From Mechanical Engineer to High-Steaks Business Owner

At the heart of every successful business is a great idea with a hungry market ready to consume your product or service. Getting an MBA or having experience in business may be helpful, but it’s not the key to success. When it comes to starting a business, sometimes you just have to put your stake in the ground or, as in my father’s case, your steak on the counter.

My father Mac Voisin and his then brother-in-law, Mark Nowak started M&M Meat Shops in 1980, as a mechanical engineer and a criminal lawyer with a big idea and a bigger appetite.

On a family vacation in 1980, Mac and Mark bought some juicy red T-bone steaks. As they fired up the barbecue they wondered: “Would these steaks be as good as in the steakhouse restaurants or tough as nails?”  Back then people buying “fresh” steaks believed the redder the meat, the juicier it would be.  However, purchasing a bright red “fresh” steak at the grocery store didn’t guarantee a juicy, tender steak every time. Mac and Mark wondered if the steakhouses had some kind of secret!

So they got out the yellow pages (remember those?!) and looked up “restaurant food suppliers.”

They met with one of the leading suppliers and learned that to improve the quality of a steak it needed to be properly aged for a minimum of 21 days in very specific conditions. And sitting on a grocery store shelf did not meet these conditions!  This proper aging process changed the steak’s colour from bright red to a deeper brownish-red.  Suppliers then flash froze the steaks at very low temperatures to lock in the tenderness and maximize the shelf life before selling them to restaurants.  Because the average consumer was accustomed to thinking that the redder the steak, the better it would be, Mac and Mark thought, “What if we could sell these steaks over the counter and tell people why aged steaks were superior?”

They also learned that restaurants brought in other high-quality pre-made flash-frozen dishes such as Chicken Cordon Swiss, Beef Wellington, and Veal Parmigiana.

Add to that menu of high-quality, low preparation meals the high number of baby boomer women returning to the workforce, and Mac and Mark knew there was a sizzling market for quality food that could be prepared at home quickly and easily.

With the lease of a retail storefront, a few installed freezers and a countertop, “M&M Meat Shops, Meats and Fixin’s” (its original name) was born.

Over the next few years, Mac and Mark used a variety of creative, grassroots methods to build their business. For example, they attracted customers by burning inexpensive fatty bacon ends on the barbecue in front of the store.

People driving by stopped to tell them that something was burning on the barbecue. Their response?  “Well actually, we’re just burning some bacon ends to get your attention, but now that you’re here, we’d love to show you our great food products.“   As Mac puts it, they just wanted people to put on the brakes and come into the store.  And they did.

What made M&M Meat Shops so successful in those early days?  High-quality product? Was it the location location location of the business?  Mac’s mechanical engineering degree?  None of the above!  It was Mac’s firm belief in the idea, himself, and his ability to make the business a success.  Without any business training, he simply had to stop and think of creative ways to get potential customers to notice this great concept he had created and believed so much in.

Over the years this included things like having my brother and I dress up as Too Tall Tex and Kelly Kabob and walk around the parking lot waving at cars and shaking hands with kids.  And it included giving away free samples and hosting charity barbecues in front of the store with 100% of the proceeds going to the charity in a time when giving away free food was unheard of.  We even had annual “Red Nose Day”, where all franchisees and staff were encouraged to wear red clown noses (sent out by Head Office) just to put a smile on our customer’s faces.  Does this sound like something out of a business textbook?

Thirty-five years and more than 400 stores across Canada later, Mac still wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened to people who told him his idea would fail because he didn’t have any business training or experience.  One family member even once said to him in the early days, “When are you going to stop selling hamburgers and go back to your previous career where you were making money?”

The point here is that it’s not that having the education to match your career goals isn’t worthwhile, but business success can follow an unconventional path if you believe in yourself, follow your passion, and don’t let others try to fit you—and your ideas—into a box.

If you are needing some advice and inspiration on growing your business, we should connect and explore how I can help you.