True North Jerky Gets New Owners
The Hellers met in MSU's meat lab.
by Shelley Daily
From the March, 2018 issue
When Joe Wesolowski was ready to retire from True North Jerky & Foods, he says he wanted one thing from the new owner: "someone that would be successful." That someone turned out to be two people: Chelsea couple John and Courtney Heller.
The Hellers are livestock farmers who both have master's degrees in animal science and years of experience in the food safety industry. They took over in January, but on a February afternoon, Wesolowski was still in the back room of the store in the Old US-12 strip mall, grinding meat and stuffing casings for sausage. John Heller says he's still learning Wesolowski's recipes and is grateful for his help during the transition period.
"The guys, especially, love this stuff," says customer Debbie Peters. "It's tender, not chewy, like a lot of jerky can be." Shopping for herself today, she picks out a package of Thai sweet chili jerky from among the twenty or so beef and turkey flavors. True North also processes wild game--mostly deer--for customers, and Wesolowski says he sees "about a bear a year," which he makes into sausage.
John adds that they sell "much more than jerky," including smoked fish, as well as pork, chicken, bacon, ribs, steaks--and ground beef patties, hot dogs, and brats for grilling. Summer sausage and a line of Wisconsin cheeses are popular for party platters.
The couple met as MSU students in the school's meat lab. Both had grown up showing livestock--John in Chelsea (he's known Wesolowski for thirty years, because Wesolowski's two daughters were in 4-H with him), and Courtney in Portland, Michigan. After college, John worked for Neogen, a food and animal safety company out of Lansing, and Courtney for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, a nonprofit working globally on food security and regulatory issues.
Now Courtney oversees most of the sheep operation at Gottlieb Farm, which has been in John's family for four generations. His parents live there, too, and the couple have
three homeschooled kids: Bohdan, eight, Annika, six, and Caleb, four. She says the farm offers plenty of real-life education--they once welcomed seventy newborn lambs in seventeen days. About half the lambs shown at the Chelsea Fair are from their farm.
Bohdan showed sheep at the fair for the first time last year after receiving extra encouragement from his dad. "I kept telling him, 'It's not about winning, it's about the experience,'" says John. That was about the time he was considering buying True North. "It started to become more difficult saying that to my son and not saying it to myself, too."
True North Jerky & Foods, 12855 E. Old US-12 (Oak Tree Plaza), Chelsea. 475-1300. Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. truenorthjerky.com
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
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