320-253-8683

114 2nd Ave N
Sauk Rapids, MN

Manea’s Meats: An Area Institution

This article appeared in the St. Cloud Times on Sunday, January 2nd 2005.

Author: Chuanpis Santilukka

Love and Fidel Castro’s government made Manea’s Meats a reality in 1975.

What began as a small operation in an area saturated with meat markets grew after several years, weathering a lack of demand for Cuban-flavored meats in a downtown that hardly existed.

Today, the tidy corner store with the bright-red awning stands as an example of the thriving downtown Sauk Rapids is fighting to keep. With a new bridge headed straight down Benton Drive, the store’s owners will be forced to move in the next three years.

The uncertainty is cause for some concern, one owner said.

“After so many years, we’d be happy if they just replaced what we already have, without (us) going into debt,” said Rolando Castellanos, 75.

Regardless of location, Manea’s Meats will stay in the city it has occupied for almost 30 years. The city’s been good to the store, Castellanos says simply.

The popular store’s inevitable move would be of interest to any number of residents who shop there. But it’s the story of how it came to be that makes Manea’s a unique Central Minnesota family business.

It started in Cuba in 1949.

Cuban Life

Twenty-year-old Rolando Castellanos married 19-year-old Aleida Marichal – and into the family that owned El Rosario, a meat-packing plant named after Aleida’s great-grandmother. The Camaguey-based business began in the 1920s.

Although he initially stuck with his railroad job, it wasn’t long before Castellanos started working with his wife’s family. He began in 1951 and by 1955 he was running the show.

El Rosario had 45 employees at its prime. Running a business in Cuba then wasn’t easy: The plant needed more electricity than could be provided, so more was generated on site. Because of a beef shortage, it was limited to handling 500 cows per month.

There was also the matter of Cuban dictators.

In 1952, Fulgencio Batista, an army sergeant, ruled Cuba. When a young lawyer named Fidel Castro tried overthrowing Batista, he was jailed and exiled to Mexico. In 1956, Castro returned and tried again.

Again he failed, but he fled to the mountains where he gathered support among rural and urban factions.

Castellanos was a Castro supporter. He hid the future dictator’s soldiers and supplied them with food.

“We didn’t know what was coming. … I helped him when he was in the mountains, and I met him, yes,” Castellanos said. “He always said he wouldn’t be a communist.”

When Castro eventually took power in 1959, he quashed other resistance movements. By July 1961, Castro’s party joined another to start the organization that eventually would form the communist government that rules Cuba today.

It was a move that cost the Castellanos family dearly.

Seizures

At 7 a.m. Nov. 14, 1961, a uniformed soldier representing Castro came to the family’s meat packing plant and asked Castellanos if he wanted to sell the place.

“I said the family wasn’t interested, and he said, ‘Let me see what’s inside.’ So I showed him,” Castellanos said.

An hour later, El Rosario was Cuba’s, and the Castellanos family assets were frozen.

“He did it with one phone call,” Castellanos said. “I wasn’t too happy. The whole country was losing everything then.”

To support his family, which now included a daughter and three sons, Castellanos and his family restored a farm they owned 50 miles from Camaguey. The land was full of cows, pigs and sugar cane and spanned 1,700 acres.

It kept the family in a good economic position even in uncertain political times.

“We weren’t making any money, but we were producing food for the whole family, plenty of it,” Castellanos said. “When I went to the farm, I was thinking it would be OK.”

But it wasn’t. Two years after the government seized his family’s meat plant, they took all but 160 acres of the farm.

“Any success and they took it all away,” he said. “I wanted to move. I didn’t want to be … in that system.”

In America

Castellanos cast his eyes on the United States, where his mother had moved with his sister, settling in 1956 in Connecticut. He applied to move his family there, but it took five years before he received permission to go.

But not everyone was allowed to leave. Castellanos’s second born child, a son named after him, was 16 and of military age. The government said he couldn’t leave.

“I was ready not to come,” Castellanos said. “But one morning at 5 a.m., (Rolando Jr.) came to me and said, ‘Go. I will follow you.’ … It was about three or four days (after we got permission).”

The child’s resolve decided the matter for Castellanos. With financial help from his mother, a factory worker making 50 cents an hour, the family flew to Hartford, Conn., with the $4,000 she provided for airfare.

They had little else.

“We knew no English, and we had no money,” he said. “I came here with nothing.”

Each family member brought one change of clothes in bags they made themselves, daughter Alina said. When the shoes she was supposed to get from the government weren’t available, she made a pair out of tires for herself so she could travel.

New Beginning

Despite being new to the country, finding work wasn’t difficult for Castellanos. While his wife cared for the children at home, Castellanos worked as a butcher at a local hotel.

Adjusting to a different country took hard work and effort.

Castellanos chose to live in a non-Spanish-speaking neighborhood so his family could pick up English quickly. After work, he took English classes and studied to get his driver’s license.

Castellanos’ youngest son Juan, remembered that time, too.

“We’d listen to records to learn English,” he said of his brothers and sisters. “It was hard. I had to start over in school, and I didn’t know English.”

As a butcher, Castellanos made $2.25 an hour. Rent was $175 a month. Although welfare was available, he rejected it. His family was eligible for a year’s worth of free rent and food.

“(Aleida and I) decided together that we didn’t come here for that, and we didn’t take it,” he said. “We never took one penny. … I’m really proud of that.”

While working at the hotel provided a steady income, Castellanos always had his own business in mind. That opportunity came about a year later, six months after he started a new job at a meat-packing plant. The owner of that plant asked Castellanos if he wanted to open a wholesale meat-processing plant with him.

“He knew that I know the business, and he knew what happened in Cuba,” Castellanos said. “He saw how I worked. I worked very hard, and he wanted to help me.”

Castellanos’ first business – a wholesale meat-processing plant opened in 1970 – the same year daughter Aleida was born. It would close five years later when he shut it down to follow his daughter Alina and son-in-law Don Manea, a Sauk Rapids native, to Minnesota.

Don Manea

Manea was in his fourth year in the Navy when he met Alina on a blind date. Language was a barrier, as was his service duty.

“I was working with nuclear submarines. I’d leave for three months, and then I’d come back,” he said. “I was probably gone six months out of the year that we dated. … She couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Spanish. But we made it.”

The couple married in 1972, and Manea was released from the Navy in September in 1974 after six years of service. When Castellanos’ daughter told him the couple was moving back to Manea’s hometown of Sauk Rapids, he decided to move his family there too.

“He didn’t want to split the family up anymore,” Juan Castellanos said.

Manea, wife Alina and Juan Castellanos moved to Sauk Rapids in fall 1974. Everyone else stayed behind while Castellanos tried to sell his business. By February 1975, no one had bought the place, so he shut it down and brought his family to Sauk Rapids.

Manea's Meats

The first unofficial product of Manea’s Meats was a sausage Manea cooked in the basement of his house.

Recalling the moment, it wasn’t the quality of the sausage that stuck in Castellanos’ mind. It was the Minnesota weather.

“It was cold,” he said simply.

In Cuba, temperatures at their worst dipped into the mid-60s. That’s when Cubans would pull out their leather coats to keep warm, Juan Castellanos said.

But the family braved the weather and made progress with plans to build a meat market.

They bought equipment and picked out a location downtown, despite Manea’s surprise that his hometown wasn’t as lively as he once remembered. When U.S. Highway 10 bypassed the city, it took many businesses with is, he said.

The family looked at a St. Cloud location but wanted to open in Sauk Rapids.

“The building was condemned, and we bought it for $30,000,” Manea said. “This was my hometown, and there were a lot of meat markets in St. Cloud. … We were one of a dozen.”

Manea’s roots boded well for the family. He knew the building’s owner and was able to buy it with no money down. Credit was something the family desperately needed.

“We started with absolutely nothing. When the store opened, we didn’t even have enough money between the two of us to buy the rolls of nickels, dimes or pennies to fill the till,” Manea said. “We waited until a customer vame and bought something to give change to someone else.”

Buying meat also was a day-to-day situation. The family relied on a seller’s two-week credit to get started.

Despite the family’s earnest efforts and long hours, business was slow for the first few years.

“Nobody knew us,” Manea said. “And the products we made were quite a bit spicier than what the German, Polish and Norwegians were used to. So we had to keep cutting our spices.”

Not having a Spanish-speaking population to sell products to didn’t help, Castellanos said. And the small store on Benton Drive wasn’t exactly appealing, either.

“The air conditioner was above the door. So when you came in, water dripped on your head,” Castellanos said, laughing.

“The trains would come by and the windows rattled,” Manea said.

Hoping to draw more business, in 1977 the family opened a second location in St. Cloud, across the street from where Tenvoorde Ford stands now. They wanted to keep both stores open with the main operations at the St. Cloud site. Those plans stalled with the city wouldn’t let the family build smokehouses there.

Running the St. cloud store wasn’t cheap, but the family kept it in operation. And they started making money.

Their fortune didn’t stop with business. On the morning of Dec.1, 1977, Castellanos’ pastor heard on the radio that then-Rep. Richard Nolan, D-Minn., was planning to visit Cuba that day. The Rev. Robert Anderson, then from Peace United Church of Christ, told Castellanos the news.

Castellanos asked Nolan to help reunite him with the son he left in Cuba. The request Nolan made of Castro was granted, but not without a series of delays.

Patience paid off. In 1978, 10 years after his family left him, Rolando Castellanos Jr. joined his family in Sauk Rapids.

New Changes

The owners of Manea’s Meats closed their St. Cloud store in 1988 because it was cheaper to run the business in Sauk Rapids.

By that time, other family owned meat markets were going out of business, and Manea’s had built a name among St. Cloud residents.

In 1989, the family bought the building next door, which had a self-service laundry as a tenant. When the laundry’s owner decided to move in 1999, Manea’s Meats expanded into the space with the retail portion of the store.

Today, Manea’s Meats is one of a handful of meat markets in the immediate area, drawing customers from Albany, Foley, Cold Spring and other area cities. Manea estimates customers come from a 25-mile radius. He also sells products to wholesalers statewide.

The business is primarily run by the family – nine of the store’s 11 employees are related. Castellanos, wife Aleida, Manea and his wife Alina, and Juan Castellanos share ownership. Each of their kids “at one time or another” has worked in the shop.

Altogether, Rolando and Aleida Castellanos have 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild, Juan’s granddaughter.

There’s no disadvantage to working with the family, they said. Differences of opinion are decided by a simple vote.

“We’re not like most families,” Manea said. “Can most work with their brother, sister, mother, father, daughter and son all day long, every day of the week? We work together. If one has to leave for a couple of hours, the rest fill in. We help each other. It’s not a dictatorship.”

More Changes to Come

City leaders have picked a spot across from City Hall for the new store.

Castellanos doesn’t know how the move will go, but he’s grateful for the life he’s built already.

“I never thought about leaving when I was in Cuba, and then the (trouble) started. … I’m very proud and happy to be here.”

He plans to work until the day he dies, he said.

“I came here in 1968, and I only worked for someone else for six months. It’d be a lot easier to work for someone else, because there wouldn’t be (as much responsibility),” he said. “But I wanted to leave something for the kids when I go.”