Joe Heinen and the Meat Department

History of Heinen’s Premium Meat: A 90 Year Legacy

This post was inspired by an interview with Tom Heinen and Director of Meat, Eric Besselman

When you walk into Heinen’s, your options for filling your pantry, refrigerator and freezer are endless! However, the Heinen’s we know today did not always look like this, in fact Heinen’s actually started as a butcher shop!

As we celebrate Heinen’s 90th Anniversary as a local, family-owned grocer, we’re looking back on how it all began with Joe Heinen and his commitment to sourcing high-quality meat.

Our story begins in 1921. After graduating from John Hay High School, young Joe Heinen took a job with Cleveland butcher, Mr. Dedreux. After learning the butchering trade, Heinen proposed adding groceries to the butcher shop so customers could do all of their shopping in one place. Mr. Deadreux was not keen on the idea, but Heinen believed that the community would appreciate his vision.

Dedreux Butcher Shop- Circa 1927
Dedreux Butcher Shop- Circa. 1927

Heinen took his butchering skills and opened his own shop near Cedar and Chagrin in Cleveland’s Shaker Heights neighborhood, and eventually added groceries in 1933.

Heinen was certainly ahead of his time for expanding product variety, but he also set the local standard for customer service and product quality.

Joe Heinen at the Butcher Block
Joe Heinen at the Butcher Block

When it came to the customer, Heinen ensured that each shopper’s meat buying experience was unique to them by being a local pioneer for custom cutting and personalized service, a process that our butchers uphold today. He believed that you had to find the best to sell the best, which sparked his committed to having a hands-on role in the sourcing and production process of all of his meats. From lunch meat to ham, bacon and sausage, Heinen smoked all of his own meat in a smokehouse installed in his second store on Taylor Road.

When he was not smoking his own meats, he was traveling to the Akron stock yard to hand-select cattle. This was uncommon for a local grocer, but Heinen wanted to understand where his product was coming from to ensure that his unique standards were met. For example, although steers (male cows) offered more meat, Heinen always opted for heifers (female cows) because the eye (muscle that runs through the middle of the animal and produces rib roasts, strip loins and tender loins) was of much higher quality for his customers. This made him very popular in the Cleveland area.

Shaker Heights Meat Department
Shaker Heights Meat Department

Since Joe Heinen’s time, much has changed in Heinen’s Meat Department from how we handle our meat to what product our customers prefer:

  • People Prefer Poultry: Although ground beef continues to be our most commonly bought meat item, with over 40% of our meat products being ground beef, overall beef purchases have radically decreased compared to poultry.
  • Quartered & Hung vs. Pre-Packaged: Back in the early days of Heinen’s, beef was quartered and hung out in open air. To improve efficiency, as well as the quality and longevity of our products, Heinen’s meat is prepared and safely packaged by our meat experts at our new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Warrensville Heights.
  • Fat is not Favored: In the late 70’s, when Tom and Jeff Heinen entered the family business, the trim on a piece of meat was typically 1/4-inch thick. Today, people prefer trims around 1/8-inch thick or meat with no fat cover at all.
  • We Love Lean: A traditional cut of pork is around 40% leaner today than in Joe Heinen’s time.
  • Marbling is not Always a Must: While many people believe that a great steak has to have strong marbling, good genetics and proper feed can produce a phenomenal steak.
  • Local, Organic and Grass-Fed: In 1929, meat was not nearly as diverse as it is today. With the help of generations of meat experts, Heinen’s made a commitment to sourcing organic, local and grass-fed meat to meet the needs of our customers.

Although the meat industry has seen many changes since Joe Heinen opened his first butcher shop, 90 years later, we continue to follow his “buy the best to sell the best” philosophy.

Heinen's Meat Department Today
Heinen’s Meat Department Today

Our meat team is often on the go, taking frequent trips to visit our partners and experience their operations firsthand to ensure that we are bringing the best meats to our customers. It doesn’t stop with simply knowing our sources, our team also takes great caution in personally handling our meat to ensure that each and every cut is to our specifications.

It is unique, strong-rooted standards, such as these, that has allowed Heinen’s meat be a foundational element in our 90 year legacy.

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