While it can’t be found on any map, the Ham Belt is a band around the world with an ideal environment for the production of dry-cured ham. In the days before refrigeration, this area utilized the four distinct seasons, including cool winters and warm summers, to produce ham items now considered a delicacy. In Italy, it was prosciutto. In Spain, it was serrano, and in Germany it was Westphalian ham. Over in the United States, a similar product became known as country ham.
One of the leading producers of country ham in the U.S. is Goodnight Brothers, a Boone, N.C. company that started when five brothers got into the food distribution business. Jim Goodnight, president, and his cousin Bill, vice president, are the next generation in the family business, which now employs 120 people. It ships its products across the country through retail and foodservice channels, including 1.25-ounce portions for use in sandwiches in Bojangles and Hardee’s restaurants.
“When I first started, we were doing maybe a load a month of fresh hams, and the curing process takes about 90 days. Now, we’re doing five or six loads a week,” comments Bill Goodnight.
Goodnight attributes much of the company’s growth to a decision to move from its original location to a larger facility in 1996. With the additional space that a 40,000-square-foot building provides, the company was able to reach out to the retail market as well as its traditional foodservice base. Since that move, Goodnight says that the company has enjoyed continual steady growth. 2016, in particular, was one of the company’s best years, setting the business up for an equally productive 2017.
Country ham, as its name implies, is particularly popular in the rural parts of the country.
“It’s mainly a Southeast product, and North and South Carolina is our bread-and-butter territory,” explains Tony Snow, sales and marketing director. “But we go from Florida all the way out to Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, all the way up to New York. The retail business has given us more exposure and broadened our footprint.”
Consumers can order products directly from the Goodnight Brothers’ website (www.goodnightbrothers.com), and Snow adds that the company gets orders from across the country.
“I think that as people move North or South, East or West, they miss the country ham, and you can’t really buy it readily out in California or Miami, so they’ll call us or order it online,” Goodnight adds.
While its main product is a traditional favorite, Goodnight Brothers has adapted to modern times well. Unlike a water-added product, the curing time of a country ham is not something that can be sped up, but the company uses refrigeration technology to assure consistent temperatures and the most optimal curing environment.
“The country ham industry is one of the few industries where technology has actually enhanced, instead of altered,” Goodnight explains. “We still have the four seasons, but we have controlled rooms, where there’s not a cold day in the middle of summer or a warm day in the middle of winter like Mother Nature would have.”
The company has also found success with an all-natural country ham product that is sold in stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare. The nitrite-free product uses celery powder as the curing agent. It increased the time needed to cure the product, but the product has found a receptive audience.
“There’s a market niche that really wants to follow the product from farm to table. The all-natural really allows you to do that, because it’s produced in such small quantities from the farmer all the way up to us,” Goodnight says, explaining that Goodnight Brothers cures about 10 million pounds of its signature item yearly but less than 100,000 pounds of its all-natural items.
Along with his position at the family business, Goodnight also serves as president of the Country Ham Association, so he is concerned with spreading the word about country ham industry as a whole.
“It used to be that everybody thought it was only for breakfast, but it can be used as an ingredient in almost anything, from country ham stuffed mushrooms to country ham stuffed in trout to our country ham wrapped around scallops,” he says.
Something that Bill established several years back is trying to grow the country ham industry by partnering with local culinary institutes like Johnson & Wales University and telling them about the different uses of country ham,” Snow says. “When they graduate, they take those uses and go all over the United States and the world. Hopefully they remember Goodnight Brothers, but mainly we want them to remember country ham.”
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