News & Views
Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors, Inc.
February 2010

By Kevin O'Brien

Ray's Market Breaks Ground at New Site

Just six months after an early-morning fire gutted the inside of Ray's Market in Unity, the owners have broke ground on a new location tucked neatly between Colby and Abbotsford.

On August 5, 2009, a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the future home of Ray's Market at H3590 Elderberry Road, around the bend from the Sleep Inn along State Highway 29. The 230x310 foot lot is just inside the town of Hull and is visible from the four-lane highway.

Owner Al Gurtner said he chose the site for its openness, including plenty of room to expand in the future.

"We always talked about getting a new building some day," he said. "Unfortunately, it took a fire to push us in that direction."

Al hosted the event with his wife Connie, their daughters Hannah and Emily and his mother Janet, who first opened the store with her husband Ray in 1971.

Representatives from general contractor Marawood Construction, Ron's Refrigeration, Anderson Electric, Jake's Plumbing and Mid-Wisconsin Bank all attended.

Shane Graffunder, the town of Hull board chairman, said he was glad to see Ray's Market setting up shop in the township and hopes their business does great.

Todd Schmidt, president of the Colby Chamber of Commerce and Kerry Ellenbecker, president of the Abbotsford Chamber of Commerce each welcomed the Gurtners. Schmidt noted the you can see both cities from the new location and hoped the business would represent a new opportunity for cooperation between the neighboring municipalities.

Al that everyone for their support as they bounced back from the March 3 fire and found a new location.

"It has been a long time to get to this point, but it looks like it has been worth it," he said.

As soon as the building is even partially ready, Al said he will be getting back to work.

"Connie's getting sick of me sitting around the house," He joked.

Jeremy Brown from Marawood Construction said they will start the excavation right away with the goal of finishing the project by mid to late October.

The new facility will include a storefront and four smokehouses, which will be larger than the previous ones and allow more meat to be smoked at one time. This should reduce the waiting time for customers, Al said. The building will be constructed with EPS panels made of Styrofoam and plywood, with an energy efficient R40 rating, he noted.

In addition to their signature sausages, the new Ray's Market will sell cheeses, coffee, ice cream, Wisconsin souvenirs and wine from the Munson Bridge winery near Owen.

After settling into their new location and seeing how things go, Al said they eventually plan on offering their sausage products on a lunch-time menu.

When the fire struck, Ray's Market had over 1,000 venison customers, including one man from Montana who had his products delivered by UPS. The coolers were stocked with nearly 25,000 pounds of venison, which was removed from the building, but had to be disposed of because of smoke exposure.

"That was troubling to get rid of that much meat, but pretty much everyone understood," Al said.

They issued rebate checks to those who lost venison, but some returned the money and asked that it be put toward the new building, he said.

They have also taken the opportunity to computerize all their customers' records, which were on paper before. In another move into the digital age, they have also started a website at www.raysmarketsausage.com.

The old general store in Unity was torn down last month after it was determined to be a total loss. Al's mother, Janet, still owns the lot and has a few interested parties looking at purchasing the property.

Al said it was hard to say goodbye to the old building in Unity, where he had lived and worked since he was three years old. Although it still looked OK from the outside, he said inside it was structurally unsound after the fire and heat weakened the bricks.

"At one time it was a charming old building with a tin ceiling and everything," he said. "It lost all it's charm. It was just a black piece of charcoal."

After the fire
In the aftermath of a devastating March 3 fire, the owners of Ray's Market in Unity could take comfort in the fact that they have a loyal customer base. Even as firefighters were still battling flames in the back section of the store, people were coming to the front door wondering if they could come inside to buy sausage, Gurtner recalled.

Within a few days of the fire, which destroyed their four smokehouses and wrecked the freezers, coolers and sausage-making equipment, Gurtner said several contractors contacted him about submitting bids to rebuild the popular meat market.

The Gurtners had their receipt books drying out on a clothes line so they can determine exactly how many orders they have to account for and who they need to contact.

"We never had anything on computer before," he said. "We had it all on books."

Gurtner said he would like to extend a big thank-you to the firefighters from Colby and Spencer, who responded to the fire before 4 a.m. that subzero morning and stayed until 3:30 p.m. to make sure the flames were out.

"They really worked hard," he said. "I owe them a big one for helping me out."

Cold morning, hot fire
Janet had been living in the apartment above the market and woke to the sound of the smoke alarm going off that morning.

"She said she thought it was the TV or telephone or something. She was still sleeping so she didn't know what was going on," Al Gurtner said.

Looking out her window Janet could see smoke coming out of the building and it was much more than what usually rises from the meat-smoking operation. She tried calling 911, but the phone lines were already fried, so she ran down to her neighbor Ernie Kibbel and called 911 from there. By that time a few people had stopped along STH 13 after they saw smoke.

Al Gurtner, who lives in Colby, got a call from his friend, Colby-Abbotsford police officer Jason Bauer, who told him that firefighters were on the way to his store, Gurtner was soon on his way down to Unity.

"As soon as I got to the edge of Colby, near Harmony Co-op, I could see the orange and smoke and I knew that wasn't good," he said.

Al said his mother checked the smokehouses before she went to bed and didn't see anything wrong.

"We don't believe it had anything to do with the smokehouses, because there was nothing out of the ordinary," he said.

Though the fire was so hot inside that it made the paint on the walls blister the temperature outside was still below zero, so Al invited the firefighters into his storage shed which served as their base of operations. Coffee and pizza were served as the hours stretched on.

While most of the flames were extinguished within 45 minuets, firefighters had to cut holes in the roof to get at the fire between the tin ceiling and the pitched roof. They were able to keep the flames from spreading into the upstairs apartment, but the smoke damage forced Janet to find another place to rent. She's also out of a job for the time being.

"She just told me a few weeks ago that she was planning on retiring this summer," he said "So it is not the end of the world for her."

Family history
Ray Gurtner started Ray's Market on his birthday January 7, 1971, after purchasing it from the previous owner. Al was three at the time and within a few years he was stocking shelves and ringing up customers at the grocery store. By the early 1980s the family discontinued the grocery store to focus on the sausage making business.

When Ray died on July 7, 2007, Al quit his construction job and took over the family business full time, hiring his mother as the shopkeeper.

A priceless item that survived the fire is a series of three photographs, including one showing Ray and Al as a child with matching butcher's smocks and hats on. The second photo shows Ray and Al as an adult, and the third shows Al and his two daughters, Hannah, 11, and Emily 8, in the same pose.

"We reenacted the scene in the doorway," he said. "Every year I do it again with my two daughters."

Al, who has many antiques in the storage room next to the shop and is collecting old photos of Unity, said he plans on someday writing a book about the village's history.

Interesting enough, the March 3 fire came just a couple months after the centennial of the major fire that swept through Unity in 1909, he said.

"It is just kind of ironic that it happened 100 years ago, almost to the month," he said. "At least it wasn't on the same day. That would have seemed pretty suspicious."