The state of Michigan has exactly two seasons: construction and hunting. With the orange barrels behind us and the orange vests in full force, Michigan's army of outdoorsmen arm themselves with all the essentials – and that includes Michigan-made jerky.
Up in the U.P. homemade jerky is a way of life, made fresh in-house at every gas station and roadside convenience store along U.S. Route 2. In metro Detroit, the art of dried, cured meat (outside of jerky's fancy cousin charcuterie) is a bit less ubiquitous, but one family is keeping the tradition alive and well, and they've built a loyal following worldwide.
Don Francis, owner of Butcher Boy Food Products
, has over 40 years of experience in game meat and sausage processing. Butcher Boy, located in Warren, has been in business since 1962. Don started out with beef and pork, then decided get into the wholesale wild game business instead.
It started out that he wanted to make hard salami, hunter sausage, and venison jerky for hunters, but it grew quickly from there. Butcher Boy now makes a variety of fresh sausages, jerkies, and other products from both common and rare game. Common game meat includes venison, elk, Nigel antelope, caribou, oryx, and eland. Rare game meats include wild boar, crawfish, rattlesnake, python (when rattlesnake isn't available), turtle, frog legs, kangaroo, ostrich, bear, Mouflon sheep, rabbit, and alligator. They have a whole line of game fowl products including pheasant, geese, Canadian geese, guinea fowl, Muscovy duck, Mallard duck, quail, partridge, and wild turkey.
While Don works with plenty of other Michigan farmers and meat vendors, certain items like gator and rattlesnake simply cannot be sourced locally; this meat he gets from small farms down South. Michigan white tail deer meat, the sale of which is strictly regulated by the FDA, is purchased from a state-approved processing facility.
And then there is the bison. Don owns his own bison farms where he raises the grass-fed, free-range bison used in his products. The farms – located in Almont and Roswell – have no sheds. The bison feed freely on grass and hay and are handled as little as possible with limited time spent in the feedlots. Butcher Boy places a particular prominence on bison meat in their store and on their website.
"We're trying to get more customers to buy bison," says Don, who adds that the bison are hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and disease-free. Bison meat tastes similar to a fine beef, only a bit sweeter and richer. Plus, the meat is just plain better for you, recommended by the American Heart Association as an even leaner, heart-healthy alternative to low-fat/high-protein poultry and fish, and a superior substitute to beef.
Don is a member of the National Bison Association, which has a resolution opposing the use of hormones, drugs, and chemicals on bison. Publications such as Bon Appetit, Sunset, and Reader's Digest have all written of the many advantages of bison meat over any other kind of protein, which also includes a greater concentration of iron than other meats as well as essential fatty acids that the human body needs.
To the best of his knowledge, Don can claim that Butcher Boy is one of the only meat processors in the country focusing entirely on game meat.
"There's so many other people selling beef," he says. "We would sell grass-fed beef but we've got our hands full with venison and bison."
Francis has found himself in a specialty niche, for which he has won dozens of awards. He ships all over the country with customers as far as Florida, Texas, and Arizona, though the bulk of his business is in Michigan. The venison and bison are his biggest sellers; items like rattlesnake and alligator are more novelty items for local consumers and not something anyone could "make a living on."
Over in Almont, Steve Francis, son of Don, has his own meat processing business called Country Smoke House. He used to work for his parents at Butcher Boy, then worked at a place called the Smoke House that was located at 10 Mile Rd. and Gratiot before it closed.
A farmer and a family man at heart, Steve eventually got tired of driving 75 miles round-trip every day from Almont to the inner ring suburbs of Detroit. He started making his own sausage in his garage in 1986. The business, initially started as a side gig, quickly grew and led to his storefront in Almont that opened in 1991. They expanded this in 1998, then found they needed even more space and built a whole new retail store in 2000, which they've already outgrown. During that time he also opened several additional stores in Bay City, Flint, and Pennsylvania, but ultimately found managing that many stores was too much for him so he sold them off and is now franchising out.
Despite having a wall full of awards for his products, Steve measures his success differently. The Country Smoke House currently employs 54 people. Next up is yet another addition which will bring them up to 38,000 square feet and add another 50 employees.
"That’s how I measure success," Steve says. "I'm responsible for all these people's lives. That's my reward. So many companies have lost touch with their employees; they're just about the profits."
Steve takes pride in the fact that his is a family business. He and his wife get up in the morning, have breakfast together, and go to work together. Their kids also work at the shop, and all of them can walk there from their home. Then they all have dinner together as a family in the evening. To him, this is the ideal American way of life.
Steve takes a different approach than his dad, offering some wild game but also everything else. They sell 106 different kinds of fresh sausages, 25 different kinds of jerky, Polish kielbasa, whole hams and turkeys, headcheese, marinated chicken, smoked fish, and they make 100 percent of it themselves.
"The list just keeps going and going," says Steve. "We do everything. There's nothing we won't do."
They source meat from local farmers and try to do everything possible based in Michigan. Country Smoke House is the largest deer processor in the state of Michigan and one of the largest meat processing companies in the state. Customers drive on average 70 miles to visit the store, making this quite a destination. They'll ship anywhere in the world, and actually ship quite a bit to American soldiers in Iraq. On weekends they have outdoor barbecues with tons of food and a fun family atmosphere.
They recently got a license to sell beer and wine and will focus on Michigan craft beers and Michigan wines, which they will include in their custom gift baskets of Michigan-made products which includes their own products as well as an assortment of other artisan food products from Michigan purveyors.
Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer, regular contributor to Metromode and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at Eat It Detroit.