Just 30 miles from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., a living legend in American meat processing plies his trade. He’s easy to find at Farmer’s Place in downtown South Edmeston.
"It’s kind of a joke," explains Joe Leonard. "There really isn’t even a whole lot of town here. There are 30 houses, maybe 100 people and the cows outnumber us. There is only County Highway 20 – the only street in town – but we still like to refer to it as downtown South Edmeston."
Joe operates the only business in town, which is a very small retail and custom-processing business – and the locals call him Deer Man Joe.
The world stage knows him as the first and only U.S. meat processor to win the World Cup at the prestigious International Meat Trades Fair (IFFA), held in Frankfurt, Germany, every three years. So polished was he in his craft that in 2004, of the 23 products he entered in the world’s largest meat competition, Deer Man Joe won an astounding 21 medals, including 16 golds.
His ham-product scores were averaged and the finicky team of judges declared him the winner of the World Cup for ham. Records show no one from the U.S. has ever accomplished such a feat before or since.
‘Off the block’ in ‘59
But the small-town processor, replete with wavy silver hair, is too humble to brag and believes his best performance is what he prepares for his customers each day in his meat-processing Camelot. His meat career goes back to 1959 when, at 17 years of age, he was hired by a Russian meat-market family in Oneonta.
"It was a small retail store where you cut a steak or roast and held it out to the customer to check out," Joe recalls. "The customers came from many ethnic backgrounds and they knew more about the meat than me. I learned to look them in the eye to really understand what they wanted."
After a five-year stint at that shop, he went to work for Grand Union, which operated a chain of supermarkets. They trained him and he ran meat departments for 20 years. He bought a small custom plant in Bainbridge, N.Y., and ran it for seven years before selling it and then going back to the chain stores for another five years.
"I realized that if I was going to have to work that hard, I should go back to doing it for myself," Joe says. "In 1983, I came to downtown South Edmeston and essentially operated as a small custom and retail shop. It was largely the deer processing that kept me afloat over the winter months.
"When I started deer processing, the first year was almost a disaster," he adds. "Then I remembered how I used to look people in the eye and began putting more pride into my work. With better detail and good hand cutting, my reputation started to grow."
That’s when hunters from Syracuse, Utica and all points of the Catskills began to seek him out. They were looking for the Deer Man who did such a good job for their friends.
Industry ‘poster child’
Joe could be the poster child for the heart and soul of the small meat-processing industry. Soft-spoken, amiable and a good listener, he began going to industry conventions and meetings and watched what the winners in cured meats competition were doing. He tried many flavors and recipes he got from sample packs from spice companies, and he started asking questions of those who were winning.
"They were the real educators in my meat career. They were open and told me how they made their products," he recounts. "They were doing things with cheeses and jalapeños in their products that I never thought of, but I took those ideas home, tried them and they worked so wonderfully for me. I never had to discontinue an item."
After several years of attending competitions sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of Meat Processors and the American Association of Meat Processors, Deer Man Joe had a new problem: where to display all of his award plaques. The retail shop displays more than 100 plaques and another 14 sit on a shelf because there is no more room on the walls to hang them.
It was when he began converting his deer-processing customers into valueadded, cured-meat aficionados that his custom and venison business skyrocketed. He typically processes deer for 2,000 customers each fall and winter. About 1,000 just want the meat cut up and the other half wants hot dogs, Polish sausage, jerky and other products he makes from their game. Joe even features smoked deer legs.
"Ladies don’t like to cook it and the average customer wants about 60 percent of their product made into readyto-eat specialty items," he explains.
Farmer’s Place offers deer customers a choice of freezer wrap or vacuum-sealed packaging and finds that the majority opt for the sealed pouch, giving the product a more professional appearance.
Joe learned more than new-product ideas from his fellow small processors.
He also hit on the Mother Lode of added service. Despite the never-ending additions to his plant, he found that the demand for quality catering was huge. One of his biggest money-making additions was a 20-foot Southern Pride mobile cooker that gave him the capacity to do catering jobs of more than 100 people with ease.
"We can do whole hogs, boneless pork rolls, pulled pork, smoked prime rib or a full variety of items all at the same time," he notes. "For larger events, we can even precook and keep the product in steam pans for maybe another 12 hours. We just added a fry trailer that gives us the capacity to make things like fried chicken, funnel cakes or a selection of other items to offer catering customers."
But it’s all in the presentation, he adds. "If you are going to have an event catered and the equipment looks tacky, the host is a bit scared and isn’t sure how well their guests will be served or satisfied," he continues. "We think our cooker exudes that confidence to our customers."
The owner of Farmer’s Place says there is a large lot next to the plant that they want to use to build a newer retail store where those with custom work that has to be done can bring their meat in and see first-hand other products that can be created from raw meat. He believes this will give him a chance to show off his product selections and encourage customers to buy more.
He also plans on a catering hall at the rear of the new building that can be rented out to groups, companies or for special events like wedding receptions, graduations or birthdays. Depending on the season and the number of catered events, the Farmer’s Place work force will vary from seven to 15 to cover all aspects of the business.
Deer Man Joe also doesn’t want to miss out on the catering opportunities for groups under 100 and has 10 fivefoot grills he rents to customers who buy their meat from him. He provides fully cooked product the customers can pick up or ready-to-cook items. He offers charcoal and other necessities to make his business a one-stop shop for smaller, do-it-yourself groups.
Joe operates under USDA inspection, which in New York State is contracted out to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. He has been the president of the New York State Association of Meat Processors for more than a decade, and he has served on the Boards of both PAMP and AAMP.
Last year at AAMP’s American Cured Meat Championship in Cincinnati, Joe won the Best of Show Award for his sopressata, and a few years earlier bested America’s best with a similar top honor in Reno for his mortadella. In 2005, he was inducted into the Cured Meat Hall of Fame.
Bringing new-product ideas home for customers to try out has become his stock in trade and there is a product sampling going on in the retail store every day, giving Joe direct feedback and an acknowledgement that cooking aromas help sell products.
Deer Man Joe is quite optimistic about his future even in tougher economic times. "It seemed that with higher gas prices and a slumping economy, people seek out value and fill their freezers," he says. "I was more than surprised how much business picked up when times got tougher."
Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for MEAT&POULTRY, specializing in small business issues. He resides in Marietta, Pa.
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