Making connections

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BUFFALO, Ohio – A half side of beef and a white chocolate mocha espresso, please.
There aren’t many places where customers can place an order like that, but at Thistle Farms General Store in Buffalo, Ohio, there’s everything from bug spray to 24-ounce frappes to orders of beef that can feed a family all year.
The store is part of Thistle Farms, a 300-cow red and black Angus operation in Guernsey County. Owned by the Yontz family, Thistle Farms also operates a farm in Columbia, South America, where they keep a herd of Angus and Romosinuano.
According to Jason Alexsonshk, general manager of the store, owners Lillian Yontz, Jennifer Yontz-Orlando and Mariclaire Yontz aim to produce healthy, natural beef. They were looking for a way to bring something new to their area when the idea for a general store struck.
“They kind of saw it as an outlet to be able to sell the beef,” Alexsonshk said.
Location, location. The family set up shop on Claypike Road, a street that gets a lot of traffic from visitors going to nearby Seneca Lake. With just 2 miles between the store and the farm, it’s easy for customers to make the connection between the cafe and the cows.
Besides the cafe and meat market, the store also offers a deli and a gift shop. Thistle Farms tries to sell as much natural, Ohio-grown food as possible. The case-ready beef is from Rittberger Beef in Zanesville and items like salsa, pickled eggs, cheese, deli meats and fudge are Troyer’s Amish-made products.
The store is basically a “retail extension of the farm,” said Alexsonshk, a certified culinarian.
The store mimics the atmosphere of an old-fashioned general store.
“They really want to stay away from run-of-the-mill things,” Alexsonshk said.
So far, this marketing technique has been successful. The store opened in 2006 and did business for a few months before closing for winter. In 2007, the store opened in May and Alexsonshk hopes to see the doors stay open year-round from now on.
Business looks promising, as the store has already sold more beef in the past few months than it did all year last year.
Custom meat. Thistle Farms’ natural beef can be purchased by the quarter, by the half or by the whole. For those who don’t need quite so much meat, Alexsonshk has designed several smaller packages, as well.
“So pretty much anybody can come in here and get healthy beef,” he said.
Alexsonshk, who runs the kitchen at Thistle Farms General Store, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to food. He earned a culinary arts degree from Columbus State before taking a job as a sous-chef at Cherry Valley Lodge in Newark and later becoming a sous-chef at P.F. Chang’s in Easton Town Center.
A native of the Buffalo area, Alexsonshk grew tired of the city life and returned to his roots, still interested in the culinary industry, but unsure how that would work in a small town.
Luckily, Thistle Farms General Store turned out to be a perfect fit. He developed a menu that includes everything from pizza and burgers to steak subs and fruit smoothies.
The hamburger sold at the cafe is from Thistle Farms and it’s one of the most impressive meals the store offers, according to Alexsonshk. For starters, it doesn’t have to be loaded down with seasonings.
“When I cook their beef, I use salt and pepper,” he said.
Genetics. The Yontz family pays close attention to the genetics of their herd, focusing on qualities like fertility, efficiency and high rate of gain. The animals are bred with the South American market in mind; during the past six years, the Yontzs have shipped more than 200 head of cattle there.
The Guernsey County farm covers about 1,000 acres and has been in the family since 1979, although the Yontzs have been farming their entire lives. Their goal for the farm is to advance American Angus genetics and produce cattle that will thrive under harsh conditions.
Expand. Similarly, the ultimate goal for Thistle Farms General Store is expansion.
“We would love, love, love to open up some other locations,” Alexsonshk said.
But no matter how successful the store turns out, the main focus will always be on the beef, he added. Because even with all the espressos and frappes and cups of coffee in the world, the store’s roots will always be on the farm.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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