If you ask Mark Lengacher, there are two ways to do something: The right way and the wrong way.
He’s confident that Schneider’s Quality Meats in Waterloo does things the right way. Proof? Schneider’s celebrates its 50th year in business this month.
The store features a glass display case of meat 60 feet long, a whole wall of sausages and smoked meats, around 40 flavors of bratwurst and a selection of beers, wines and specialty sodas you won’t find in any chain store.
‘This one struck us’
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Lengacher and his wife, Robin, purchased the store in 1999 from Clayton and Jeannette Schneider.
The Schneiders started the business in 1966 in old Valmeyer, staying there until the town was swept away in the flood of 1993. After that, the Schneider’s built their store on the northern outskirts of Waterloo where it remains today.
This is where we live. This is where our kids go to school. Monroe County, Waterloo, Illinois — that is us.
Mark Lengacher, owner of Schneider’s Quality Meats
“It was a very strong business; it had been run by one family. Had nothing but quality,” Mark said of the reason why he was attracted to the store.
“I had worked in the grocery business my entire life, and I was looking for something for myself and my family. We looked at several different businesses and this one just sort of struck us,” Mark said. “We were a little disappointed at the time that it was in Waterloo because we lived in Glen Carbon, but then we realized this is a great place to raise a family. We bought the store and then moved down here within a year.”
He said it also was “very independent,” which resonated with him because he’s independent himself — a characteristic that frustrated him when he worked for national grocers with “all the rules and regulations.”
“I wanted something where I could do what I wanted to do, and I had enough background in this industry to do it,” he said.
Still, Mark admitted that in the early days after first buying the store, he thought he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
“But I was also raised that if you bite off more than you can chew, you better chew it,” he said. “It wasn’t like a game to us, it was our life. If this thing didn’t work, I don’t know what we would be doing.”
That early uncertainty was quickly replaced with local pride. “This is where we live. This is where our kids go to school. Monroe County, Waterloo, Illinois — that is us,” he said.
I’m not making cans. We’re not making wooden pallets for grocery stores. We produce food that people consume. If we’re not willing to feed it to our own kids, we will not sell it. Consistency is the key. These people are taking stuff home to feed their families. It better be right.
Maybe the only thing that rivals Mark’s independence is his commitment to quality. You hear it when he talks about anything that’s for sale at the store. It’ll be the best such-and-such you’ll ever eat, he says.
“There really are only two ways to do something: The right way or the wrong way. You can cut some corners here and there, but when it comes down to brass tacks, you better do it the right way,” Mark said. “I’m not making cans. We’re not making wooden pallets for grocery stores. We produce food that people consume. If we’re not willing to feed it to our own kids, we will not sell it. Consistency is the key. These people are taking stuff home to feed their families. It better be right.”
Times have changed since the Lengachers took over Schneider’s Quality Meats, and that’s presented some challenges to the business.
“It has changed drastically in the 16 years that we’ve owned it. You don’t have as many people cooking at home as you used to have 50 years ago or 40 years ago or even 10 years ago,” Mark said.
He said he’s had to cater to customers more, both figuratively in the sense that more of what he sells is pre-cooked and literally in the sense that Schneider’s does actual catering. But if businesses don’t change alongside customers’ changing tastes and habits, Mark said they’ll get trampled. That’s why the store carries what he said is the most diverse inventory of soda in the region and why there are 40 types of bratwurst for sale.
It’s fun. It really is a fun business if you let it be. Stressful? Absolutely. Lose sleep over it? Absolutely. Drive your head into the wall some days? Of course. Well worth it. Nothing worth having is easily gained.
A case in point is one particular bratwurst flavor. Mark thinks it was the pizza bratwurst. The Lengachers, who were out of town one week, were surprised to hear compliments from a customer who tried the pizza bratwurst. At first, Mark insisted the customer must have had his store confused with another. Schneider’s didn’t make pizza bratwursts — at least not when he’d left town. Employees admitted to the experiment but Mark was pleased. The brats had sold out.
“That’s when you know you got excellent help, when they want to create something,” he said. He also said that being responsive to needs from customers and to suggestions from staff “is part of my responsibility.”
“You need to have an open mind in this business. Not everything is black and white. You have to be willing and able to operate in that gray area,” he said. “It’s fun. It really is a fun business if you let it be. Stressful? Absolutely. Lose sleep over it? Absolutely. Drive your head into the wall some days? Of course. Well worth it. Nothing worth having is easily gained.”
All of our employees take pride in what they do. They know these customers. They know their kids, they know their grandkids. We know about each other and that makes it special.
Robin Lengacher, co-owner of Schneider’s Quality Meats
“All of our employees take pride in what they do,” Robin said. “They know these customers. They know their kids; they know their grandkids. We know about each other and that makes it special.”
Mark and Robin are proud, too.
“I’m proud of the support that we’ve been able to give to the community. And I’m very proud of the support that the community has given to us,” Mark said. “We’re a destination point for some people, which is cool. I’m really proud of all the great employees we’ve had over the years. Me and my wife are blessed. I consider myself extremely blessed and fortunate. We’re really proud of our little meat market.”
“Just being able to have a wonderful store that produces great products with great customer service and being able to live in a great community and have them support us the way that they do is just wonderful.” Robin said. “Our customers are very, very loyal to us. It’s been a wonderful experience.”