A bittersweet last day The Hartmans look back over their years in the butcher shop
By BERNADETTE SUKLEY
Special to The Press
After 40 years, Dennis Hartman closed the door on July 8 to the butcher shop that’s been in his family for three generations.
“There’s a time for everything to end, I know,” he said. “But to be honest, I’ll tell you, it doesn’t feel so good.”
Hartman admits it’s hard to let go of a business he and his family built up over the last few decades.
“It was good to see customers come in and talk about their children and then see their grandchildren come into the shop,” Hartman said. “It was so good to see them all come in.”
He does, however, look at the closing realistically.
“I’ll still see them around town,” he said.
Carol and Dennis Hartman go out as champions. Like incredible athletes, they leave the field at the top of their game.
Multiple awards, unique products, loyal fans and no one else comes close.
“We are the last USDA inspected open butcher shop in Lehigh County,” Dennis Hartman said.
Hartman’s was a family-owned, third generation business, founded by William Hartman (Dennis’ granddad) who built a butcher shop in 1940.
His dad, Paul, built the current shop in 1957.
“My dad, and most butchers back then, took what they had and stuck with it,” he said. “You never got fancy. You made sausage, ground beef, smoked hams, bolognas and hot dogs.”
He said the food trends just weren’t there.
“In the Depression, you used all parts of the animals,” Hartman said.
“They made scrapple and tripe to be used in soups. You didn’t have much,” he stated. “And, what little you had, you had to get creative and stretch it out as much as possible.”
Slowly but surely, the appetite for different kinds of meat product changed.
Scrapple wasn’t just a Depression-era food, but a Sunday morning staple.
“If my dad were here today, I think he’d be proud of us,” he said.
“I think my dad’s jaw would drop if he saw all the different products.”
Under Dennis Hartman’s ownership, the shop has diversified its offerings.
“Though I’m sure he’d be proud of all the different products and how hard we’ve worked to get the formulas right,” he added. “We got to know a lot of regular customers over 40 years.
“Hated to do it, but five years ago, we said we would have to retire in five years.”
Ups and Downs
Dennis Hartman began helping his dad as soon as he was old enough to safely hold a knife. He began butchering in earnest after high school.
“He did look around to see if there were any jobs he liked, but he came back to help his dad with the business and that was that,” Carol recalled. “It’s hard for him to let this go.”
The couple married in 1984. She worked part time at the business. After they married, they worked side-by-side in the store.
“We only have one daughter, Heather, who has a wonderful job at Lehigh Valley Health Network,” Carol said.
“She helps when she can, but she is not interested in taking over the business.”
COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 shut down many businesses.
In May of that year, when many businesses were closing temporarily or for good, Hartman’s Butcher Shop began new hours and was busier than ever.
“We had our store hours and, then when they were over, we would packaged other orders,” Dennis Hartman explained. “We never needed to close down.
“To top it all off, Weis and Giant were calling us to see if we had 20- to 30 pounds of meat products.
“They were panicked because they were worried about running out of food.”
Meat processing plants were shutting down because employees were getting sick or were afraid of getting sick.
“No employees, no meat,” Dennis Hartman explained. “There was never a lull in action,”
Dennis Hartman said he never really had regular, long-term help.
“It’s just so hard to find good hardworking employees.
“We’re lucky to find a few, but they’re getting on in age as well.”
Retirement was inevitable.
“Butchering meat is a dying art,” he said.
“Penn State has a butchering and meat processing program but all those kids go to the big meat companies. No one wants to open their own business.”
Products and Awards
On the last day, customers wished Carol and Dennis well. So many people loved the store.
“Our customers love our products,” Dennis Hartman said proudly.
These included country sausage, kielbasa, smoked ham and bacon, Beef Stix, Pineapple Stix, homemade hot dogs and Hillbilly Jerky.
Hillbilly Jerky is ground, seasoned and reformed jerky.
“Some people have said, ‘I wish I could just bottle the smell,’” Dennis Hartman said.
“It’s the smoker. All the meats in there smoking. It’s such a great smell.”
Dennis Hartman took pride in all his products.
“I’m proud of our awards and honors,” he said. “We won in 2018 as champions for our Meat Snack Sticks (Beef Stix) and for the Hillbilly Jerky (restructured) at the Pennsylvania’s Meat Processors trade show.”
At the 79th annual PAMP Convention 2018 Product Competition, Hartman’s Butcher Shop competed against more than 337 entries from 30 different processors.
One big award came in 2019 at a large and international competition featuring some of the most sophisticated meat butchering and processing companies.
The German Butchers’ Association, in partnership with the American Association of Meat Processors, reviewed 460 entries from 42 companies.
“We won two gold medals; one for Landjäger, and one for Restructured Hillbilly Jerky,” Dennis Hartman said. “We also won a silver medal for skinless, shankless smoked cooked ham.”
Landjäger, Dennis Hartman explained, came from German hunters who would go in to the mountains and needed a protein snack.
“It wasn’t like they could bring anything that was perishable,” he said. “Landjäger is cured, smoked meat. It’s a very long process to make, taking about 4 to 5 days to smoke.”
For some products, Hartman’s kept to Old World traditions but the shop also tried new things.
One fan favorite was Pineapple Stix. Like their tasty counterpart, Beef Stix, Pineapple Stix are made with ham and pineapple.
“Pineapple Stix were one of the most challenging products,” Dennis Hartman said “We tried so many different combinations and formulas to get the taste just right.
“We tried crushed pineapples, pineapple juice, fresh pineapple and dried,” he said. “Finally, we had luck with dried diced pineapple and it quickly became one of our most asked-for snacks.”
Hartman’s also made nonmeat foods, such as Hillbilly Jerky Dip - a favorite dip for chips when snacking at home or parties.
The store shelves were filled with other Pennsylvania Dutch favorites including horseradish, chow chow, sauerkraut and apple butter.
For now, Dennis and Carol Hartman will do a little traveling. They had a planned trip to Oklahoma for the American Association of Meat Processors convention.
“Due to COVID, it was canceled last year,” Dennis Hartman said. “So, we made plans for this year and then we decided to retire.
“But we’re going anyway. We’ll get a chance to say goodbye.”
The convention is both a trade show and competition. He plans on entering some of his products one more time.
“Just to see if I’m still good enough,” he said.
Then they are going to tackle the immediate tasks and fulfill any outstanding preorders.
“I put a note on Facebook [Hartman Butcher Shop social media page] and things went crazy,” Carol said.
By the time July 8 rolled around, there was no bacon or kielbasa for the walk-in customer.
“But it takes a while to smoke some hams and bacon, so those have to be done and packaged,” she explained.
After that, it’s pack up, clean up and get the place ready for another set of hands.
“There’s really no one else in the family,” Dennis Hartman said. “But I’d be willing to train anyone who’s willing to take on this business.
“It’s a lot of hard work and no one wants to work seven days a week. I know, it’s tough but there are so many new trends, technologies, different equipment that have helped us become more efficient.”
Dennis Hartman used the example of the refrigerators.
“You don’t always have to be here [at the store] to check on them. You can set the temps with an app on your phone.”
Both Dennis and Carol are in good health. Although there are some aches and pains.
“Well, that’s what happens when you walk on hard concrete for eight hours a day,” Dennis Hartman said. “I’ve been doing this since 1972, so it’s time to move along.”
“I’ll miss all the people,” Carol said. “But I won’t miss all the work.”
The Hartmans are selling the business as is - with the storefront, smoker, buildings and all the equipment.
“Hope to sell as a turn-key business,” Dennis Hartman said. “It comes with everything and 1.2 acres.”
“As for us, we’re not going anywhere, Carol added.
“I have no regrets,” Dennis Hartman said.
“It was a good business.”