Meat dynasty Alice born and bred

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By MORGAN RICHARDS

The swarm of sales people in the Gillen shop of Milner Meats on Saturday mornings couldn’t make it clearer: The Alice is still a great place for a family business.

They can be a bonanza not just for their owners, but for the workers they train and employ, their suppliers, contractors and business customers, and the community organisations they often support.

For local butcher Dean Nelson, one of three brothers operating the business, it’s a success story of close-knit family ties, building support among local community and sporting groups and being able to see the positive opportunities.

A butcher’s workday begins bright and early, says Mr Nelson, with staff at the Gillen store clocking on at six in the morning to prepare meat trays and get the display cabinets ready.

Over at Milner’s wholesale store in Ciccone, staff start an hour earlier to satisfy the needs of commercial customers such as bars and restaurants, many of whom need same-day deliveries before lunchtime.

Being able to compete with Australia’s established supermarket duopoly is a key part of survival for any local butcher, baker or candlestick maker, and Mr Nelson attributes Milner’s enduring success to an emphasis on quality products and friendly service.

“Those have always been our two biggest drivers on that side. We try to compete with Coles and Woolies as much as we can,” he says.

“Unfortunately, some of their products we can’t compete with on price. But we know exactly where our products come from. We source them from the best possible places. We pride ourselves on giving the best quality we can.”

A crucial part of this strategy was the purchase of a property in Parawa, South Australia, by Mr Nelson’s mother and father in 2003.

“From there, we’ve been able to do more of a paddock to plate with the cows, raising them on the farm and eventually having that meat in store,” says Mr Nelson.

“So we could put a place to where the majority of our meat was coming from.

“Then about four or five years ago, we were lucky enough to buy another farm just down the road, which gave us the capability to expand and start doing a bit of a breeding program with our cattle, and also getting into the sheep market. So now we’re able to grow grass-fed lamb and grass-fed beef.

“My parents are still based in Alice, but spend quite a bit of time [in SA] now. My father runs the farm side of things. He does the purchasing, farm maintenance, the driving of the cattle, he’ll go to the markets, all that kind of stuff.”

Mr Nelson’s father, Peter, bought into the business (originally called Gillen Meats) in 1984, before buying out his business partner in 1986 and changing the name to Milner Meat Supply.

Asked what helps keep a family business going from one generation to the next, Mr Nelson says: “I suppose it was mainly our upbringing as kids. There were four of us boys, and we were a pretty tight-knit family.

Dean Nelson, at right.

“We lived out on the Ross Highway on a five-acre block and didn’t come into town much over the weekend, so we became best of friends hanging out with each other. To this day, we’re still all the best of mates.”

Our conversation turns to Central Australia’s potential for sourcing beef, camel and other meats. Mr Nelson says it’s become difficult without any local abattoirs in operation.

“We used to source camel and some other products locally, when the abattoir at Wambodan was up and running,” he said.

“And we do still source some products out of Gunbalanya Meats [in West Arnhem Land].”

Most NT cattle are exported interstate or overseas. In 2022, over 400,000 head were sent interstate, while close to 180,000 went to overseas markets, mainly in South East Asia, with Indonesia eating up the largest slice of the meat pie.

As for camels, the closure of the Wambodan abattoirs at Bond Springs, 30km north of Alice, has made the round trip a lot longer, adding costs to a product with an already limited market.

“When we had the local abattoirs here, it was perfect,” says Mr Nelson.

“We’d get camel meat, we could do like our camel burgers, camel sausages, all that kind of stuff, all local. It would come to our store fresh within a couple of days.

“But now they’re having to get camels here, transport them down [to abattoirs in SA], and then from there, they have to transport the meat back up.”

Federal Labor last week announced a massive $707m Remote Jobs and Economic Development Program, aimed at creating 3000 jobs across remote Australia.

Could part of this program succeed in supporting training, job creation and investment in a Centralian abattoir industry?

The Alice Springs News extensively covered camel management and meat production, including our 2010 report of the establishment of both mobile and fixed abattoirs for feral camel harvesting.

But the vision of a thriving local camel meat industry never quite came to fruition, and instead feral camels are periodically culled in their thousands via marksmen in helicopters, the carcasses left out to rot or be eaten by dingoes.

While we didn’t speak at length about the great camel predicament, Mr Nelson stressed that there would be a “huge benefit” from local abattoirs – not just for butchers and fans of camel cuisine, but for the wider economy in Central Australia.

“We could sort of source a lot more local products,” he says, “which would go down the whole supply chain. Obviously there’d be more workers in abattoirs, on station farms, in transport, carting, all that kind of stuff.

“It would get us a lot more jobs overall.

“The issue we have, especially in our trade and our skill set, is the labour market here.

“There are not quite as many people as we would hope to come into our trade, and to get the staff to be able to run a profitable abattoirs in Alice Springs would be quite a big stretch. You’ve got to find staff, train them and house them. So labour would be the biggest issue.”

It’s a concern that Mr Nelson and his brothers, like many other business operators in Alice, know all too well. In April of last year, Milner Meats were forced to close their popular Northside store due to staff shortages.

Mr Nelson says that, as Alice Springs’ population has become more diverse over the years, so has their workforce.

“We’ve got people from alI around the world. I reckon we have maybe close to 10 different nationalities working at our store.

“We do also get approached by local Indigenous employment agencies about seeking trade pathways, and of course we’re always open to that. I’ve got one Indigenous apprentice at the moment.

“The more people we can get into the trade, the better.”

Aside from providing job opportunities, Mr Nelson says local businesses contribute to the sense of community and belonging that families and individuals can find in Alice Springs.

“We support a lot of local charities and community groups, everything from a local darts team to Riding for the Disabled. And most fundraising barbecues done at Bunnings or whatnot over the weekends, they get their sausages through us.

“We love supporting events which bring communities together. That’s always been one of our big drivers, because Alice Springs has always been such a great town in that sense. You have a good range of sports for young kids and opportunities where your families can get together.”

As for support for local businesses in town, are there government programs or initiatives that could help? Or is enough being done already?

“I do think there could be a few more incentives, not just for those starting new businesses, but to also keep existing businesses in town.

“How they could work that out, I suppose that’s the million dollar question. If I knew the answer, you never know, I could get into politics,” Mr Nelson says with a chuckle.

“But if you’re looking to start a business, Alice Springs is the perfect place for it. The people we have here, the support you get from local people for local business is really good.

“The opportunities you get here are second to none.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. A great article and a fantastic shop. Customer service is excellent and friendly. When my brother-in-law, a farmer, came to visit from Somerset UK he was absolutely surprised at the variety of cuts of meat displays and the presentation of the shop in general.
    Well done. An Alice Springs business success story.

  2. Love Milner Meats and what the business stands for and supplies.
    I was devastated by the closure of the north side business, as it is a long way on foot for people with no transport.(=)
    I still remember the friendly staff!

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