitch sells a broad range of fresh ground and whole spices and herbs, such as chili powder, coriander, marjoram, oregano, paprika, sage, and thyme, in bulk form, allowing customers to buy them by the ounce or pound.

Food-processing equipment that Michlitch offers includes mixers, slicers, tenderizers, smokers, stuffers, and grinders, ranging in price from less than $100 for a hand-operated meat grinder to as much as $30,000 for some commercial machines, with an average probably of around $3,000, Vannoy says.

The company also sells cutlery and cutlery-sharpening tools, vacuum-packaging machines, all types of food-packaging materials, and miscellaneous items such as thermometers, skewers, hooks, roast nets, sausage casings, meat saws, and saw blades.

Additionally, Michlitch has devoted an area of its store to books and educational materials, with titles such as Basic Butchering of Livestock & Game, 98 Ways to Cook Venison, Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing, and Favorite Fish Recipes.

A family endeavor

Gil Michlitch founded the company here in about 1948, and it originally occupied a building near the intersection of Howard Street and Mansfield Avenue on Spokanes North Side, Vannoy says. She says Michlitch sold the business in 1978 to her father, Cy Bailey, who had owned a Coeur dAlene business called Cys Meats for many years and had been a Michlitch customer. Her father wasnt able to work at Michlitch due to illness, though, so her two brothers, Ken and Doug, operated the business for many years, Vannoy says.

The company moved to its current location in 1987, and Cy Bailey died a year later. Vannoy says her younger brother, Ken, who spearheaded efforts to package seasonings smaller for retail sale, left about a year and a half ago to pursue other interests, and her older brother, Doug, who has been involved mostly in sales, now is semi-retired.

She says she didnt begin working in the family business until several years ago. She previously had been a farmers wife living near Kendrick, Idaho, but a well-educated one, with bachelors and masters degrees in sociology from Gonzaga University and Washington State University, respectively. She began considering employment options anew, she says, after she and her husband, Don, lost the lease on their 600-acre farm. He, too, now is employed by Michlitch, serving as purchasing agent.

Vannoy says she had no idea when she joined the business how quickly she would be managing it or how much of a challenge that would be. She says she believes, though, that her educational background in sociology, with an emphasis in religion, has had a favorable impact on her management style.

She says she has very open communications with employees, making sure they feel that they have a voice in the companys operation and even going so far as to share company financial information with them.

Despite the challenges Michlitch has faced in shifting its marketing focus to compensate for the decline in its traditional customer base, Vannoy is upbeat about its future.

Weve got a niche, she says. Its a small niche, but its a niche.

Kim Crompton
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