By Paul Maryniak
Martha Neese still recalls how she and her husband Gene used to pack their suitcases with meat when they flew from Iowa to their second home in Ahwatukee.
That was before the airlines imposed weight limits on luggage, but it didn’t matter. They had a more efficient idea: Bring the meat store with them.
Fourteen years later, their Von Hanson Meats shop in Chandler has become a go-to destination for carnivores throughout the East Valley and beyond, as well as a processing center for hunters who plan to eat their catch.
If that may seem a radical move, you don’t know Martha: Her career has been even more so. She started as a nurse, then became a lawyer who specialized in personal injury cases that included the kind of malpractice she sometimes witnessed in surgeries.
And while she still occasionally practices law in what had been a renowned career that took her to courtrooms around the country, Neese spends a lot of her time in the butcher shop, doing everything from managing the employees and marketing Von Hanson’s retail shop outside of Minnesota to even making meat deliveries.
And if that wasn’t enough to occupy her time, she also is deeply involved in the community. She belongs to the Ahwatukee, Chandler and Tempe chambers of commerce and has been a board member on the Ahwatukee Chamber for years. In June, those chambers honored her shop’s 14th anniversary with a ribbon cutting.
She volunteers for various nonprofits, is vice president of the Club West HOA board and is now a member of the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee.
As for her shop, she says, “I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I just do whatever needs to be done. I give my attention to whatever I am doing because I want to do a good job.”
“I don’t feel happy unless I am productive and get something done,” she says with a shrug, relieved that she has escaped the high pressure of traveling around the country most of the year during a 30-year career that catapulted her to the status of a nationally certified trial lawyer and a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, whose members are only attorneys who have won settlements of $1 million or more.
Neese also specialized in military litigation and headed the Military Advocacy and Federal Tort Section of the American Association for Justice. As a lawyer, she is known for representing patients believed to have been sickened by ruptured breast implants during the 1990s. In 1998, implant manufacturer Dow Corning settled a class-action lawsuit for $2.4 billion, then the largest settlement of its kind.
It was her work as a registered cardiac-care nurse assisting in open-heart surgeries for 10 years that inspired Neese to enter Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, from which she graduated in 1984.
She recalls watching doctors make serious mistakes, sometimes because they ignored her advice. “What made me decide to attend law school was seeing the difference that the law can make in the care that people get,” she was once quoted as saying. “The hospital would do the right thing when a lawyer was involved.”
But then there came a time, the mother of three adult children says, when “I wanted out of the high-pressure law stuff.”
“I had no intention of going into the meat business,” Neese explains. “We were customers. My kids grew up on really good quality meat.”
Quality, she adds, that she found lacking in supermarkets when she and her husband were snowbirds, shuttling between the Midwest and Ahwatukee. “We would put it on the grill and it was terrible,” she recalls. “We had to throw it out. So we started eating salads.”
Then her husband had an idea, approaching Von Hanson’s, a company started in 1983 by two men who say they “came up with the idea to bring back the old-fashioned meat market to the local neighborhood.”
“My husband thought it would be a good investment, that we could be silent partners,” Neese says.
Their involvement didn’t stay so silent for very long. “It didn’t work out very good at first,” Neese recalls. “We were losing money. It started changing around when I came down in 2007.”
Though she “wanted to start learning how to golf,” Neese started networking, preaching in a way the philosophy of Von Hanson’s founders: Offer customers high-quality meat with the best value for their money and personal service that includes cooking tips if requested.
Today, walking into her store at 2390 N. Alma School Road is like walking into a wonderland of meat and poultry that includes 100 different kinds of sausages and brats. Dog owners can also find bones, pig ears and healthy natural treats for their pets.
Also for sale is a wide variety of barbecue wood and chips as well as an array of sauces. And they sell some signature products from Minnesota, including walleye and sweet potato sausage.
During hunting season, Von Hanson’s gets so busy that Neese has to hire a couple extra butchers to help process the game hunters bring in. The store has developed a reputation for the way it processes javelinas. “It’s awful and greasy and we’ve been known for making javelina taste good because it’s so horrible,” she says.
They routinely process bear, mountain lion, elk, tuna and even the occasional buffalo. Surprisingly, no one has brought in rattlesnake.
Although her favorite product is Von Hanson’s jalapeño hamburger, the rib-eye steak is the most popular with customers. Her husband has gotten so good at preparing that and other steaks that they have some definite preferences when dining out, she says. “We don’t eat steak out. Friends who want to go out to dinner, we tell them, ‘Take us out for Italian; don’t take us out for a steak. If you want a steak, come to my house and my husband will cook you a steak.’”
The secret, she says, is the kind of meat Von Hanson’s sells – certified, corn-fed black Angus. “It’s really all about the flavor,” she says. “Not all cattle is certified black Angus beef.”
Between the store and her community involvement – not to mention the occasional legal case she might still pick up – Neese shows no sign of slowing down on any front. “I don’t keep track of my hours; you can’t look at it that way,” she says. “I get up early in the morning and I am busy.”
“I like helping people. I was a nurse and always have been very caring to my clients as a lawyer. I want to help people. That’s the community involvement part of it.”
For more information, call 480-917-2525 or visit vonhansonsmeats.net.
Martha Neese was a high-profile lawyer before she and her husband opened Von Hanson’s Meats shop in Chandler. (Photo special to LLAF)