PLAINVILLE — On Saturday morning in the kitchen at Brant’s Market, Adam Comeau gestured toward the big machine that ties and staples the ends of the store’s handmade ring bologna.
A new piece of equipment in his kitchen, it was a tough find after lots of online research to get one with dual staples that can close both ends at once.
That’s not all. "Getting it through customs was just as hard," said his wife and business partner, Ashley Comeau.
"I got a call from customs and they thought it was some sort of a gun, or some kind of weapon," Adam said. "Because it has a knife, it has a magazine, and these tubes and things coming from it. And I was like, ‘No, no, it’s for sausage.’ "
"There’s never a dull day," said Ashley, "when you run a meat market."
The two have been in the business since 2018, when they bought the original Brant’s Market in Lucas. The historic Brant’s was founded 98 years ago in 1922 by Czechoslovakian immigrant James Brant, and he and his family built a big following over the decades.
Now the Comeaus have officially opened a second Brant’s Market, this one on Mill Street in their hometown of Plainville, closer to their full-time jobs in Hays, where Ashley is an attorney at Jeter Law Firm and Adam is a paramedic with Ellis County Emergency Medical Services.
Situated near the busy crossroads of K-18 highway and US-183 highway, the Plainville store keeps steady daytime hours during the week and on Saturday.
"It’s been kind of interesting to see people start trickling in from Hays who have just never made the trip to Lucas but had always heard about Brant’s Market," Ashley said. "A lot of loyal customers, some of our older customers, had stopped making the trip to Lucas, and they’ve started coming into Plainville."
Lucas, which remains the flagship store, has one full-time and two part-time employees. The downtown Plainville store has one full-time and one part-time employee.
A former Taco Express that the Comeaus bought and gutted was remodeled from the ground up, most of it with rural development loans from the state program NetWork Kansas and the economic development arms of Rooks and Russell counties.
The all-new kitchen, with two 14-feet-by-10-feet walk-in coolers, paves the way for them to expand their product line to more kinds of brats and sausage, as well as snack sticks and jerky, to ship gift boxes and other products year around, and to make their meats, cheeses and other products more readily available through online ordering.
"We moved all of the production over here, and it’s really gone well so far," Ashley said. "We’re able to make a lot more product, a lot more efficiently, and still keep it handmade. Everything is still the same recipe, we can just make it in bigger batches."
The only exception is the original oak-wood smoker in Lucas, which they still use.
"You can’t really replace a 100-year-old brick smokehouse," she said. "We have a custom smoker here we’ve been working on, trying to match what that smoker can do, but it’s going to be a long process to make sure we get the taste exactly right. We definitely don’t want any of our products to change."
A household name even beyond north-central Kansas, Brant’s is most famous for its beef bologna, a recipe crafted by the company’s founder and passed down through several generations of Brants. Adam worked alongside third-generation owner Doug Brant to learn the bologna recipe and how to make it by hand, from grinding and mixing to stuffing the casings, then tying both ends with string and smoking it. Over time and with the new kitchen, he has made a few changes to the process.
For starters, there is a new dual stapling machine. It eliminates the hard-to-tie string bow at each end of the stuffed casing but keeps the handmade process, just stapling the two ends, cutting the casing and adding a short string instead.
"It was a nightmare," Adam said of doing each bow on every ring by hand. "My hands were like permanent clubs. I couldn’t open them."
Ringed bologna is a European style, with the few U.S. companies that make it using automated machines, Adam said, which Brant’s won’t do.
"That’s really important to us, to keep this a handmade product," Ashley said. "We won’t ever fully automate it, because that takes the handcrafted nature out of something that’s really special, and this is something that’s been made for almost 100 years."
Adam mixed up a batch of meat for bologna Friday night, with plans Saturday afternoon to stuff 220 pounds of select-grade lean meat into 288 bologna rings, enough to stock both stores for the coming week.
Holding up a finished ring of bologna, he explained that Brant’s uses beef casings for its bologna and pepper sausage.
"I didn’t create this circle, that’s the shape it’s in," he said. "The casings come in long strips. The intestine in the cow is curved, so when you fill it, it takes that shape. The string holds that ring and allows us to hang it from a rod to smoke it."
With the new stapler, other employees can tie off the bologna too.
"Tying is a skill," Adam said. "It’s hard to teach someone without screwing up a whole lot of bologna in the process, if it falls in the fire in the smoker and we lose it."
Plainville Brant’s also has a new stuffer machine in the kitchen, ordered from Germany and still awaiting some parts.
"I am eagerly awaiting the ability to use this one," Adam said.
The current machine is a water-powered piston stuffer, which has to be filled and packed as it stuffs, taking about three hours to stuff 320 pounds of meat, at 20 to 30 seconds per ring.
The new one, a vacuum stuffer, is much faster.
"It’ll be as quick as I can staple the links," he said. "This’ll do it in five seconds."
The market goes through 300 to 400 pounds of beef a week right now and 250 to 300 pounds of pork. During the holiday season, that will more than double.
"Our busy season starts the first weekend in November, right around pheasant season opening," Adam said. "People are coming through from the city, from Johnson County, so they’ll stop at both stores. So we really see a lot of the hunters come through and that’s kind of what starts it. So from then on we’re making double batches a week."
The store has always shipped a lot of gift boxes at Christmas, and now those can be ordered online too.
At both stores, Saturday mornings bring customers headed for camping and fishing at Wilson or Webster lakes.
The learning curve continues for both of them, they say, including an eight-week NetWork Kansas program from Wichita State University that Ashley is taking every Thursday night on growing rural businesses, sponsored by BriefSpace in Hays and Rooks County Economic Development.
Even though new products and processes are added, some things will never change, Ashley said.
"For us, it’s more about making sure that we do it the way that Doug and his dad and his granddad all did it," Ashley said.
"And keeping it consistent," Adam said.
"It’s really important for us," she said, "that we keep the original products the same original recipe."