A Grand Forks institution nears its 60th anniversary
Walking into L&M Meats is like entering a meat-lovers paradise. Seeing the fresh cuts of beef, pork and poultry displayed in glass cases and the neatly organized bins filled with all manner of seafood, sausages and prepared meats probably makes it difficult for customers to remain focused on what they originally intended to purchase.
With a clean, friendly and inviting atmosphere, it doesn’t take long for newcomers to the community to realize that L&M Meats is what every butcher shop should be—a store that provides quality products at reasonable prices with a friendly, knowledgeable staff.
“We specialize in meat, and we feel like we do a better job,” says Vera Novak, who’s in charge of administration and human resources. “You get a better, more customized product for your money here. You can walk in and ask for a pound of bacon sliced to a certain thickness. If you don’t want one of the steaks in the counter, the butcher will cut you a different one.”
It’s part of the reason why the business became an institution and has remained a prized asset of the greater Grand Forks area. L&M Meats is a testament to the foresight of its immigrant founders, the late Laddie and Marie Novak. Four of their children—Vera, Jeff, Laddie Jr. and Gary—continue to operate the store, following the standards and guiding principles set by their parents who immigrated from Czechoslovakia.
“Having that Eastern European work ethic meant they never spent more than what they had,” Vera says of her parents. “They worked hard, they saved and each time they were able to make a step forward, they did.”
There’s an old proverb which holds that you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. As L&M Meats next year reaches its 60th anniversary in Grand Forks, the history of where one of the city’s best-known businesses began remains an important part of L&M’s culture, the quality of its products and its continued success.
Seventy years ago, a young newly-married couple fled from Prague, Czechoslovakia, as the Iron Curtain fell on Eastern Europe. Ladislav Novak—a 23-year-old butcher and sausage maker—and his 19-year-old bride Marie escaped from the city under cover of darkness, fleeing to a refugee camp in West Germany. After six months, they were moved to another refugee camp in Naples, Italy, where Ilona, their first child, was born.
After a year and a half in Naples, Tony Stang, a butcher in Mayville, North Dakota, provided an opportunity for the Novaks to come to America. Ladislav, who later legally changed his name to Laddie, had begun training for his trade near the start of World War II. When the family arrived at Ellis Island in New York, Marie weighed a little over 80 pounds, and the couple worried that she might be too weak and sickly to remain in the U.S. But they were allowed to stay and rode a train west to North Dakota.
The couple lived in Mayville for two years until Stang died unexpectedly. Laddie then went to work for another meat market in Devils Lake where his cattle-buying skills were highly prized. In 1958, Laddie, Marie and Ilona became naturalized U.S. citizens. But what Laddie really wanted was to make sausage. He got the chance when the Novaks and their growing family moved to Grand Forks in 1959, which the Novaks now consider the official beginning of L&M Meats. Laddie’s first shop was in a beer distributorship in downtown Grand Forks. The basement housed a smoker where he could at last make sausages the way he’d learned to in Czechoslovakia. Before long, he and his sons were delivering his products to a burgeoning market.
“My dad would make sausage and then they would take it out on what he called ‘the route,’” says Jeff, who today serves as L&M Meats’ general manager. “It was the Czech communities at Grafton, Minto, Langdon, Pisek and Warsaw. The little grocery stores would sell the Bohemian shorts, ring baloney and Polish sausage.”
Laddie moved the store to other locations in town he shared with different grocery businesses, but Vera says he yearned for the independence to specialize in meats and sausages. L&M Meats eventually shared a location just north of Gateway Drive between Old Mill Road and Washington Street. In the 60s, a nearby gas station was transformed into the business’s new home.
“When you went in there, there was a Laddie’s sausage sign,” Vera says. “We still have that sign up front in this store. It was just my mom and dad, and it was the first time that they independently had their own retail store.” The business now employs between 30 and 35 people, depending on the season.
As Jeff remembers, “When we first got into the store on Old Mill Road, we were there for about year or so when dad started selling fresh meat. We put a tray of hamburger in the case and maybe some pork chops and a few roasts. Then we got into steaks. Every time my dad would put some steaks out, my mom would worry about selling them. It got to be that our store was known for good cuts of steak and roasts. It got bigger and bigger.”
Later, Laddie would worry when Jeff decided that premium, Grade A seafood should be part of L&M Meats’ offerings. “Jeez, I thought the world was going to come to an end the first time we got the bill,” he chuckles. “Dad said we would never sell it, but the sales got to be pretty good.”
In 1988, Laddie bought land for another retail store on south Washington when it became apparent that Grand Forks was growing in that direction. The Old Mill Road location was closed in 2002 and new production and packaging facilities, as well as a smokehouse, were added to the store at 2801 S. Washington.
With Christmas time being the busiest time of year for L&M Meats, the Novaks continue to find new ways to serve their customers. “Many of our customers come in and tell us this is their one-stop shop,” Vera says. “They tell us that they’re buying all their Christmas gifts here.”
Although meat and cheese trays remain a popular staple of the holiday season, the store also provides gift cards and gift baskets full of tasty meat treats for shipment nearly anywhere in the U.S. For holiday dinners, prime rib, hams and even lutefisk are available. The L&M Meats' staff is also trained to advise customers on how to prepare their purchases.
Jeff says that L&M Meats continues to take great pride in its customer service and its products, just as his father and mother did. There’s no sign the tradition will end any time soon. G
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PHOTOS BY: RUSS HONS PHOTOGRAPHY
From Issue 4, 2018