WEST PEORIA — You'd think the biggest-ever barbecue in the history of Raber Packing Co. would smell delicious.
But it stinks — literally, as well as for the family-owned company, its employees and the entire community. Friday morning, hours after a massive blaze, the 64-year-old brick building continued to smolder. Buddy Courdt, president of the fourth-generation business, watched along with firefighters as acrid smoke — no sweet-smelling grill aroma here — billowed from the charred structure.
"There's 12,000 pounds of product in there, about 2,000 of which is bacon," Courdt, 38, said with a rueful grin. "Think of the (continued) grease fire just from the bacon."
On the upside, the fire hit during off-hours, and no one was injured. Still, the inferno not only destroyed a landmark business, but stings the pocketbooks of 40 employees, almost all of whom are full time. Plus, the shutdown of Rabers, which sits adjacent to West Peoria city limits in unincorporated Peoria County, robs the the area of a key draw, especially during the holidays.
"It's terrible, just terrible," said West Peoria Mayor Jim Dillon. "It's a huge loss to the community."
This is a throwback, no-frills operation. Livestock comes in on a string and goes out in waxed paper. As a tradition, kids can get a free (though cold) hot dog at the sales counter. And with so much meat on the premises, even the sales area is kept cold, so chilly you can get the shivers even in the summer.
Raber — which processes and sells meat of all varieties, including 125,000 pounds of sausage a year — was started at the site in 1954 by Sam Raber and Fritz Wetterauer. The latter's great-grandson, Courdt (better known as Buddy Raber, in part from Facebook posts about weekly specials) said he is talking his options with the company's insurer. Though he wants to rebuild, a final decision will be based on dollars and cents.
"Hopefully, we can be making the same products a year from now as we were making three days ago," Courdt said.
This time of year, with deer season and Thanksgiving, is the busiest for Raber Packing Co. The place smokes 100 turkeys a day, six days a week, starting in late October.
"The number of people we feed during any week is crazy," he said. "The number of people we feed during the holidays is even crazier."
And this year had been particularly bountiful, Courdt said. Gesturing at the destruction, he said, "I've got the most inventory I've ever had in that building."
He isn't sure of the cause. He'd suspected two open-flame areas — the smokehouse and the boiler — but firefighters ruled those two spots out, he said.
"The only other cause of a fire that I know would be electrical," he said.
Even if Raber can rebuild, some traditions will be lost, Courdt said. For instance, the operation used a 1921 pig scalder/dehairer, bought used in the '50s. And, though such feelings might seem curious to outsiders, packinghouse veterans can get sentimental over reliable and timeworn processing equipment.
Courdt said, "There are some things you can't replace."
Devoted customers would say the same about Raber Packing Co. As Mayor Dillon said, "Here's hoping they can come back better than ever."
PHIL LUCIANO can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.