July 24, 2006
Radtke Produce buying and selling eggs for 57 years
Radtke Produce gave a number of Lester Prairie High School students their first paychecks
By Linda Scherer
Driving a 1939 Buick with the back seat removed and using a few candles in his parents’ basement, Wilbert Radtke started his egg business in Lester Prairie in 1949.
Radtke learned, from his visiting aunt who lived in the metropolitan area, there was a great demand for fresh eggs. Whenever she visited the Radtkes in Lester Prairie, she made sure that she left with fresh farm eggs because they were hard to buy in the city.
“There was no refrigeration back in those days and the eggs had to have a fast turnover. Fresh eggs were in demand,” Radtke said.
Radtke, only 20 years old at the time, would buy eggs from local farmers and bring them into his parents’ basement. There, he would candle them by hand for quality and grade (size), and then deliver them to the metro area. After he delivered eggs to his customers’ homes, he would then solicit additional customers in the area.
“While I was going house-to-house one day, there was a man from Olsen’s Grocery who happened to see me and asked if I could bring him eggs every week and then it kind of mushroomed,” said Radtke.
The 1939 Buick with the back seat removed would carry 20 cases of eggs. Each case contained 30 dozen eggs. The one trip a week to town turned into two, and then three.
Radtke’s older brother, Quintin, was in the milk business and delivered house-to-house. Quintin offered Wilbert his milk wagon so he was able to haul more eggs per trip. “It looked like an overgrown station wagon,” said Radtke.
By the late 1950s, the business had moved into his parents, Tony, Sr. and Angela’s, four-stall garage where Wilbert built an electric walk-in cooler.
In the early years, Wilbert would do the buying and the selling, and a couple of the local ladies (Marie Pokornowski, Larena Marks, Edna Bentz, and Selma Strey) would do the candling and grading by hand, with his mom, Angela, supervising.
“Mom, was, you might say, the head foreman of the grading department. She would take responsibility of getting the help lined up for the candling. I would give mom a list of what I needed every day for down in the city and she would see that it got done,” Wilbert said.
For many of the years of business, Radtke Produce employed between 12 and 14 people. Usually four of those employees were from Lester Prairie High School. Wilbert added that it really makes him feel good when, “They come back years later and see us on the street and say you gave me my first job.”
Wilbert and his younger brother, Tony Jr., who worked with Wilbert from the time he was in seventh grade, worked out of the garage until 1953, when they moved Radtke Produce into their newly-built building at 200 Central Avenue in Lester Prairie.
By that time, Tony Jr. had graduated from Lester Prairie High School and, to help Wilbert, was doing four routes, 22 stops a day; at a total of about 85 to 100 farms in Plato, Winsted, Lester Prairie, and Silver Lake.
Most farmers kept their eggs in their basement and it was a lot of work just loading them into the car or truck.
“The fun part, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was getting out to the farms after a good snowstorm and, if you were lucky, the milkman had a snow plow on their truck and we could go right in. But the ones that did not have their driveways plowed, my sister and I would take a toboggan and we pulled a lot of eggs out that way,” Tony Jr. said
The only accident they had in all their years of being in business was in 1954, the year that Tony Jr. was a senior in high school.
Wilbert owned a 1951 Dodge. There was a Halloween dance that Tony Jr. wanted to go to and he wanted to use the ‘51 Dodge. Wilbert said he would let him use the car if he would do the egg pickups for him. Tony Jr. played hooky from school and was returning with the truck, which was “full to the roof with eggs.”
The truck hit some gravel that had recently been graded and landed on its side. He was able to get a county truck to help pull him back onto the road.
“When it was standing upright, there were eggs running out of the side door. Never did get to the Halloween dance because Willy, myself, and mom and dad were cleaning up eggs until 10 that night,” Tony Jr. said.
Radtke Produce was able to go to an automated candling and sizing machine in about 1955 that really saved on hours of labor.
The eggs would go over a big light made up of six fluorescent tubes that made the eggs translucent.
The eggs that had blood spots or other imperfections would be placed in a grade B container to be pasteurized and made into a powdered form for Wonder Bread or Tastee Bread.
After they were checked for quality, they would be sent into different rows by size.
Making cartons and putting the eggs into cartons was Tony Jr’s. job. Over the years, cases went from wooden to cardboard. About 1960, the egg business went from cases that held 30 dozen to 15 dozen. It made it easier for restaurants and stores to keep them refrigerated, and they were easier to handle.
Many changes have taken place in the Radtkes’ egg business over the years. They started buying their eggs commercially, as the farmers in the area were not able to compete with the large commercially-owned poultry farms
Evenutally, the Radtkes purchased their eggs from farther and farther away, and their equipment wasn’t needed because the eggs were inspected by the poultry farm before they picked them up.
Wilbert and Tony Jr. decided that they would still continue delivering eggs, but the building and their equipment was not needed any longer. In 1996 they sold the Radtke Produce building in Lester Prairie, moving some of the equipment to Wilbert’s garage and scrapping equipment that was outdated.
Radtke Produce today
Today, Radtke Produce is using a Ford diesel delivery van that holds about 340 cases; each case contains 15 dozen eggs.
They buy eggs from a large poultry farm in Hudson, Wis., where the eggs are USDA inspected by an inspector on duty every day.
“We go out and get that load and deliver half of that on the way back to the metro area, then go back the same way in two days and deliver the other half, so we do two routes in the city,” Tony Jr. said.
Also, the Radtkes deliver to stores that want free roam eggs eggs from chickens that are not caged. “The eggs come in to us from as far away as New Prague. They are already clean, and we just run them over lights, carton them, and deliver them,” Tony Jr. said.
Wilbert is doing the bookkeeping and Tony Jr. is doing the pickup and delivery. They are training Wilbert’s son, William (Billy), in the business and he will eventually take over when Wilbert and Tony Jr. retire.
Both Wilbert and Tony Jr. say they are not ready to retire yet. They like to keep busy.
They continue to serve some of the same customers. “I am into the fourth generation. I have kids whose grandparents bought eggs way back, and their kids, and their kids buy eggs from us,” said Tony Jr.
Some of the Radtkes’ bigger accounts have been Charlie’s Cafe, Dayton’s Restaurant, Donaldson’s Restaurant, Francis Drake Hotel, Golden Rule Department Store, Howard Wong’s Restaurant, Lemington Hotel, Minneapolis Club, Nankin, Nicollet Hotel, and Radisson Hotel, just to name a few.
“When I started the business back in 1949,” Wilbert said, “there were four produce businesses in Lester Prairie, including Radtke’s Produce. One of them told me that you won’t last more than a year. We are the only one left.”