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

Ray's Market Is Bigger and Better Than Ever

"We always talked about getting a new building some day," Al Gurtner, owner of Ray's Market said. "Unfortunately, it took a fire to push us in that direction."

The History
Ray's Market was originally located on STH 13 in Unity, just south of the CTH P/K intersection. Ray Gurtner started the business on January 7, 1971, after purchasing it from a previous owner. At first there was a grocery store with the business but that was discontinued in the early 80's.

Ray's son, Al, had always been a helper around the store, from stocking shelves to tending the register. On July 7, 2007, Ray passed away and Al quit his construction job to take over. His mother, Janet, came aboard as a full-time shopkeeper.

The business was always a repository of Unity history with a storeroom next door that held several antiques. But perhaps the most important items in the entire business were three pictures showing the Gurtner family through the years.

The Fire
Janet Gurtner was jolted awake the morning of March 3, 2009, by a smoke alarm going off. She lived in the apartment above the original Ray's Market and thought the television or telephone was making the noise.

When she looked out her window and saw much more smoke coming from the meat market than usual, she tried calling 911 only to find the phone lines dead. By the time she called from a neighbor's place people had stopped on STH 13 because of the smoke.

Al, a Colby resident, was told by a Colby-Abbotsford police officer that firefighters were on the way to his store. He sensed that dire situation as he headed south.

"As soon as I got to the edge of Colby...I could see the orange smoke and I knew that was not good," he recalled.

By the time firefighters from Colby and Spencer arrived the building was ablaze. Most flames were put out within 45 minuets but firefighters had to cut holes in the roof to keep the fire from spreading.

It caused damage to Janet's apartment, forcing her out o a job and out of her home.

The fire destroyed four smokehouses and wrecked freezers, coolers and sausage-making equipment. It also left Al with about 25,000 pounds of meat that were stored in a refrigerated truck. Initially he hoped to salvage it but it was later determined that burning Styrofoam and other materials had rendered it inedible.

Initially Al had considered rebuilding in Unity and waiting to see how much of the brick building could be salvaged. The fire hadn't claimed it, but unfortunately weakened it too much to be usable.

While the flames took their toll, some history remained intact. The trio of family portraits escaped the blaze.

The New Building
Like the meat that is sold in his business, fire had a way of improving Ray's Market - it gave them a chance to put up a bigger, better building and provide more expansion options.

I August representatives from Colby, Abbotsford, the town of Hull, various contractors and the Gurtner family gathered on Elderberry Road to break ground at a new site for Ray's Market.

Just east of the Sleep Inn, there was a 230x310 foot lot visible from STH 29 waiting for a new occupant.

"It's been a long time to get to this point but it looks like it's been worth it," Al said.

The new building went up quickly with a 38x50 foot retail apace up front and far more parking. The shelves are brimming with Wisconsin products, including and extensive collection of wine, cheese, sweets and more.

"We wanted to offer a cross-sample of products from across the stare," Al said.

Al aimed to make sure there were plenty of local products on the shelves ranging from Munson Bridge wine, Holland Family Farm cheese, maple syrup from Abbotsford and plenty more.

The building includes four smokehouses and expanded space for spices and other ingredients. Ray's Market also has far more freezing and cooling space to better serve customers.

Ray's opened its doors to the community in November with an open house and ribbon cutting that brought in the crowds.

In the first three weeks Ray's was open about 6,000 pounds of boneless venison came in. The business was humming as gun deer season got under way. On the Monday after the season another 1,900 pounds passed through the doors.

Hot selling items have been bacon, which Al smokes about 15 to 20 slabs of per week, and herring, which sells in batches as big as two pounds. Al has been handling 100 pounds of the fish at a time and still has been having trouble keeping it stocked.

So far the new business has offered an array of challenges, from the new computerized record system (everything was on paper at the old store) to the new equipment.

"We are just getting the hang of things around here," Al said.

Meanwhile, in the front entrance of the store, pictures are starting to repopulate it. Ray's Market, rather than ending its story with a fire, is beginning a much greater chapter.