While the show goes on for Spenst Brothers in Winkler, the day to day looks a bit different.
Markers on the floor show customers where to stand. Staff are signing in each day to say they have no symptoms of COVID-19. People call in wondering if they need to stockpile meat — they don’t, said Connie Spenst, but she doesn’t blame them for worrying.
Her staff have been tremendous, Connie said, but they’re feeling the strain of working amidst a pandemic.
“This really has been a struggle,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility. We as a family have felt that because it’s not just our livelihood. It’s the livelihood of those who are in our employ. They’re like family to us.”
This isn’t the first time Connie, husband Garry and sons Paul and Garreth (the ‘brothers’ in Spenst Brothers) have weathered a storm. Crisis was what birthed their business — and like then, said Connie, faith in God and focus on what matters will see them through.
Began with BSE
Garry Spenst grew up farming near Rosengart. When he and Connie married in 1972, they bought a chunk of land in La Riviere and began farming it. A few years later, when Garry’s dad decided to semi-retire, they returned to the family homestead and began to farm alongside Garry’s parents.
The farm grew as Paul and Garreth grew up and decided to join them farming. They were primarily a cow-calf operation with some crops, Connie said. Her sons were breeding and selling heifers also.
When the BSE crisis struck in 2003 and the border closed, they were left with a few hundred cattle and nowhere to sell them.
“It was do or die,” Paul said in a 2016 interview with Country Guide. “At the time, Garreth and I were working nights at Saputo Cheese, just to try and pay the farm bills, then during the day we’d work on the farm.”
The bred heifers gave birth, and their cattle multiplied, Connie said. “We had a lot of cattle with no place to go.”
Initially they floated the idea of building their own abattoir. Though they got municipal permission to build a killing facility, the mayor of Winkler encouraged them to go the retail and processing route.
This led to them buying a piece of land in Winkler. They built the shop themselves, and opened for business in May of 2005. With the exception of a butcher they hired from Saskatchewan, they were doing everything themselves — and they had almost no experience in meat processing.
“We felt that we, in order for us to survive, we had to be very much hands on, and know what goes into our product, how to make it,” said Connie.
Garreth had the most aptitude in sausage making and recipe creation, Connie said. Paul’s gifting lay in math and leadership. Garry’s life was the farm. Between them, they made it work.
“You kind of know where the gifts, so to speak, are among yourselves,” Connie said. “You just want to try and have your aces in their places.”
Early on, pizza became part of the business model. It began as a way to use up and showcase their store-made pepperoni, salami and other meats.
“We’ve always been a family that enjoyed pizza,” Connie said. “Friday night was always pizza night on the farm.”
They built a little kitchen into the shop and began experimenting with crust and sauces. At first, they bought one 20-kg block of cheese for the pizzas, Connie said. Then one day they needed two.
“And then it got to be five, and then it would be eight and then — you know the numbers kept on growing,” Connie said.
At that point they realized that seven ladies shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen would no longer cut it.
These days, Spenst Brothers has a much larger pizza-making facility. In 2016, Country Guide reported that pizza sales weren’t far behind retail beef sales.
“It far exceeded our expectations,” Connie said. “We were just happy that there was an avenue for the cattle off the farm.”
Faith to make it through
With 70 employees on their payroll, it might be hard to believe they started with six people — five family — but that first year was back-breaking. The family was working from early morning to late evening.
It was also a tremendous risk.
“We put everything kind of at risk,” Connie said. “It’s a big stretch. It’s pushing yourself to another level.
“In the beginning there was just an awful lot of soul-searching and praying about it for us to see — God do you really want us to do this? Because we really don’t know anything about some of the stuff where we’re putting our feet into.”
But faith and family strength got them through, Connie said.
If there was a lesson beside that, it was “steady at the wheel,” Connie said. Stay focused on what you do and believe in it. Don’t let naysayers stop you, she said.
The greatest reward has been the ability to give back, Connie said. They’ve been able to fundraise for community groups and schools, and for several years now they’ve worked with a program feeding children in Mexico.
“It’s not ours to begin with,” Connie said. “God has been good and has blessed the works of our hands, we feel.”