Four people will be inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame at a ceremony Thursday, May 3, at the Best Western Inn Towner in Madison. The Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame was initiated in 1993 to recognize people who have contributed to the meat industry of Wisconsin.
Gary Bernegger was born and raised in New London, Wis., and has literally spent a lifetime in the meat business.
While she was pregnant with him, Bernegger”s mother Armella worked at the family”s Quality Packing Company, and as a child he often brought his dad”s lunch to the plant on busy days. While a student at Marquette University, he arranged his class schedule so he could walk to the Milwaukee stockyards to buy cattle and hogs to send back to his family”s business in New London. Bernegger likes to note that the education he got from the sharpies down in the pens was as valuable as the formal education he received at Marquette.
Bernegger joined his parents” business after graduating from college, and was named president when they sold the business to Consolidated Foods (Sara Lee) in 1972. Bernegger served as president of the company, renamed Hillshire Farm, until 1984. After serving as a corporate vice president of Sara Lee Meat Group in Memphis, Tenn., he returned to New London in 1988 to direct the merger of Hillshire Farm with Kahns. He then served as a consultant to Sara Lee Corporate Business Development. Bernegger currently runs his own consulting business and serves on the boards of several Wisconsin organizations.
Hillshire Farm, which now sells processed meats throughout the country, has been a major factor in the local and state economy. The company has been a strong supporter of education and the arts in the Fox Valley area, and very supportive of programs at the UW-Madison. Hillshire Farm grew explosively during Bernegger”s tenure as president, expanding from 200 to more than 1,500 employees and from $18 million to more than $200 million in sales. For many years Hillshire Farm was a major buyer of butcher hogs and sows in Wisconsin.
Bernegger”s father, Fritz, founded Hillshire Farm. Fritz and Armella Bernegger were previously inducted into the Wisconsin Meat Industry Hall of Fame. Gary Bernegger and his wife, Joan, have three sons and one daughter. They live in New London.
Jean Manchester Biddick
Jean Manchester Biddick”s career in the meat industry is remarkable for its many firsts. She was the first woman in the country to own and run a wholesale meat plant, taking over ownership of Neesvig”s after her husband, Ted Neesvig, died in 1965. The Madison, Wis.-based company was among the first in the country to eliminate hanging rails for handling carcass beef, buying less wasteful boxed beef instead.
Biddick was also the first woman elected to the board of the National Association of Meat Purveyors, and served on its board from 1976 until 1988 when she sold Neesvig”s.
After working as an Extension home agent in Grant County, Wis., Biddick joined the National Livestock and Meat Board in Chicago, where she tested meat recipes, developed cookbooks, and taught week-long cooking classes.
Biddick, a 1948 University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, credits her success and the success of Neesvig”s to “an excellent workforce that received continuous education in the meat industry.”
Under Biddick”s leadership, Neesvig”s prospered by embracing new marketing practices and by increasing the efficiency of its workforce. The company was among the first to buy boxed beef, which reduced the amount of byproducts and waste associated with hanging beef. It also specialized in the new portion-controlled cuts concept for the hotel, restaurant, and institutional markets.
“Important to the philosophy of the company was helping customers realize the benefit of purchasing not by the pound, but rather by the portion, plate-ready servings,” says Biddick. Customers would no longer need trained meat cutters, saving both time and money.
Neesvig”s opened a new east-side plant in 1973 to accommodate the company”s substantial growth. The new plant included a consumer center designed to teach the general public how to buy the new portion cuts and understand meat grades, Biddick says.
Biddick also helped develop a gift box business and an extensive meat export business at Neesvig”s. The company distributes its products nationally and internationally.
“By the time I sold the company in 1988,” Biddick says, “the business had grown to 50 full-time employees and over 100 part-time employees during the gift box season.”
Biddick lives in Middleton with her husband, Roger. She has six children.
Art Chermak grew up working after school in his father Emil”s butcher shop in Manitowoc, helping to make and deliver Cher-Make sausage products. After serving in World War II, Chermak joined the family business, expanding the operation and opening a new Cher-Make Sausage Company plant at its present location on Calumet Avenue.
Following his father”s death in 1954, Chermak took over management of the plant. In 1968 Cher-Make was approved as a USDA-certified processing facility, which allowed the company to sell its products outside of Wisconsin. This allowed Cher-Make to begin working with some of the largest mail-order food companies in the country. The company enjoys a reputation throughout its supplier network for testing and fine-tuning equipment at its facility, along with providing a safe and modern workplace for its employees.
Chermak has served on the boards of the National Independent Meat Packers Association and the American Meat Institute. Working with other Wisconsin sausage-makers through the Lakeshore Sausage Manufacturers Association, Chermak was instrumental in establishing the current USDA regulations for semi-dry sausage.
These regulations allow unrefrigerated summer sausage to be merchandised and sold. The revised rules have allowed many gourmet gift packers and sausage processors to expand their markets by selling outside of traditional distribution channels — through mail order, mall kiosks, fund-raising organizations and mass merchandisers.
Chermak served on the board of directors of the Green Bay Packers for 15 years, and was a founder and board member of the Manitowoc County Bank, now operated by Firstar Bank. He has been involved in a number of civic fund-raising efforts in Manitowoc, including drives for the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, Capital Civic Centre, and Silver Lake College.
Cher-Make has been the official hot dog at Lambeau Field for more than a decade, and the company has received numerous Seal of Excellence awards at the Wisconsin State Fair for its products. The Cher-Make Sausage Company remains under family ownership, with Art Chermak serving as chief executive officer and his son and nephews managing the company. Cher-Make today employs about 100 people.
Chermak and his wife, Alice, have four children, and currently spend their time between Manitowoc, Wis.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Egg Harbor, Wis.
Anton J. (Tony) Weiler
Anton J. (Tony) Weiler, a self-made and self-educated Wisconsinite, turned his lifelong interest in fixing and building better machinery, and his respect for people, into a business that today ranks among the world”s leading manufacturers of meat-processing equipment.
Born on a farm in Marathon County near Athens, Wis. in 1906, Weiler became interested in fixing and improving farm equipment as a child, and studied engineering informally for the rest of his life.
Weiler”s drive to build better machines led him to establish Weiler and Company, a small general machinery repair shop in Palmyra, Wis. in 1939.
“In the beginning, he repaired farm equipment, but because of his initiative, insights and aggressiveness, he took advantage of opportunities to make processing equipment for fur ranches and for the meat industry,” says Bob Kauffman, an emeritus professor and meat quality researcher in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Wisconsin”s growing fur-ranching industry spurred a demand for grinders and other equipment needed to process animal byproducts into mink feed. Weiler opened a branch plant in Whitewater, Wis. in 1957 to help satisfy the ranchers” needs.
Within a short time, Weiler and Company began making processing equipment for the U.S. meat industry, installing its first bone grinder in an Armour & Co. rendering plant in 1961. Not long after, the USDA approved Weiler grinders for processing edible meats and other food products.
Weiler moved his entire company to Whitewater and oversaw its expansion until his death in December 1994.
Today, more than 60 years after its founding, Weiler and Co. serves the needs of meat processors in Wisconsin, the United States, and several other countries, including Australia, Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom. The company earns nearly half of its $12 million sales through international markets.
Weiler remained active in all the company activities until his death in 1994. He had very little formal education, but a brilliant mind for mechanical design. His company continues to provide scholarships to students seeking vocational/technical education.
Oscar Mayer, McDonald”s, Wendy”s, Burger King, Jones Dairy Farm, Doskocil, and Hardee”s are just some of the company”s regular customers.
“As a direct result of Tony Weiler”s ability and interest in manufacturing strong, effective and durable products, many meat companies and meat distributors in Wisconsin have grown to rely on obtaining products from the Weiler Company,” says Kauffman. “Furthermore, it is clear from the beginning that he respected people and their needs.”
Weiler was married to Amelia Przybysz in 1941, and they had four children.