Craig, Colo. is famous for its world-class, big-game hunting. But by meat-industry standards, it is perhaps better known as the home of one of North America’s premier small meat and game processing operations.

In 1977, Loren and Helen Baysinger built and began operating Mountain Meat Packing Inc., in this high-desert paradise in Northwestern Colorado, about half-way between Denver and Salt Lake City. Their initial establishment was 3,000 square feet and operated under federal inspection, processing local beef and sheep.

The plant did some custom work and featured wholesale and bulk retail sales. The Baysingers also brought their 19-year-old son, Gary, into the business. Gary was a strapping, hard-working young man who could think like a businessman.

Things went so well at the plant that in 1984, a 6,500-sq.-ft. expansion was completed, giving Mountain Meat Packing a slaughter floor, a second cutting room and three new coolers. For many small plants, that would have been the history and subsequent owners would have tweaked a few bells and whistles but kept operations much the same.

But a scant nine years later, Gary and his wife, Carolyn, bought the business and the opportunity to try out their own ideas was unfurled.

Their sons, Jeffrey and Jonathon, and daughter, Courtney, grew up around the meat plant and some new ideas were planted.

"I’ve always believed in being vertically integrated," Gary explains. "So when Jonathon finished high school, he went to the Colorado Taxidermy Institute and learned a trade that was a natural adjunct to big-game processing. He opened a taxidermy shop just a few blocks from the meat plant."

Although Jonathon got plenty of referrals from Mom and Dad, he did quite well on his own, competing nationally in competition and winning awards from both the Colorado and Wyoming Taxidermy Associations. He still works at the meat plant part-time.

Hunting for opportunities

The Baysingers quickly realized despite its success, their business was barely profitable outside of game season. "We had the county fairs in early August, and big-game seasons through the fall and into January," Gary recounts. "But then things got really slow. We decided we had to do some things to make a profit all year round. In 2000, we added a

1,000-sq.-ft. area to the plant to make room for a sausage kitchen, bowl chopper, vacuum stuffer, two more coolers and a new loading dock."

They also bought a second plant 170 miles to the southeast in Fruita, Colo., and transformed it from an ostrich and emu slaughtering plant into a beef and sheep processing plant. They also had well-trained management in daughter Courtney and her husband, Kip Babbitt.

Marketing their products and getting the name and taste of their product line-up to a greater audience than the 9,500 citizens of Craig was next on the Baysinger agenda. Gary and Carolyn spent six months doing "road shows" in the Denver metro area, taking their sausage, jerky, snack sticks and brats into supermarkets and doing cooking demonstrations, eventually turning those chores over to a demo company for another two years.

They parlayed their strong connections with local livestock producers into a private-labeling program, and in Colorado, livestock means not only beef, but also farm-raised buffalo, elk, deer and even yak. Four years ago, they teamed with a group promoting Highland Cattle, an allnatural, grass-fed breed that is now featured in 35 natural food stores. A year ago, they handled 100 animals for that private-labeling contract and this year the number is up to 600.

Success with value-added sausage, brat, jerky and other snackstick items has been strong enough to put their private-labeled products into stores in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.

A number of their "exotic" products, including alligator, are marketed through U.S. Foodservice. Volume Services of America, the official vendor at the Denver Broncos Mile High Stadium, annually sells about 1,500 pounds of Baysinger products such as smoked buffalo brats, buffalo and cheese products and even Andouille sausage.

Heading to the mountains

The family has a flair for working with local agriculture and recreation groups. A few years ago, they teamed with ski-resort promoters in Steamboat Springs to sell local beef products from animals raised on reserve land that would have otherwise been off-limits for agriculture and couldn’t compete with the tourism/ recreation value.

"Ski resorts were able to buy the hamburger for $1.00 a pound above market prices for other beef," Gary said. "This kept important ground available for raising beef in Colorado. Maybe it was as much a ‘feelgood’ type of thing as it was marketing, but it worked well and this is a program that is still popular."

In 2003, they purchased an 85-seat country-club restaurant that enabled them to offer their best steaks and seafood entrées. Indeed, their Tin Cup Grill enables them to promote their own meat-plant products and specials. It also opened the door for them to move more heavily into catering for company picnics, weddings and even golf tournaments. Some of their events feed 1,000 people. The plant also advertises the restaurant as part of the cross-promotion.

They found ample opportunity to experiment with such new products as wild boar with apricot and cranberry and even a Pheasant Epicurian, which features a medley of pheasant breast, spinach, Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and herbs and spices. The wild boar product even won a top award in the American Cured Meat Championships at the 2001 Reno convention of the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP).

Gary, who served as AAMP president in 2001, is a strong believer in working together through associations.

"The educational opportunities we received and the friendships we made were invaluable to our business growth," Gary explains. "We got some of the best ideas from smaller businesses than ours."

The Baysinger operation is indeed small, with about 50 employees at the Craig plant and 10 in Fruita, but the problems they have had to overcome have been enough to shake the foundations of even the largest plants.

"There is not a single rendering operation left on the Western Slope [of the Rocky Mountains]," Baysinger relates. "Almost everything must be landfilled and there is very little composting. This is a legacy left to us by the BSE outbreaks in years past.

"Hide prices also dropped from $35 last fall to about $5, all due to the economy slowdown and declining market for them. They are now up a bit to about $10 and $12, but it’s a tough time.

"The insurance cost for small businesses like ours has become so prohibitive that we can barely afford to keep it. We thank God we looked ahead and became more than just a seasonal business with game processing. This year, a lot of East Coast and West Coast hunters aren’t coming in because of the economy, so that will hurt us."

To combat the slowdown, the Baysingers have bought a few ranches in Northwestern Colorado under the name of Wapita Valley Outfitters. They plan to bring in about 80 hunters this year and offer room, board, guide services, full processing and even taxidermy.

"Our son, Jonathon, is handling most of this one-stop hunt outfitting," Gary concludes. "But it may be more than one-stop. We may even take the hunters out to the restaurant for some crab legs."

Even the hunters who will bring as many as 2,000 big-game animals such as deer, elk and antelope to the Baysingers for processing will get a taste of their Rocky Mountain hospitality. They offer a free barbecue to their customers who come in hungry from their hard day in the mountains and high desert and provide them with samples of every game product in their inventory. In some years, they have had to actually turn customers away.

They may indeed be tough times, but the Baysingers have demonstrated for years that they can dish out much more than adversity hands them.

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