GREENTOP, Mo. – The meat snack segment has made gargantuan strides since the days when it was limited to beef jerky, which historically was merchandised at the check-out counter of roadside convenience stores using a tethered pair of tongs and included a selection of leather-looking swatches of beef held in fishbowl-style jars. The evolution of meat snacks has produced refined, palate-pleasing, tender products that pose no dental threat to consumers.

And it’s not just jerky anymore. Meat sticks have become the focus of some companies. Given the growth in its meat snack business, the family owned Western’s Smokehouse in Greentop, Missouri, has seen a marked uptick in demand, especially in the past three years.  Founded by Sam Western in 1978 as a retail butcher shop, the company began making meat sticks in 2002, and soon phased out its other business segments, including custom processing and catering. Sam’s son, Kevin Western began working at the company with his dad in 1992 and today it operates as a father-and-son run business focused on meat stick production. 

In fact, about three years ago, with its business strategy targeting only meat sticks, the company moved into a purpose-designed meat stick plant focused on efficiently producing a dizzying array of products in multiple package sizes.  Flexibility was built into the plant since Western’s production runs needed to be able to facilitate smaller batches with a diverse product mix and multiple flavors and ingredients. Western’s new plant allows it to scale its production to meet the needs of large private label customers without requiring prohibitive minimum orders for smaller customers. Styles and flavors include grass-fed beef, jalapeño buffalo wing flavor, chicken, sweet and sassy turkey, hickory-smoked, pineapple pork, mandarin teriyaki as well as bacon varieties including hickory smoked, sweet maple and peppered.

Kevin Western

Kevin says the quality of products on the market today are more refined and appeal to more discerning tastes of consumers. Western’s takes its share of credit for raising the bar.

“We’ve helped break down some of those barriers that snack sticks are not the greasy products they used to be,” he says, and instead are associated with clean labels and high-quality meat, including grass-fed beef and pork that is antibiotic and hormone free. The company processes and brands its own products, but the majority of its sales are from co-packing it does for private label brands.  

Equipment essentials

Thanks to equipment investments at its new plant this past year, the company is producing upwards of 25,000 lbs. of products per day, five days a week. That investment has continued in 2018, according to Western.

“I just ordered two more smokehouses,” he says as an example, “and we’re getting another new linking line from Handtmann, and this allows us to increase our volume and throughput.”

While production has increased with the addition of the new plant, Western’s has maintained operational flexibility, which appeals to its co-packing customers, especially those requiring smaller production runs but still maintain the highest expectations in regard to quality.  Western projects demand to continue for its meat stick business even beyond the 40 percent growth in 2017. The calling card for the company continues to be its ability to handle both the 200,000-lb. orders and the orders from niche customers and delivering the same precision and efficiency required to meet all expectations.  And that kind of flexibility, Western says, has everything to do with the investment in the new facility and the equipment inside it.

Thanks to the efficiencies created by more sophisticated and automated technologies Western’s has recently invested in, the company has significantly increased throughput without increasing labor costs.  The newly adopted technologies are yielding positive results including improved product quality and expanding the options for developing new products for customers.

Market competitiveness and continued growth means processors in the meat snack segment must stay aware of other companies in the space, Western says.

“There are some big hitters in this category and we all know who they are,” he says of the growing number of companies specifically making meat sticks, like Western’s. “You’re looking for some kind of point of difference and for us that’s the quality of the protein and sometimes it’s designed around the properties of the ingredients,” Western says. He notes that one of the biggest challenges for companies in the segment today is efficient utilization of specialty proteins while delivering on taste with fewer, cleaner ingredients.

“If you can figure out a way as a manufacturer to not sacrifice flavor and still achieve the goals of the product claims, you can position yourself solidly in the market,” he says.