Lansing State Journal

LANSING, Mich. (AP) _ In hindsight, Shirley Decker Prescott concedes, her decision to launch a new business in a down economy might have been a little crazy.

It was December 2010. L&L Food Centers, where she and her husband worked, had just slipped into receivership and would close for good three months later.

Facing unemployment, Prescott, her husband, Mert, and son, Brandon Decker, found a 2,700-square-foot space in Okemos, scrambled to arrange financing and laid it all on the line, the Lansing State Journal ( ) reported.

Six months later, Mert’s Specialty Meats was open for business.

“I didn’t even think about (the economy),” Prescott said. “It was probably stupid that I didn’t. It wasn’t until I actually got in the store and was doing business that customers would come along and say, `You know, you really gambled by opening a store in this economy.”’

So far, the gamble is paying off.

On June 16, just 12 days shy of the store’s third anniversary, they opened a second location in a 1,800-square-foot space in Lansing.

Mert’s Meats on the Avenue offers most of the same products as the Okemos store, although fresh meat and seafood are packaged in Okemos and brought there each day.

Mert’s carries a huge array of specialty meats, including alligator, snake, wild boar, venison, buffalo, elk, rabbits and pheasants, and focuses on Michigan-made products.

“We knew we wanted to open another location, and, frankly, I wanted to open one in DeWitt,” Prescott said. “But we knew that if we opened a store in DeWitt, it would have to be full service. And that would take another loan and more collateral.”

Her son, Brandon, suggested they open a neighborhood store near her longtime Lansing home. After scouting options along Michigan Avenue, they settled on a storefront in a newer building at the corner of East Michigan and Marshall Street.

Business is growing as people discover the store is there, she said.

The Prescotts had plenty of experience to draw upon when they went to open their own meat and grocery business in 2010.

Prescott, 62, worked for Goff Food Stores before it was acquired by L&L and stayed with the company for its final 14 years. She was the information technology director at L&L when it folded.

Mert Prescott Jr., 69, worked at his family’s meat processing plant in Stockbridge as a child and worked for decades as a butcher at various area stores, including L&L and Goff.

He retired as the meat cutter at the L&L store in Okemos two months before it closed.

Brandon Decker also had extensive retail grocery experience. He was laid off from a sales position at United Dairy Farmers when L&L fell into receivership and decided to join the new business.

Financing was the biggest obstacle for getting the new business off the ground, Prescott said. Several lenders, including her personal bank, declined to grant them a loan. Eventually, Lake Trust Credit Union approved a loan backed by the Small Business Administration, she said.

They opened with just four employees, along with Prescott’s niece, who worked part time as a bookkeeper.

Many of Mert Prescott’s longtime customers followed him to the new store, his wife said. And right from the start, business was better than any of them had anticipated.

“We had over 400 special orders that first Christmas,” Shirley Prescott said. “We did more business in that first six months than I thought we would do in our third year,” she said. “It is overwhelming. I can’t say enough about how good this community has been to us.”

Mert Prescott, who is now retired from the business, trained Brandon Decker as a meat cutter.

The store has added an experienced meat cutter from Jackson, as well as Jessica Wilson, a longtime associate at the now-closed Goodrich’s Shop-Rite in East Lansing, to help manage the business.

The operation now has 14 employees.

The company is privately owned and doesn’t release sales or profit figures.

There’s a big emphasis on customer service, Shirley Prescott said. Every week, the store sends an email newsletter with specials and recipes to more than 2,000 addresses.

Staff members will do whatever they can to find products that customers ask for, she said.

For example, Mert’s now stocks certain cheeses and other products that Goodrich carried before it closed last month.

“I think we take very good care of our customers,” she said. “They are like family to us.”

Prescott said she still wants to open a store on Business U.S. 127 in the DeWitt area. But that probably won’t happen right away.

“I think that’s a growing community and we have a lot of clients who drive here from DeWitt,” she said. “Brandon is open to another store but we’ve got to pay down some more debt and take care of a few things first.”

Information from: Lansing State Journal,