You could call it a business built by necessity. For Peter and Denise Ward, the need was loud and clear when they contemplated a new start-up meat business to serve the agricultural community in New York’s Northeastern region.

Adirondack Meat Company is producing its own signature products in addition to custom processing for private-label customers.

The owners of Adirondack Meat Company, which opened this past spring in Ticonderoga, were up to the task when their farmer friends explained the crisis they were facing because of a lack of slaughter and processing facilities in their area.

“We are in a fantastic tourism area, but agriculture was taking a back seat to other development,” Peter explains. “What we contemplated was building a facility to serve a small niche market.”

His family had farmed in both New Jersey and New York and knew that the lack of processing plants meant animal agriculture’s potential for continuing to grow was severely restricted.

“We researched the problem and found that dairy was doing well, but other animal agriculture just needed a plant to handle their animals – if it was to ever grow,” he adds. “USDA’s Rural Development program strongly supported us with a loan guarantee and steered us to other help. We were able to obtain $300,000 from Empire State Development and another $165,000 from the New York Dept. of Agriculture & Markets, administered through our own Essex County Industrial Development Authority.”

With encouragement from the agricultural community and planning officials, a 7,500-sq.-ft. plant was constructed within two years. The facility is already handling custom kill and processing for small farmers, a number of larger ranchers who want to do private-labeling and, with its USDA inspection grant, has moved into handling wholesale accounts. The firm reports inquiries from retailers interested in having their plant process meats for them and it has already started serving HRI accounts in Boston, New York City and Montreal. They also serve wholesale customers in Vermont.

“We really got started with beef from ranchers and are doing about 20 a day, five days a week,” Peter says, “and now we’re steadily processing hogs and some goats, as well. It’s become a pretty good mix.”

Looking ahead

Peter, who comes from a farming family, has experience in the hotel industry and also manages a marina. Denise worked in purchasing for area restaurants and tackles customer relations, wholesale accounts and administrative chores for the business.

Adirondack Meat Company recently opened a retail shop where items like ribeye are for sale.

“We vacuum-package our products, but the large majority goes out fresh [refrigerated] rather than frozen,” Peter notes. “Our customer base likes to know where their meats come from and we think we are serving that niche market.

“Now we are at a crossroads, which is making us think about our main direction for the future and do some soul-searching about where we go from here and where we put our main emphasis,” he adds. “We have a 1,600-sq.-ft. area of the plant that will be dedicated to smoking and curing products, which is another direction for us in a relatively short period of time. We hope to have that 1,000-lb. smoker up and running by the fall.”

Peter says they’ll be producing hams, bacon and sausage products with the new plant changes. At the same time, they are pressing to modify their website to be able to handle Internet orders.

And if that all sounds like a lot on the plate at the same time, Adirondack just opened a small retail facility about a mile from the main plant in late May…not only to provide a non-production-plant sales area for its products, but to do what Peter and Denise do so well…test customer needs and preferences. This location, about 1,200 sq. ft. in size, may also serve as a stalking horse for another concept in the back of Peter’s mind, a string of small butcher shops in malls around this 7 million-acre tourist area in the Lake Champlain Valley that includes such destinations as Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga.

“This enables us to find out our customer likes and dislikes in everything from tastes, portion sizes and to test market new offerings and ideas,” Peter says. “The retail market gives us good exposure in the community and allows us to partner with local producers in fruits and vegetables and other locally grown or produced food items, most of which are offered as fresh as anything around.”

Quality is key

Keeping quality of product at a high level is important for the Wards. They sent their HACCP coordinator and three other employees to a HACCP training program at Cornell Univ. The company now employs a total of 13 workers at the two locations.

The Adirondack Burger is a source of pride for Wards and the community.

While wholesale accounts for about 45 percent of the plant volume, the Wards don’t take their custom end of the business for granted. While a number of their larger customers bring their animals to the plant, Adirondack is also willing to pick up livestock and deliver finished product throughout a service area of about 50 to 60 miles.

If this all sounds like a lot for a new business to handle, Peter admits that there have been some things that didn’t go as planned:

“One thing with the design and construction of the plant was that we didn’t plan everything with product flow in mind as much as we should have done,” he admits. “That meant more time in refining things than we anticipated. But I can honestly tell you that we are very pleased with the way things have gone thus far. It just wasn’t as simple as we envisioned and we learned from the engineers and architects that there was much more involved.

“We have great faith in what we are doing in helping make our animal agriculture more cost-effective throughout the entire region,” he adds. “This has been a tremendous area to work in and the help and cooperation we’ve gotten from the entire region and officials has played a big role in putting everything together.

“We’re located in the Adirondack Park, which has plenty of room for those who have the right process and land use in mind,” he continues. “So much of the help we’ve received was based on the ability of the plant to create jobs and generate revenue, not just in our meat company, but throughout our regional agricultural community. We think we understood the challenges and are meeting those goals.”

The plant is now producing its own signature product, the Adirondack Burger, in patty form and in 2- and 5-lb. packages and the item is bolstering local pride throughout the region.

It all goes back to basic research. Peter says he probably visited every small processing facility in his area of New York before making any decisions. He says the doors were always opened to him and ideas exchanged.

But it still comes back to the vision for such a new enterprise. The potential was always there. Most didn’t see it, but Peter and Denise Ward did and are now living that dream.

Steve Krut, an industry veteran, is a contributing editor writing exclusively for Meat & Poultry, specializing in small business issues.