All around the country, hunters are getting ready and deer are getting nervous. Fall brings deer-hunting season, and thousands of hunters will be looking for their latest trophies, not to mention all the good meat products that a deer can offer.

When it comes time to turn that deer carcass into venison steaks, sausages and snack sticks, hunters will turn to their local meat processors. Companies involved in game processing, hunting season can find it an exhausting and time-consuming event, but the financial results make it worthwhile.

RJ’s Meats & Groceries is an old-fashioned neighborhood meat market located in Hudson, Wis. On a year-round basis, the company is known for its fresh and smoked sausage, including more than 40 types of bratwurst, as well as ham, bacon and other products. RJ’s also processes wild game into sausage, says Rick Reams, who owns the business with his wife, Anne.

“The majority of wild game we process is white-tailed deer taken by hunters here in Wisconsin,” he says. “We have also processed mule deer, elk, moose, bear, goose, duck, wild turkey, wild boar and the occasional mountain lion into various sausages, fresh and smoked.”

During gun and bow season in Wisconsin and Minnesota, RJ’s takes in whole animals and processes them into steaks, roasts and burger meat, as well as sausage. Reams says that the biggest challenge of game processing is the condition of the animal that is brought in. To help remedy this, the company tries to teach its regular customers about proper care for the deer carcasses.

“We advise them not to let the animal hang for extended periods of time before cutting it or bring it to us for cutting,” Reams explains. “We stress that the meat must be kept cold, free of hair and bloodshot and stores in food-grade plastic bags. It’s also important that they do not attempt to freeze it in large 5-gallon pails or in coolers.” He tells his customers that meat should be frozen in smaller chunks to ensure that the product freezes as quickly as possible. Larger pieces of meat may start to spoil before it freezes in the center.

Glier’s Meat Inc. of Covington, Ky., has the motto of “Keep it cold, keep it clean, keep it moving” when it comes to deer processing. Daniel Glier, president, was part of a presentation at the recent AAMP convention in Cincinnati. In the presentation, he mentioned that some customers will let the deer bleed out in their garage for three or four days before bringing it to the company for processing. In those cases, Glier says his staff will show the hunters where to deposit the now-spoiled carcass — the garbage.

On opening day of hunting season, Glier said, “We have trucks backed up all the way down the side of the building, both sides of the street and around the corner. The deer are stacked up like cordwood.” The company uses its loading down as a platform for receiving and skinning, moving the carcasses along as quickly as possible. Hoists are used to raise the deer and make the skinning process easier and more comfortable for the people manning the skinning stations.

Malafy’s Meat Processing LLC, located in Milan, N.Y., can get anywhere from 900 to 1,000 deer to process during a typical hunting season. Joseph Malafy, owner, says that the company normally has two or three workers during the year, doing custom slaughtering, cutting and wrapping of cattle, hogs and sheep for local farmers.

“In deer season, I’ll get about 10 extra people for the first week, and after the first week or so it drops off to where four or five of us can handle it,” he says. Still, the work is steady enough that during deer season, his company does not slaughter any domestic animals.

“With deer, you have to take [the work] while it’s there, so we tell everyone who calls to bring it over. If anyone calls for something domestic, I tell them to give me a call after the New Year, and we’ll schedule them in,” Malafy says.

In many cases, once hunters find a good processor, they will stick with them year after year. Malafy says that he does not do any advertising, and all his hunter clientele comes from repeat business or word-of-mouth.

Gartner’s Meats, located in Portland, Ore., does some television advertising in the weeks before hunting season, says Rick Minor, president/co-owner. It is not his primary way to bring in customers, though.

“There’s word of mouth, and the fact that we’ve been in this location for nearly 50 years,” he says. “Everybody knows us. We advertise a week or two on TV just to remind people that we’re still here.”


Satisfied customers

Gartner’s pride itself on its customer service, Minor says.

“We adjust our hours to meet our customers’ needs,” he explains, adding that employees will take in carcasses after hours. “We prepare the meat the way we would like to have it ourselves. Other shops have the philosophy that if customers bring [the carcass] with dirt and hair on it, they’re getting it back with dirt or hair in it. We try to take care of them, even if it doesn’t come to us in a perfect manner.”

Malafy says that he or one of his employees will often help the uncertain customer when it comes time to decide how to process the deer. Malafy’s recommends a “regular cut,” which nets the hunter some steaks, roasts, loins and ground meat.

“We try to help steer them in the right direction,” he says. “I’ll have samples of stuff for people to try — salami, snack sticks, sweet sausage.” If the customers like what they try, it can get added on to the order.

RJ’s Meats also tries to ensure a smooth customer experience by asking for a 50-percent down payment of the final bill up front. There are two reasons for doing this, Reams says. First, it lets the hunter know what the total bill will be.

“Nothing is as bad as when Johnny hunter comes to pick up his sausage order and discovers he spent way more than he intended,” Reams says, explaining that the customers are not always aware of the cost of producing snack sticks and other such products. The second reason is to eliminate people who never pick up their orders, which would end up being given away.

“They have money down on it, so I know they are coming back for it,” Reams says. “Since we have started requiring deposits, we virtually have zero orders left here. They all get picked up.”

Exotic meats find a niche


Many Americans’ appetite for an out-of-the-ordinary meal stops at venison or buffalo meat. Others are willing to look for something a little more unconventional. For those customers, there are companies like Broadleaf.

“Broadleaf is an importer, manufacturer and wholesale master distributor celebrating 20 years of excellence,” says Mark Mitchell, president of the company, whose headquarters are in Vernon, Calif. It carries a range of imported and domestic specialty game and poultry, including venison, elk, ostrich, buffalo, wild boar, partridge and more.

“From a buffalo New York strip 10-ounce steak to a 5-pound frenched rack of antelope of 4-ounce kangaroo medallions, we offer many items to fit any menu, event or special occasion,” Mitchell says.

One of the company’s most popular items is the Wagyu beef, but antelope has been gaining popularity as of late.

“Antelope is really taking off due to a steadier supply and lower prices than its venison and elk counterparts,” he points out. “Also doing well is kangaroo, but the most exotic offering right now is the smoked alligator andouille sausage.”

Broadleaf sources its Cervena venison and elk from New Zealand, and the balance of its lines come from Australia and the United States.

“There seems to be plenty of suppliers out there, but finding a partner in the industry to grow with and produce quality is sometimes a struggle/work in progress,” Mitchell says. “A steady supply is always an issue, but utilizing all parts of the carcass (not just the tenders) helps. By supporting the supplier and taking the natural fall we get the bottoms for grinding, stew and kabob meats and always get the cuts that are in demand.”