Living the dream

by Steve Krut
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Maybe it never occurred to Brian Engle that times were tough. But for the operator of Pioneer Meats in Big Timber, Mont., starting a meat business and growing it into one of the premier establishments of its kind in the state seems to have come naturally.

From 1991 through 1998, Brian toiled on the family ranch processing the plentiful big game animals for hunters. Beyond a few knives and a grinder, his shop was a used refrigerated semi-trailer on blocks. Then, he ventured out to earn a degree in animal science at Montana State Univ. and worked for Lyle Happel at Happel’s Clean Cut Meats.

After graduation, “I found what I thought was my dream job, running a 40,000-acre ranch for an absentee owner,” Brian confides, “but it didn’t work out.”

With his heart still in the meat business, Brian and his wife purchased a 20-acre horse pasture, with a house, in Big Timber in 2004. And on July 2 of that year, he towed in his semi-trailer to do more wild-game processing.

“We poured footers in July and by late October we were open,” he notes. “I had visions of a 40-ft. by 100-ft. meat plant, but had a few drawbacks…no money and no customers.”

Undeterred, he stayed with his passion and two-and-a-half years later built a 3,000-sq.-ft. plant. He was then able to secure Montana state inspection services and open for domestic custom slaughter and processing.

Bigger and better

The jovial entrepreneur had a knack for developing every element of his meat business to new levels. The big-game processing climbed to more than 1,000 deer, elk, antelope, mountain goats and bear annually. He moved into private-labeling for farmers and ranchers to market their own meats, a growth area that now represents 20 percent of his volume. He sought and obtained organic certification from the Montana Department of Livestock and today ranchers bring in their animals from as far away as 250 miles for this certified service.

Brian is relentless in his support for FAA and 4-H groups and gained a reputation for quality processing. His company handles animals from seven fairs in the region, amounting to about 300 pigs, 120 beef and 80 lambs a year. With his step-above private-labeling capabilities, he annually processes 900 hogs, 900 beef and 600 lambs.

Located five miles south of the Crazy Mountains and north of the Bear Tooth Wilderness, about 80 miles north of Yellowstone National Park, Pioneer Meats has grown to employ 12 full-time employees and four part-timers.

Brian had a strong interest in producing fresh and cured sausage products and jerky and in 2005 felt the path to improvement was through competition. He entered products in the Montana Meat Processors Association cured meats show and the competition at the Northwest Meat Processors Association convention.

Within a few years, he was bringing home not only first-place plaques, but was actually winning the supreme honors as “best of show.” By 2009, three of the final products for the “best of show” award were all his creations. Thus far, in just a few short years, he has amassed more than 80 awards in cured meats competition.

His heavy involvement in and support for agricultural and athletic groups opened the door for him to produce meat items for resale as fundraisers. This has also helped him wholesale like products to independent grocery stores and restaurants.

Brian says it is a payback to the agricultural community in Montana when he can further-process locally raised livestock. About 90 percent of all meat products he makes come from the state, including buffalo items.

Brian wears his humility as proudly as his butcher’s smock and is eager to share responsibility for the success of his plant:

“I was a person who knew nothing and had to do things by trial and error. But I would be nothing without my employees. If I was skinning or cutting game animals at 10 o’clock at night and needed their help, they never denied me and stuck around until the work was done.”

He also says his location along the Interstate 90 corridor has made things convenient for custom and wholesale customers to bring in their animals and their trucks to pick up orders. He doesn’t deliver.

Word of mouth

Except for its exposure at sporting and agricultural events, Pioneer Meats does little advertising. Word-of-mouth endorsements and their website, pioneermeatsmt.com, seems to burnish the firm’s reputation in rural Montana.

Brian says he wants to capitalize on their 3,350-sq.-ft. expansion completed last year. It provided dock loading, freezer space and a 16-ft. by 35-ft. retail area to replace the former sliding glass two-door, upright cooler that displayed the shop’s wares.

The entire operation now totals about 8,000 sq. ft. and was complete when the original semi-trailer was dismantled piece-by-piece and taken out, allowing room for new floor drains, concrete flooring and refinished walls.

His wife, Kary, and two children, ages 18 and 20, assist in the busiest of times, with the youngsters making sausage, helping at fairs and farmer’s markets and wrapping and labeling game meats.

Pioneer Meats also offers a nice lineup of foods for catering, including pulled smoked pork, beef brisket, cured meats and an array of side dishes that they make from scratch.

“We’re kind of limited in what’s available for purchase on a regular basis in our area, so we offer the comfort foods people are seeking,” Brian says. “Most will pick up their orders, but we also do some off-site catering.”

For the immediate future, Pioneer Meats anticipates expanding its array of 18 different smoked brats by another half-dozen and adding more fresh brats in the retail area, where space was previously so limited.

The company also seeks to expand its organic-processing business in uncured bacon, ham and jerky. The owner says he works with another small processor to manufacture his jerky and shelf-stable sausages and snack sticks since he still operates without the roll stock machine that is presently housed in his wish book.

Display space for his award-winning products is at a premium since his offerings may be totally unexpected in this rural community. Think in terms of apple-flavored bacon, Philly cheese or pineapple and cheese Hawaiian brats, andouille and chorizo, chili cheese dogs, tangy pepper sticks and both fermented and cooked summer sausage plus more. You get the idea.

Brian, 47, is very active in the Montana Meat Processors Association, where he serves as vice president, and the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP), where he was re-elected to the board of directors.

In July he was awarded AAMP’s Accomplishment Award for outstanding company growth and product development.

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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