ROLLINS – At the age of 71, Lucy Carlson has cut back to working half-days at the business she and her husband Sonny have owned for almost 20 years along the west shore of Flathead Lake.
Of course, using Lucy’s math, half of a 24-hour day equals 12 hours of labor.
“I love my job,” she says from behind the counter at M&S Meats and Sausage, the Rollins butcher shop that has overlooked the lake since 1945. “My body hates it, but I love it. I’m still going fine mentally and, by midday, physically.”
These days M&S is best known for its hand-cut, hand-hung, hand-pulled buffalo and elk jerky and sausage. Technically, of course, it’s bison, not buffalo – there are no buffalo in North America, and outside of zoos, never have been – but Lucy won’t quibble over the distinction.
“Tomatoes, tow-mah-tows,” she says with a shrug. Buffalo is the name early American settlers gave to bison when 60 million of the animals roamed the continent, and it stuck well enough that many people still use the names interchangeably.
So everything made with bison at M&S is labeled buffalo, and there’s plenty to choose from: Seven different kinds of buffalo jerky, four kinds of buffalo chubs, three types of buffalo snack sticks, not to mention buffalo burgers, buffalo steaks, buffalo roasts and buffalo link sausages.
Which makes this as good a time as any to tell you what the “M&S” in “M&S Meats and Sausage” stands for.
It stands for “Meats and Sausage.” They seem to get a kick out of telling that to the customers who ask.
Twenty years ago Sonny Carlson, who worked in the insurance business in Colorado, was facing a transfer to the Midwest. Lucy put together structured settlements and wrote annuities in a two-person office that was about to eliminate one position.
“The other person in the office was my boss, so you can guess how that was going to shake out,” she says.
It was, they decided, a good time to consider early retirement, and they knew where they wanted to do it. They’re both from Montana – Lucy from Billings; Sonny from Belt – and Montana is where they wanted to return.
The move worked out. The retirement, not so much. The Flathead Valley was their first and apparently only choice, but they couldn’t find the right home at the right price. That’s when the Realtor they were working with, Bruce Young, asked if they’d be interested in a home overlooking Flathead Lake that came with a business attached to it.
“We’d never been in the meat processing business,” Lucy says, “but you didn’t know how to walk till somebody taught you.”
The Carlsons bought M&S Meats and Sausage and moved to Rollins in 1997. They haven’t regretted it.
“A bad day here,” says Sonny, who is 74, “is better than a good day in the insurance business.”
Yvonne Leineke is 25 now, but has worked for the Carlsons since she was 12 years old.
“I started out at $5 an hour cleaning the ‘luggers’ after school,” she says. “The school bus would drop me off here, and Lucy would drive me home when I was done with work.”
“Luggers,” by the way, are the plastic storage bins M&S uses to lug the meat products around the shop.
“They’d be piled to the ceiling when I got here,” Leineke says, “and that was my sole job.”
Two months into her career, she got her first raise, of 50 cents an hour.
“We reward our producers,” Lucy Carlson says, adding – with a wink – “A couple of them are probably overpaid, but I have the most amazing staff. Over the years we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly, but the teenagers who are here now shine, and Yvonne is one of two who have been here since they were 12 years old.”
Whether she’s been a student at Dayton Elementary School, Polson Middle and High School, or the University of Montana, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting, Leineke has remained employed at M&S Meats and Sausage.
“It feels like home,” says Leineke, whose mother, sister and brother have also all worked at M&S at some point. “It’s not a chore. I love the people – and I have a degree in accounting thanks to Sonny and Lucy.”
She says it will be difficult to part ways when she leaves early next year to pursue her education in Canada, and it’s easy to see why this job isn’t like most.
The Carlsons make their staff lunch every day, using ingredients often grabbed off the eclectic store’s shelves. They are flexible in their scheduling – no one apparently has to pretend to be sick to take a day off to do something else – and the months college students are often home conveniently coincide with the months M&S has to hire extra help to keep up with demand.
They can often fill the jobs with employees who already worked for M&S when they were younger, and are home from college.
“I travel western Montana and all of Idaho for my job,” says Brad Lane of Kalispell, who swung into M&S recently along with Tammie Moore, “and this is the best beef jerky I’ve found anywhere. I've been coming here for years.”
The west shore is an out-of-the-way trip for another customer, Debbie Casalegno, who lives in Bigfork, but she travels Highway 93 instead of Highway 35 on the east shore when the jerky is running low in her household.
“Sometimes we go this way just to come here,” Casalegno says while purchasing $42 worth of jerky.
“The jerky is super. I don’t think I’ve ever bought it anyplace else.”
Buffalo products were already on the menu when the Carlsons took over, but have taken off in the last 10 years, Lucy says.
“Now, people want buffalo over anything else,” she says. Decades-old recipes for jerky (including buffalo teriyaki, pepper, jalapeno and honey) and sausage were a non-negotiable part of the sales agreement.
“It’s all about the buffalo,” agrees employee Stef Simonson, who actually connects M&S to its history. Her family owns the Rollins Restaurant and RV Park next door to M&S (where Simonson also works in the summers), and all were opened by the original owner, Kim Quackenbush.
The shop does more than 50 percent of its annual business during July, August and December.
In the summer months on the lake, the customers can stack up seven deep waiting to make purchases in the store, Lucy says, and in December, the phone rings off the hook with people wanting to purchase custom-made holiday gift boxes.
“You tell us what you want in it, and we’ll do it,” Lucy says.
There’s more to choose from than meats and sausage. There are several types of cheeses, and cheese curds that are smoked at M&S (such as organic roasted garlic, bacon and onion, and Cajun). There’s the usual array of huckleberry products (jam, syrup, taffy, licorice, pie filling, cordials, barbecue sauce, coffee).
There are pet treats made with what’s left over from after meat is processed: bones (including the $10 “monster bone,” a big bison femur), jerky made of buffalo heart and tongue, and treats concocted from meat left in the head of meat grinders (“There can be three to five pounds left in there you might normally trash,” Lucy says, “but we save it until we have 100 pounds, and then make pet treats out of it”).
Shelves in the crowded little store are otherwise packed with items that make it part convenience store, part exotic market.
There’s ketchup and mustard on one shelf, and raw shelled hemp seeds, organic coconut milk and kelp noodles on another.
“It’s just a hodge-podge of can’t-live-without products,” Lucy says.
They’ll still slice you off beef or buffalo steaks to order from sides of meat, but M&S is no longer a traditional butcher shop. They don’t hang carcasses any more, and don’t employ a master butcher any longer.
It’s a sad story, and one that’s tough for Lucy to get through even now.
“The first year we took over, we started on Oct. 1, and in December we lost our master butcher,” she says. “Six months later, we lost our youngest son.”
About seven years later, the Carlsons’ other son, Kyle, and M&S longtime employee and master butcher Patrick Tucker were killed in a single-vehicle accident near Lakeside.
The Carlsons have never hired another butcher.
They have three daughters, and four grandchildren, in Colorado and Oregon. The business – which is closed just four days a year, on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day – doesn’t keep Sonny and Lucy from seeing them, but they do have to travel at separate times, so that one of them is always in Rollins.
Otherwise, when they’re both in Rollins, the couple divide their duties.
Which, Sonny says with a grin, means “I do everything she doesn’t want to – bookkeeping, bill-paying, slicing and maintenance.”
It takes something extra to keep a butcher shop in a town with less than 200 people a going concern. In the case of M&S Meats and Sausage, you can put a name to it, and it’s bison.
But they’ll put their own name to it, and call it buffalo.