KULPSVILLE, Pa. -- Nine point two: That's the number of jobs an average American holds from ages 18 to 34, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor.
One: That is the number of jobs Al Kober had from the age of 14 to 64. But on March 25, 2002, he said goodbye to his family at Clemens Markets, his place of employment for the past 50 years. Kober worked for Clemens longer than anyone, except for the company's co-founders, Abe and the late Jim Clemens.
The first Clemens store where Kober worked was only 30 feet by 60 feet. At the age of 14, he was their "go-fer," paid only 50 cents an hour. There was only one checkout person, one stock person, and a vision for expansion, as the company now has 18 full-service supermarkets. The second store, 9,000 square feet, was where Kober developed an intense passion for meat cutting.
"I worked part-time behind the counter and then I would watch the guys slice meat," Kober said. "They soon started teaching me how to do it, too."
From that point on, cutting was in his blood. He described all cutters as a rare breed of men dedicated to getting every slice, every cut, perfect. He compared breaking beef to an art form, with the hanging carcass as the palette, the knife as the brush, and the meat cutter, the artist.
"Cutters have the same mentality as brain surgeons," Kober added, saying few of that caliber remain today. "It is such a rewarding experience. To see something so large become smaller and smaller as we carve away."
Throughout his 50 years, different companies offered him employment, but he always declined. Kober said Clemens offered him great rewards, a sufficient income to raise his family comfortably, and the same basis of philosophy as his own. Also, he had a large family and he felt job security was paramount.
Staying put at Clemens presented plenty of opportunity for growth, anyway. Kober took turns as deli assistant, assistant meat manager, store manager, meat supervisor and, finally, director of meat. And, as his positions changed, so did the meat counter.
Kober noted that the most significant change in the evolution of the department has been the gradual switch from hanging carcass to box beef, and, today, to case-ready product. The increasing need for convenience in consumers' lives drove the department to change, too, bringing in more prepared foods, which now take up at least one-third of the typical case. The counter will continue to evolve as needs evolve, he told SN.
Kober compared the growth in convenience foods to his childhood days, when he picked cherries for his mother's pies, as she made the dough from scratch. His wife buys a ready-made crust and a can of cherries; his daughter purchases a frozen pie; and now, many years later, his granddaughter buys a ready-to-eat, fully cooked cherry pie.
"The same thing is going to happen to the meat counter. In a few years, people won't believe that meat came raw, and was cooked from scratch," Kober said.
The current challenge is not only creating these value-added meat dishes, but getting them to taste good, and to have a longer shelf life. Kober said technology is helping to change the case for the better, by creating a safer meat product and allowing processors and retailers to merchandise more convenient options for the consumer.
Irradiation is a key step in the next generation of the meat industry, said Kober, who's an advocate of this new technology. The process may initially be rejected by consumers because of their past perceptions of radiation, but concerns over food safety and bioterrorism are beginning to change attitudes, he said. People need to overcome their fears and misconceptions, and be educated about irradiation's benefits, he said.
Throughout his years at Clemens, Kober made tremendous contributions to the evolution of the counter and is regarded as an expert in the field. His knowledge and experience is now passed on to the new generation of meat cutters, as he assumed the position of director of retail for the Certified Angus Beef Program, Wooster, Ohio.
Kober is happy with his new position, and excited to give back to the meat industry. He said he's not sure how long he will stay with Certified Angus Beef, but he says if he continues to love it as much as he does, it will be for years to come.