In 1927, E.M. Burger looked for a way to make some extra money on his family’s California, Missouri, farm. He cured six quality hams, using the existing farm buildings, and found they could sell for more than a whole hog. Today, Burgers’ Smokehouse sits on the same land as the original farm where E.M. cured his first hams and now cures over 500,000 country hams a year. By 1952, E.M. had sold enough hams to build a facility on the farm dedicated to curing country hams.
“As people began migrating off the farms and into the large towns in central Missouri, like Columbia and Jefferson City, that really opened up the opportunity for folks who were raised on country ham, and then the opportunity to open up a commercial business for selling country ham,” says Steven Burger, president of Burgers’ Smokehouse and E.M.’s grandson.
Steven, his father Morris, who now acts as board emeritus and company ambassador, and the third generation management team of Philip Burger, Chris Mouse, Keith Fletcher and Ted Rohrbach, have built Burgers’ Smokehouse into the $50 million company it is today over the past 30 years.
History in ham
Burgers’ Smokehouse carries a wide selection of products including some non-meat offerings, but the bulk of the business remains the same as it did almost 60 years ago. Along with the signature dry cured country hams, Burgers’ also offers customers its city ham. The city ham is an injected, moist-cured ham. But the country hams are what the company was founded on and are what continue to fuel the company’s growth.
“Ham is still the driving force. Country ham represents, by itself, 40 percent and that’s still the biggest part of our business,” Burger says.
Country hams first go through a vein squeezer to soften the muscle tissue. Burgers’ then uses roughly 15- to 20-gallon tubs to begin the same hand-curing process that the first generation of Burgers used over 60 years ago. Once the hams are cured, they get wrapped, bagged and tied to start the extended curing process. For this, the plant has constructed special facilities to simulate the seasons of the year. This way the hams are cured as closely as possible to the traditional way it was done on the farm before refrigeration was available.
“They go through three stages,” Burger says. “They go through what we call a wintertime room where they absorb the cure. They go through a springtime room where they equalize and then a summertime room for flavor development.”
The facility’s city hams account for about 12 percent of Burgers’ total sales. And while they resemble more of a commodity ham relative to the traditionally cured country hams, Burgers’ still takes pride in creating a product of the highest quality. The city hams are vacuum-tumbled and injected, but are pickled in a brine for up to seven days to ensure good flavor and proper color.
“Even with our injected products we’re spending time to really make a high-end product instead of just a commodity product,” Burger says.
Besides Burgers’ country and city hams, it also processes whole and steak portions, and the company uses every part of the ham through processing to maximize value and limit waste, attributes its foodservice customers, especially some of the smaller operators, appreciate greatly.
“Some restaurants, particularly smaller independent restaurants, just want us to slice the ham and do as little to it as possible. What they’ll do is take the ham and use some of the end cuts as a breakfast cut; they’ll use the ham hocks and the scrappy pieces to season the vegetable of the day; then they’ll use the center cuts for their main entrée. So it gives them flexibility and the most value,” Burger says. “For small independents, that’s a big deal. If you’ve got 600 stores, then portion control and controlling labor costs become more important.”