By Josette Keelor - email@example.com
TOMS BROOK-- In a recent advertisement for Crabill's Retail Store in Toms Brook, the establishment announced with enthusiasm that cloth bologna is back. If anyone was confused about the meaning of cloth bologna upon reading the exclamatory statement, they might have been intrigued enough to find out.
Quite simply, cloth bologna is bologna that comes in a cloth bag.
Bologna can come in many different forms of packaging, including the ever popular collagen casing, says Nick Crabill, general manager of the store.
"Cloth breathes a little bit different," he says. But the cloth bologna that customers will find at Crabill's defies that standard definition.
"We had a lot of requests for it," says Crabill, who has been manager for his family-run business for about eight years. "We've made bologna for 15 years and this, in the last year, has outsold it about 10 times to one. ... We sell that about 10 times more than our regular bologna."
Understandably, customers who learn of the return of cloth bologna would share in the Crabills' excitement.
So what makes this cloth bologna such a high-demand item? It's the recipe, but don't ask the Crabills to share it. It's top secret.
Suffice it to say that their cloth bologna is more true to how bologna should be than many of the alternatives going back several years.
While Crabill's never even sold cloth bologna in the past, the business became interested when it had requests for it in the last couple of years. Before that, people could purchase the meat produced by a company in Lynchburg that is now closed, Crabill says.
The original brand sold out of Lynchburg was Dandy, and customers still ask for it by name, though Crabill knows what they mean.
Last year, Crabill's had the opportunity to acquire the Dandy recipe and refine it.
"It was a good year that this [recipe of] bologna was nonexistent," he says. "We want to continue something that almost fell off."
The Riverview brand, named for the road on which Crabill's is situated in Shenandoah County, has so far been a big hit for Crabill's Meats.
"I think the response has been good," Crabill says, calling the cloth bologna "one of those niche products" that is popular locally. "We're actually selling it by the case."
It used to be called "junk bologna." Whatever meat was left over on the kill floor would go right into the bologna. For that reason, Crabill's never sold it, he says. "Now we've got pretty much the same pork we use for sausage."
That is, lean pork.
"We kind of upped the quality on the ingredients," he says.
Inspired by public interest, Crabill's decided how it wanted its cloth bologna to be. It's just a style of bologna, he says. Unfortunately, that style had suffered in recent decades as quality fell in the face of industry demand.
"You see it every day, companies cut quality and the product changes," Crabill says. He noticed how the bologna changed.
"It never had a great shelf life. ... It wasn't an appealing bologna," he says. "You don't taste meat."
The Crabills fixed that.
"Kinda cleaned up the meat that goes in it ... developed our own bag," he says.
Customers have commented that the new recipe tastes like how cloth bologna used to taste years ago.
"We don't have problems with the shelf life. ... We actually taste the meat," he says.
If the known product was so bad, why did so many people call requesting it?
It was that "back in the day" mentality, Crabill says. "People remember eating it 20 years ago."
Whether or not their memory of bologna is tainted by nostalgia could vary considerably, depending on when and where they purchased the meat.
Whatever the Crabills are doing seems to be working.
Many customers are regulars who come in every week, he says. Some come several times a month or year.
"We've got people come from two or three states away once a year," he says. Though the store is hidden away from traffic, Crabill says it is close enough to the interstate to be convenient to customers.
What he calls a natural progression, Crabill's Meats began with sausage and scrapple in 1962 with Crabill's late grandfather, Eugene, and later included his father, Larry. His father continues to work next door to the retail store in the plant, Crabill says.
His father began the original Crabill's bologna recipe.
Though the business has expanded, the company has remained small.
"We're a non-typical USDA operation," Crabill says of the company that has only five full-time and three part-time employees between the plant and the store.
"Really small operation, but pretty diversified in what we do," he says. Its products include retail beef and pork, slab bacon, beef steaks and sausage meat.
"We still dry-age beef," he says. "We carry Choice or higher."
Crabill's processes its meat on site, he says.
"They came here live and we've processed it down through," he says. "We process it basically in its purest form."
The process is important to the clientele and shows a different attitude than some of the bigger companies, he says.
"They can come back here, see us handle it ... [have] that peace of mind," he says of customers.
This is how it always was and how the Crabills intend it to remain.
"We pride ourselves on doing things the way we used to do it, that's why we still do everything in-house," says Crabill.
The care and precision it takes to run a family-owned business show in the store's patronage, Crabill says.
"Sales are kind of doin' the talkin', as far as that goes."