Hugo's first female apprentice meat cutter embraces the challengeWhen a job requires slinging around 72 pounds of meat and standing in ice cold rooms for hours at a time, even the hardiest North Dakotan might pass on the offer. But Karen (Weets) Scharmer, Hugo’s first female apprentice meat cutter, embraces the challenge.
By: Jennifer Johnson, Grand Forks Herald
When a job requires slinging around 72 pounds of meat and standing in ice cold rooms for hours at a time, even the hardiest North Dakotan might pass on the offer. But Karen (Weets) Scharmer, Hugo’s first female apprentice meat cutter, embraces the challenge.
“It requires a lot of skill,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to work with meat managers who have a lot of patience. I’m lucky enough, too, where women in the meat industry really play an important role. It’s a very hard job, very physically demanding.”
It’s not a job for everyone.
At the start of every shift at the Hugo’s store on 1315 S. Columbia Road, Scharmer and two other meat cutters get a to-do sheet for the day that requires them to process 600 to 800 pounds of meat.
The temperature in the meat cooler where she works remains at around 32 to 34 degrees every day, and the repetitive hand motions can induce carpal tunnel syndrome.
Many women have worked in the deli or as meat wrappers — eight women work part and full time the South Columbia Road location — but few go beyond it. Scharmer is the first female butcher since Hugo’s was founded in 1939.
“A lot of women seem kind of put off by the blood, and the smell, and the things that come with meat cutting,” said Willy White, meat manager at South Columbia. “It doesn’t bother her.”
For Scharmer, the six-hour daily process of cutting and lugging 100-pound boxes is worth it. Compared with her time as a cashier, where she had only a few minutes to talk to someone, she can now build a trusting relationship with customers that draws them back, she said.
“When customers buy your meat, they’re not just going to buy any old thing you slap on there,” she said. “They’re going to look at the display and decide that if it’s a nice piece, they’ll buy it. That’s what I like.”
A sentimental connection to the job also keeps her going. She remembers watching her father, an avid outdoorsman, filleting fish for her family when she was young. For her to do a similar thing now “is just huge,” she said.
Learning to cut
Scharmer, 37, moved with her four children to Grand Forks in 2008 from her hometown of Frazee, Minn., looking for work and a fresh start in a new town. She was initially hired as a part-time cashier then moved to fulltime work, wrapping meat two days a week.
Although the only thing she could identify at that time was a T-bone steak, within two weeks, she was sold on a career there.
“It was really amazing to see how they transform a piece of meat, like building steaks or burgers,” she said. “After that, my interest grew.”
Dave Thompson, her mentor and the meat manager at Hugo’s on 32nd Avenue South, started training her on how to cut pork, then beef, of which Hugo’s has at least 50 different cuts.
Scharmer’s aiming for an assistant meat manager job, and has so far advanced to the apprentice stage. As part of that advancement, she’s learning to master the 6-foot-tall saw used to cut bone-in meats.
She credits the meat managerial staff at Hugo’s for the expertise and instruction that helped her grow.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” she said. “I’ve come a long way. It’s been a long four years.”
Her four young children are supportive of her career, she said. “They think it’s pretty awesome, but they probably won’t go around bragging about it.”
Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1138, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1138 or email@example.com.