A couple of weeks ago, during the height of cabin season, when lines of cars stretch northward from the Twin Cities, a traveler stopped in Little Falls for a pound of coffee from Reality Roasters.
“Picking up bacon and coffee, eh?” asked owner and roaster Mark Norgren.
Bacon? The traveler’s ears perked up. Bacon would be just the thing.
“Yep. Everybody stops in Little Falls for coffee and bacon,” he explained. Bacon so good that Martha Stewart has been known to order a pound or two. Bacon once noted in a New York Times review, which set off a tsunami of mail orders carrying a flood of Minnesota smoked pork eastward.
This bacon could be found on the main road out of town. Just head back to the highway and follow the line of SUVs, trailers, boats, and pickups packed with coolers to Thielen Meats.
Sure enough. Between the highway overpass and the Holiday gas station is a squat, warehouse-y building with a parking lot that at first seems too big for it, but quickly fills up. Experienced shoppers bring their coolers into the shop. The newly initiated will need to pick up a foam box at the checkout.
Because, while you think you’re just going into Thielen Meats for the bacon, you will, almost inevitably grab some cottage bacon (so hard to find), a package or three of brats (more than a dozen kinds, mixed in house), a summer sausage for snacking at the cabin, a pack of salami sticks for the road, and, heck — they’re an excellent price and you’ve already got the cooler — a couple of Amish-raised whole chickens.
John and Linda Thielen built the Little Falls store in 1990, but the Thielen meat dynasty began in nearby Pierz in 1909. John’s grandfather, Phil Thielen, ran a general store there, selling furniture, appliances, and other household goods, in addition to meat. When Phil retired he sold the appliance and furniture business to one son and the meat business to the other. John’s father, Lerald Thielen, got the meat side of the business. After Lerald died of a heart attack, John and his brother Keith ran the Pierz store together until 1988. Today Keith’s sons, Matt, Andy, and Joe, run the store in Pierz and John runs the store in Little Falls.
That New York Times article that made Thielen Meats famous and still warrants a mention when out-of-towners come through? It ran in 2002 and actually refers to the Pierz store, which does mail orders (it used to ship nationwide and now only ships in Minnesota). But the bacon it praises is essentially the same, as both Thielen brothers learned the secrets of great bacon from their father.
First the pork: not too fatty, not too lean. And the smoke comes entirely from maple chips, nothing added. “It’s a pretty flavorful smoke. Not as harsh as oak and not as soft and sweet as apple,” John Thielen explains. “We smoke all our own sausage products, bacon, fish, hams, summer sausage, jerkies. If it can be smoked, we smoke it.”
Thielen keeps three smokehouses running full tilt. Each has the capacity to smoke 3,000 pounds of meat a day. Three times 3,000 pounds of smoked meat, that’s what he sells in his retail shop alone. Let’s double-check that: Thielen Meats in Little Falls, MN, sells an average of 9,000 pounds of meat a day? “Yep, that’s about right,” Thielen confirms. “I only have my retail operation,” he adds. Taking orders for shipping would add new layers of inspection and, since he’s busy enough in the shop, he doesn’t have to do that.
Little Falls and its satellite communities have a population of about 25,000, Thielen explains. And the store sits almost exactly where Highways 10 and 371 split, carrying holiday travelers to north and north central Minnesota. Those cabin-goers make up a good portion of Thielen’s weekend business, but, as the woman at the checkout confirms, it’s also a popular stop for locals after church, picking up something special for Sunday dinner.
What the customers are picking up, Thielen says, has changed quite a bit in the past decade or so. “Fifteen years ago, we probably made one kind of fresh brat. Now we make a dozen or so,” he says. “Country and Polish sausage are still favorites, but we make a lot of sausages we never used to, with wild rice, jalapenos, and cheese. We probably make 15 different kinds of summer sausage, some with blueberries, even. It’s a tremendous variety of products.”
“In this area,” he adds, “it’s mainly German and Polish ancestry. But now we have a fairly large Mexican population, so we make chorizo and other products that German and Polish people are not that familiar with. It’s a never-ending process of change.”
For getting that process rolling and making the Thielen name what it is today, John Thielen gives credit to his parents, Lerald and Dorothy, who built a huge modern processing facility after they bought the business from Phil Thielen. “That was a pretty risky business in a small community in the 1960s.” Dorothy Thielen is now 84 years old and still does the books for the Pierz store.
And when the next generation of cabin-goers heads north, eager for brats and bacon to enjoy by the lake, they will probably be able to pick up smoked meats from Thielen’s.
“My son Michael and daughter Jessie work for me now,” Thielen says. “Hopefully they will both take over when I’m ready to retire.”
Butcher shop and grocery store in Little Falls
300 13th St NE, Little Falls, MN 56345
OWNERS: John and Linda Thielen