WEST PEORIA, Ill. — Pairing up a meat processing plant and a wedding venue may sound like a sitcom script, but it is a very real business soon to open in West Peoria.
Raber Packing has a long history of serving farmers and consumers in Peoria County, but their plant was destroyed by fire in November 2018. Constructing a new building has taken a long time, but it has given the owners a chance to think creatively about their business going forward.
The new Raber Packing Company carries on its tradition of being a local farm-to-fork packing house that is also known for catering community events. And now they are even more.
When it opens later this summer at its new location, it will have state-of-the-art killing and processing facilities, plus a retail space to sell meat products and other local foods. It will have a commercial kitchen and lunch counter.
But the most unique part of the operation will be a banquet hall to serve as an event venue.
Some of the services will be phased in, but the meat processing is the first to start.
“This room is weird for a slaughterhouse,” said Buddy Courdt, president of the business, standing in the banquet hall while giving Illinois Beef Association members a tour during their spring conference.
Courdt, the president of a family business founded in 1954, envisions the hall being open on Fridays for events, maybe once a month featuring specific farmers and their products. It can be a Sunday brunch spot as well, and host weddings and other special events on Saturdays.
It is a logical extension of their already popular catering service. Instead of going to the banquet elsewhere, banquet goers will come here.
“This family has done so much for the community,” Nic Anderson, Illinois Livestock Development Group’s livestock business developer, said to the farmers in attendance. “This building represents what they’ve already done. They did it the hard way. And it’s even better.”
The family has always been a big supporter of beef and pork producers, he said.
Courdt’s grandfather, who was also involved in the Illinois State Fair and many community events, died in December last year, but he got to see some of the plans going forward.
Their philosophy has always been to diversify so if one part of the business is weak, the others will carry them through, he said.
The layout has been carefully designed, from where the animals enter the plant, the modern killing floor and into processing.
“The packing room is like surgery,” Courdt said.
Even the spice and seasoning rooms are carefully isolated to avoid allergens getting outside the area.
The retail store has a nostalgic 1920s vibe, said Courdt, whose grandfather started the business with a partner named Raber — the name that stuck. A vintage-style mural of the founders is now being painted on the store wall.
The shop carries some things you might not find in most grocery stores, including casings and spices for people who make their own sausage. Kids can watch meat slicing and sausage making here.
“I want kids to be excited to come here,” said Courdt, who found an antique meat slicer for the space.
People don’t just come to get their beef, they can learn more about their food. In the public area are windows to other parts of the operation so people can see how it all works if they choose.
Immediately after the fire, the family decided to rebuild in the same community of West Peoria where they have so many customers. They did visit meatpacking plants in several states to see how they did things and get inspiration for design.
“Everybody has one thing they are really good at — that’s why they are in business,” Courdt said.
So the Raber team melded some of the best ideas they saw with what they do best.
“This is designed for how Raber does business,” he said.
In looking at the costs of re-starting business, Courdt said it is very clear it is “almost impossible for someone new to get into this industry.”
“The little guys made a big impact during COVID. I think we need small plants,” he said.
He expects some small plants may expand a little to meet demand, and Courdt said he hopes the interest in locally raised and processed meat continues.
Courdt said he hasn’t really had trouble with the labor shortage. When the business burned down 20 months ago, he had 42 employees. Of those, 30 are coming back and he expects to employ about 40 people when fully operating.
“Labor is not a problem,” he said, adding that they offer good wages, insurance and pensions. They are a union shop and have been since they opened in 1954 in a strong union town.
“Most who apply here have jobs, they just want better jobs,” said Courdt, who has have been getting applications as the walls were going up.