He built it and they came…and they keep coming back.

Gary Bardine believes in chasing dreams. The owner of Bardine’s Country Smokehouse in the small hamlet of Crabtree, Pa., – population 320 – is one of the fastest-rising stars in America’s modern meat-processing industry.

Situated atop a hill overlooking this ethnic community less than an hour east of Pittsburgh, is a 90-acre farm owned by Gary’s father, Bob, a former butcher who put away the knife and grinder years ago to raise crops and keep a small herd of Black Angus cattle.

“My grandfather, Albert DiBardine, started as a butcher some time around 1918 and Dad took it over in 1959 and built a new shop,” Gary recalls. “Dad gave up his slaughterhouse in 1972 to devote himself to farming.

“He had a small meat shop, largely custom, that he sold when I was in kindergarten. I later worked with him for many years. I worked as a meat cutter for some other companies after it closed, but I always had the bug to get back into working with meat on my own,” he adds.

Gary requisitioned a small corner of his father’s barn to do some custom work and then started processing deer for local hunters. He used the money he made to lay the foundation for a new retail meat store, a 44-ft. by 110-ft. pole building he designed with his brother, Steve, a mechanical engineer.

It was Gary Bardine’s (pronounced Bar-dee-nee) belief that if he kept doing custom work in the corner of the barn, he could invest in good equipment. His desire was to move beyond slaughter and custom work and go into smoking and curing.

“While my friends were buying new houses I was using every cent I could earn to buy the best equipment I could,” Gary says. “Some pieces of equipment cost as much as a house. But those sacrifices seem to be paying off.”

Gary gushes enthusiasm when asked about the key to success in his growing enterprise.

“Passion and energy,” he says. “I just love this business and have met some of the greatest people who are doing the same things. They have a way of sharing ideas with each other.

“However, I am the world’s worst delegator. I want to do everything myself,” he adds. “But I am learning that you have to depend on others.

Family business

While Gary is the mover and shaker in the business, he relies on his mother, Carol, who worked in human resources for the federal government, to oversee the banking and accounting, while his father contributes as a livestock buyer at auctions when not farming.

The large retail area features a retail case that spans 45 feet, which is immaculate in both motif and product display. The variety is astounding, but it is clearly quality product that is bringing customers from as far away as West Virginia and Ohio.

“We are definitely different,” he says. “People like the idea of driving to a farm and seeing the products made right in front of them. There is a nice glass window into the processing room that tells them not only do we not have anything to hide, but we want them to see their meats all the way through to the finished product.”

Bardine’s handles sides of beef and does some lamb orders during holidays, but the retail store is truly a meat shopper’s paradise. Sports enthusiasts drive miles to a Cabelas, where massive displays of quality goods provide visual excitement, and Bardine’s seems to tap into that same “we’ve got it all” meat Mother Lode merchandising.

Like most successful retailers, the firm relies on quality product from dependable suppliers. Fresh beef comes from Cunningham Meats in Indiana, Pa., and pork butts, loins, hams, 50/50 trim and bellies arrive regularly from Routh Packing in Sandusky, Ohio.

Master plan

Keeping things simple and efficient is a critiacal part of the Bardine master plan. Custom-cut fresh meats are at the heart of the retail service area, where at least three counter workers are on duty at all times, including Sundays. But the dazzling array of award-winning processed items would give even a vegan second thoughts about the day’s culinary selections.

All four walls proudly display awards the 42-year-old Gary has garnered in state, national and international competitions, more than 100 in all. Although he entered a product or two in state competitions beginning in 1999, he hit into higher gear with the opening of his new retail processing shop that opened in the fall of 2005 – and the rush of product awards solved any worries about how to decorate the walls.

Last year, Gary took nine products to Frankfurt, Germany, to enter in the International Meat Trades Fair (IFFA) worldwide competition. He earned gold medals in six categories, including summer sausage, ring bologna, bacon, braunshweiger, ham luncheon meat and jalapeno kielbasa. His regular kielbasa and skinless franks earned silver awards and the bone-in ham he entered brought home the bronze medal.

His recipes have also won the best of show awards from cured meat competitions of the Pennsylvania Association of Meat Processors, which he has also served as president, and 23 winning plaques from the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) American Cured Meat Championships. Gary was recently elected to the AAMP Board of Directors.

Moving ahead

With only 16 employees, the shop seems destined for even greater success.

“I’m thinking about another smokehouse, a new cooler area and more retail cases so we can offer a greater variety of flavors,” he says.

His “little shop that could” has added a Southern Pride cooker where Bardine’s serves up sausages, ribs and roast pork sandwiches to add a bit of sizzle and aroma to hungry customers coming into the store. It is remarkable that folks beat a path to his door to buy the more than 1,000 hams he features for the holidays.

But make no mistake about Gary’s business acumen and his ability to charge for a product or service.

“When I was processing deer, there was plenty of competition,” he says. “I charged more than anyone else but gave the customer a first-rate job with only some knives, a band saw and a grinder. When I got too busy, I raised the processing charges and even more people came. I realized it was quality they wanted and not the lowest price.”

Gary gave up deer processing to move on to what he perceived as a new level of retailing meats. It got him the pair of Kerres smokehouses he needed, and the bowl chopper, a large and small tumbler, the vacuum stuffing equipment and other gear needed to produce quality products with a higher volume. Higher volume means he’s now closer to the rollstock machine he’s been dreaming about.

One would almost have to go to the website – www.bardinemeat.com – to keep track of what he’s doing next with his enthusiasm and myriad of meat offerings. A sign outside the shop promotes a new Buffalo wing with bleu cheese sausage. He does some paid advertising, including a few billboards, but works close to his roots. He’ll spend the extra money to buy the top 4-H animals at the fairs.

“Right now I’m concentrating on what it takes to make a business grow to its potential,” he concludes. ?

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