The great speckled bird
February 3, 2015
For over 40 years, Manchester Farms has been passionate about quail.
Fresh off its 40th anniversary, Manchester Farms is one of the pioneers of quail production and processing in the United States. But just how does the company feel about its birds? Brittney Miller, owner of the company, jokes that they name each chick that hatches, just so the birds know that they are loved.
Considering that the company hatches about 80,000 quail each week, that’s probably a slight exaggeration. It’s clear, though, that Miller has the same passion and respect for the birds that her family has, and the sentiment is shared by the company’s employees. That passion, as well as the quality of the products, makes Manchester Farms a go-to quail supplier for top chefs and high-end restaurants across the country.
Unlike the more common poultry like the chicken or turkey, most consumers see quail as a special occasion meal to order at a restaurant. Although many consumers have never tried quail before, Miller says that most who try it end up loving it.
“Our quail is not necessarily white meat and dark meat, like a chicken. I call it a medium blend, and it’s not as heavy as a duck,” she says. “And kids devour it. It’s just their size, and they’re not intimidated by it. I get letters in the mail all the time from moms who say, ‘Thank you so much for providing a wholesome, nutritional protein for my children that I don’t have to convince them to eat.’”
The perception of the quail has changed in recent years, thanks to the media and the broadening palate of the American consumer. Miller says that when she talked to consumers 15 years ago about quail, they would recall their grandfather hunting wild quail and cooking up a batch for the family. The modern consumer doesn’t have those nostalgic feelings toward the bird, but they do have the Food Network and celebrity chefs preparing entrees with quail meat or even quail eggs.
“What used to be a hunting legacy product has now become a foodie product,” she says.
For Bill Odom, the quail initially was a tool to train his hunting dogs. Odom graduated from Clemson with a degree in poultry science, and he put his degree to good use as a flock manager for Campbell Soup Co., producing the birds for the company’s chicken noodle soup. Miller says that the company thought enough of his work to ask him to move to New Jersey.
“He was a good old Southern boy from South Carolina, so he said, ‘Thank you, but I’ll pass,’” she adds.
Odom used the same husbandry practices for his quail that he did for the chickens, and soon his flock was large enough that his friends offered to buy them if he would process them. Manchester Farms officially got its start in 1974 on a picnic table in Odom’s backyard.
Demand ramped up enough that he bought a processing plant in Sumter, S.C. The company remained there until Hurricane Hugo roared through the
Southeastern United States in 1989 and damaged the plant. Fortunately, the company had already bought a location in Columbia, S.C., so it relocated and remains there to this day.
Both Miller and her brother, Steve, came to work for the company after graduating from Clemson. Miller first worked for a pharmaceutical company to gain some global management knowledge, and then spent five years working for the family business in sales. After five years, she moved to Colorado and started a family. When she called her parents to let them know that she and her husband were expecting their second child, they found out that her father had been hospitalized with his fifth heart attack. That health scare was enough for him to retire and sell the business to his children.
Miller bought out her brother’s interest in 2013 and is now the sole owner. She said that the year of transition went well, and the company is hard at work on growing in 2015, through new quail products as well as other custom products to meet the needs of their clients.
In Manchester Farms’ first year in Sumter, the company processed about 25,000 birds. Today, Miller says that the company will process about four million birds. It has gradually become a vertically integrated company, owning an on-site hatchery, its own breeding stock, and two of the three farms that raise the birds.
“Manchester Farms owns everything about the process except for one location. That’s a contract grower that we’ve had for 20 years, and that’s been a mutually beneficial, healthy, successful relationship,” she says.
The on-site hatchery was built in 2010. About 100,000 quail eggs are placed each week, with a hatch rate of 82 to 83 percent. Hatching day is every Thursday, and the birds are sorted and sent to the farms, where they will grow for five weeks.
The quail are kept in houses for their own protection. They are so small that the outdoors is a dangerous place for them, even in the relative safety of a farm.
“There are a thousand predators that would eat these guys like an appetizer, if they even made it out of the egg,” says Miller, referring to the baby quail being sorted in the hatchery. “That’s why the quail population in the wild has been diminished. For that reason, we give them long barns with a lot of room to run and play.”
Throughout the company’s history, Manchester Farms has followed the same principles of all-natural quail, raised without growth hormones or antibiotics. Those standards were proven by Odom years ago.
“Don’t try to cheat the process and do it as inexpensively as you can, but give them the best care, the best love you can without the use of antibiotics, hormones or any stimulants — just good old natural love and care,” Miller says of the company’s philosophy. “The animal will perform and be healthy.”
Since the quail are much smaller than their broiler chicken cousins, Manchester Farms has had to customize practically its entire operation, from the truck that delivers the chicks to the farms to the shackles, pickers and eviscerating equipment that are used in the plant.
The chicken industry deals with products by the pound, whereas the quail industry deals by the gram. The difference between the largest and smallest bird is less than an ounce, Miller notes, and no bird weighs more than 6 ounces.
“Everyone wants an 8- or 10-ounce quail, and I’m sorry, but Mother Nature did not design the quail to be 10 ounces,” she says.” Save yourself some money and go buy a chicken if you want a bigger bird. If you want a quail, this is how God intended it.”
Manchester Farms’ flagship product is a semi-boneless quail that has had its breastbone, backbone and thigh bones removed. Some of the company’s deboners have been with the company since the doors opened, and a team of four workers can debone about 100 birds in an hour.
For ease of preparation, workers insert a stainless steel V-shaped pin into the deboned carcass to help it maintain its shape as it’s being cooked. The pin was invented by Odom, and it’s become one of the company’s signatures.
“When chefs travel around the world, they say they want the quail with the pin in it,” Miller says. “As costs have risen for feed and fuel, we have tried to keep our product affordable. We ask the chefs if they want us to take the pin out, because it’s expensive, and it adds to the weight of the truck, but they say leave it.”
About 75 percent of the company’s business is in the foodservice market, including many of the country’s top restaurants. Of that foodservice product, about 10 percent is fresh quail, and the rest is frozen.
The company offers one primary retail product, a whole bird that has been vacuum tumbled for added moisture and butterflied so it can lay flat on a grill.
“We’ve pretty much made it as simple as possible,” says Miller, acknowledging that buying quail can be an intimidating experience for people who have not prepared it before. “Quail are very lean. If you didn’t know what you were doing you could overcook them very easily, so that’s why we vacuum tumble them. You just take it, thaw it, throw it on the grill for four minutes on each side, and it’s ready to eat.”
Along with its meat products, Manchester Farms also sells quail eggs to some specialty retailers. They are small — it takes four quail eggs to equal one chicken egg in a recipe — but they are nutritionally loaded.
“One quail egg is five times the nutritional value of a chicken egg, and it’s reduced calories as well,” Miller says. “We have been in the meat business for 40 years now and have only [recently] realized and appreciated the place that the egg has.”
One customer bought packs of eggs on a regular basis, and one day an employee finally asked why. He said his dogs used to have allergies, and since he started feeding them the eggs, the allergies stopped. That discovery introduced Miller to the health benefits that they had for people as well.
Her parents have become believers and take quail eggs with them wherever they travel. Bill Odom started making quail egg smoothies to help with his heart troubles. Not only has his health improved, but his cardiologist has started eating them as well.
“One doctor told me it’s the only natural product that has a full amino acid compound,” she says.
Manchester Farms has a trailer on property that doubles as a test kitchen. An executive chef comes in once a month to test new products and try new ideas. Chefs haven’t tired of preparing whole quail for their customers, but Manchester Farms shows them what else can be done with it. Quail on a pizza or a salad? Pickled quail eggs to be served with a charcuterie platter? There are numerous possibilities that can be tried.
Miller notes that quail is a nicety and not a necessity, so she has looked for other products to help even out the fluctuations in the quail market. The plant processes birds two or three days a week, but it is open for five days a week. One room in the plant is dedicated to alternate custom products. Manchester Farms has produced glazed pork chops for a foodservice customer, potato skins for a club store and bacon-wrapped quail and chicken products and franks in a blanket for its own brand. Most of the work has to be done by hand, and Manchester Farms’ employees have years of hands-on experience that can translate over to other proteins and products.
Those other products serve to keep the business steady, particularly in a case like the Great Recession of 2009 that scared many consumers away from higher-end restaurants and fancy meals. However, Miller has no plans to make Manchester Farms a jack-of-all-trades meat company.
“It’s definitely the quail business for us. Other products may come and go, but it’s the core part of the farm that really identifies who we are,” she says. “The other part just allows for more work.”