MEGA MEATS

It's not a dream: $40,000 a week in total meat sales out of a store measuring only 3,000 square feet.For Southwest Mega Meats, the numbers are a reality. Co-owners George Fuller and Tom Peacock purchased the property, located in a small mini-mall in a lower-to-middle-income area of Orlando, Fla., nearly three years ago. The neighborhood's demographics potentially posed a challenge: There are wide

It's not a dream: $40,000 a week in total meat sales out of a store measuring only 3,000 square feet.

For Southwest Mega Meats, the numbers are a reality. Co-owners George Fuller and Tom Peacock purchased the property, located in a small mini-mall in a lower-to-middle-income area of Orlando, Fla., nearly three years ago. The neighborhood's demographics potentially posed a challenge: There are wide differences in age groups, income levels and ethnic backgrounds. Catering to all of them would be difficult, given the small footprint.

Yet every day, natives of the Caribbean, Central and South America, Asia and Mexico, to name a few, enter the store and find the type or cut of meat they want. The vast majority of the fresh meat is beef, ranging from family packs of ground chuck to skirt steaks for churrasco, a popular Brazilian entree.

There's also branded poultry, frozen seafood, pork, sausages and specialty meats like pizzle -- bull penis.

"We sell the head to the tail," said Fuller. "Each ethnic group has their own recipes for everything."

The store isn't fancy, but many shoppers who are used to smaller markets in their native countries aren't looking for colorful signs or on-premise dry cleaners. They want fresh food in a convenient location.

"Our customers shop a different way," said Peacock. "They're bringing a lot of their home customs with them when they shop, and we have to match them to the products we offer."

Meat is the center of the plate for most cultures, and meat is the category Fuller and Peacock know best. Fuller was a salesman for a large meat purveyor for more than 20 years, and owned another meat market; Peacock had prior retail experience. Together, they purchased the store, which today has 15 employees. The volume of meat moving in and out of the store keeps everyone busy.

"Certain items, we'll run six times a day," said Fuller. "Most of them are family-pack sizes like the large ground beef, cube steaks and stew beef."

The high turn rates require full-time attention to the meat case. There are five dedicated cutters and three people who wrap, run the product out, and restock the displays. The work area is a small, L-shaped space that connects to the freezer and the loading dock. Meat -- most of it boxed -- is delivered almost daily, and is broken out and cut throughout the day. One of the first priorities for Fuller was to update the store's antiquated work line.

Mega Meats has simplified the operation by purchasing an automated system that is capable of weighing, wrapping and labeling all the meats. The Solo Plus combination system from Mettler-Toledo, Columbus, Ohio, replaced a hand-wrapping station with a semi-automated wrapper, scale and label printer that was configured to fit the tight angles of the work area.

"The store's existing scale equipment before we assumed ownership was nearly 15 years old," Fuller said. "As we grew, we had to upgrade the productivity in the last stage of our meat processing for better recovery and appearance to customers."

The meats are placed on color-coordinated trays, and then racked and wheeled over to the wrapping machine. Store associates can enter a predesignated code for the product, or reprogram it to print special prices or customized labels. The trays are hand-fed into the wrapper, where they are weighed, overwrapped from a single, 11-inch roll of film and slapped with a label reflecting the cut, price and any special information. Switching from the old to new system nearly doubled packaging capacity from 12 to 22 trays per minute.

The high processing volume speaks to the amount of display space on the selling floor. The walls on either side of the main entrance support in-line refrigerated cases, while 30 feet of coffin cases runs down the middle. Fresh beef is on the left side. The four-deck fixture measures 24 linear feet, and combines fresh beef and pork offerings. Like beef, the pork offerings reflect the diverse customer base. There are family packs of pork blade steaks, pork neck bones and spare ribs, as well as picnic shoulder and loin roasts.

Poultry is found in a 12-foot case set up against the opposite wall. Here, the shelves hold branded, case-ready products, including less popular pieces like family packs of thighs, wings and frying leg quarters. Adjacent to it are mixed pieces of jerk chicken and shoulder pieces of jerk pork. There are also packages of pork pan country sausage and fresh sofrito, an herb-based seasoning that's a favorite of Caribbean islanders.

The coffin cases hold items that are more specialized in nature, such as the pizzle, as well as heart, honeycomb tripe, kidneys and other offal. Here, a small selection of seafood rounds out the protein choices.

There is also a small deli counter and a produce section featuring bins of staples like yucca and potatoes, as well as the more exotic, such as an island display devoted to overwrapped hot peppers. The deli serves up luncheon meats and cheeses and some salads. There is a small rotisserie operation, serving items that vary from daily, but center on poultry and pork.