MANSFIELD -- Statistically, Wilging’s Fine Meats shouldn’t be in business.
Now operated by its third- and fourth-generation owners, the meat market has outlasted nearly a dozen other businesses that it once operated alongside at a former market on the corner of Third and Walnut streets.
Despite all odds, Wilging’s celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
“I was always told, you know, the third generation's the one that ruins the business,” said Phillip Wilging. “And I always had that in my mind growing up. I wanted to keep the business going, and I think I made it alright.”
The 69-year-old, lifelong Mansfield resident strives to provide a quality product for his customers. The meat sold at Wilging's is sourced from farms in Richland, Ashland, Wayne and Huron counties.
“My dad always told me, 'Just make sure you continue to put out a quality product, and the people will come,' ” Wilging said about the business’s second generation owner, Harold Wilging.
The business opened in 1919 in downtown Mansfield by current owner, Phillip Wilging’s grandfather, who shares the same name, Phillip.
The business was housed in a market, which Wilging compared to Cleveland’s West Side Market.
“It was a full structure that held at that time five meat markets ... one woman that sold just rabbits, a vegetable market and two bakeries,” Wilging said. “We're the only ones that, I think, are left in business.”
That building burned down in the late 1960s, Wilging recalled, but his family’s business re-opened two weeks later on Park Avenue West with equipment borrowed from another locally owned business.
In the following years, Wilging’s Fine Meats moved a handful of times. Once it even relocated to its original location at the corner of Third and Walnut.
Now, its most recent move was approximately 35 years ago. The younger Phillip Wilging and his father, Harold, had a building constructed and moved the business to 1391 Lexington Ave.
Working with Family
Both third generation, Phillip, and fourth-generation owner, Chris Wilging, say working with family is challenging.
“I walk away a lot,” Chris said with a laugh. “It's frustrating at times, but I wouldn't change it for the world. It is such a gift to have been able to work with him.”
Now 46, Chris Wilging admits he was occasionally stubborn and has learned a lot from his father.
But Phillip says the business is ultimately better because of his son’s contributions.
“The other side of that is, I see him making improvements that work,” Phillip said.
When a small kitchen fire damaged the meat market’s building nearly a decade ago, Phillip encouraged Chris to lead the remodel.
“I said, ‘You’ll be here a lot longer than I’ll be. You should set it up how you want it.'"
The remodeled space allowed the Wilgings to increase their retail options. In addition to fresh meat, the business sells fresh vegetables when in season and a variety of organic, natural and gluten-free products year-round.
“If you can name it, I try to have a little bit of it, all the way around,” Chris said. “I don't try to be Kroger, but I try to make it so we have stuff so that if you just came from Kroger and forgot something, you don’t need to go back. You can pick it up here.”
Staying current for customers
Nearly every five to 10 years, Phillip and Chris have seen changes in consumer demands.
“Years ago, we never sold boneless, skinless chicken breast,” Phillip said. “Everything was whole chickens or just cut up parts, and the breasts were always sold whole.”
He still remembers one of the first times he was asked to de-bone chicken breasts. At that time, such a request came as a surprise.
“It was (in 1972), the year George McGovern ran (for president), and he was to be coming to town, and there was a caterer here who was supposed to make boneless chicken breasts for this,” Phillip said.
He prepared hundreds of chicken breasts, but McGovern never showed up. To his memory, the caterer still purchased them and instead used them for other occasions.
Today, Phillip Wilging estimates 95 percent of the chicken breasts sold are boneless.
“Everyone wants it ready to go,” he said.
While products have changed, customer service hasn’t, the Wilgings said.
“We do a lot of it the same way. When you walk in here today, it's similar to what it would have been like if you walked in in the 1940s,” Chris said. “You tell us how you want it, and we’ll make sure it’s that way.”
Creating a customer-friendly experience keeps people coming back. One woman, Phillip’s former third-grade teacher has been visiting the store through all four generations of owners.
“She'll come in twice a week to buy her meat,” Phillip said. “She’s 90-something, and she’s the only teacher who ever gave me an F. We still laugh about it.”
Phillip had always scored well on tests and in-class assignments, but he wouldn’t turn in his homework. According to his memory, the teacher offered him one warning that he didn’t abide by. Sure enough, come the end of the quarter, he was given a failing grade.
“Probably still the best teacher I ever had. She really taught me a lot,” he said.
Proud and Thankful
Phillip Wilging’s father Harold always told him, “'You're not going to get rich in this business, but you'll be able to take care of your family.'”
Phillip said this is true. There’s been many hard times for his family, but he feels he’s always had enough and feels he provided a good life for them.
When reflecting on the business’s 100th anniversary, Chris said something similar.
“I’m proud and thankful to be here. I've been in this long enough to go through some bad times. I know what it's like to grind through, but I'm just so thankful for the support this community has given us,” Chris said. “We had started when there were horse and buggies. And now, we're here while we’re going to Mars.”
Wilging’s Fine Meats is open from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. It’s closed Sunday and Wednesday. To contact the shop, call (419) 756-5262, and to learn more about it, visit its Facebook page.