Page 77 - Cityview May-June 2017
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don’t eat it, then they can go hungry.” My wife Sharon and I had sliced up 40-something pounds of ham into prosciutto, and we had sliced a bunch to pan-fry. All night long chefs kept coming up to me and asking me if I could sell them that product. Well,
I thought about it on my drive back to Madisonville from Oxford, and thought, “I’ve been giving this stuff away all these years.”
KN: Why do you say you were giving it away?
AB: I was selling it in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg for virtually the same price that people who cure these hams for 90 days were selling theirs. It wasn’t a business model that worked.
KN: And you changed the model after you returned?
AB: I came back and I called a team meeting of my three employees and told them were going to increase production by 500 percent. This one fellow said, “you’re going to put us out of business.” And I said, “well, we may go out of business, but we’re going to go out in style. I’m going to make it
the way I think it ought to be. I think there’s a market for these fine dining restaurants, and if we can crack that, we’ll be ok.”
KN: Was this before or after
you started a relationship with Blackberry Farm?
AB: I started the relationship with Blackberry Farm when they first opened that thing.
KN: You were telling me on the phone that when you first heard about Blackberry Farm in Walland, you weren’t thinking of some grand place.
AB: I knew there was nothing in Walland, and I honestly thought it was a probably single wide trailer with
a porch shedded off the front of it. I thought, “It’s got to be a greasy spoon of some kind.” I’ve actually shared that thought with the Beall family,
and we all get amused when we look back. They were the first restaurant to
ever put our name on a menu and now restaurants all over the country do that. We’ve never asked anybody to do that. A lot of times, I’ve thought about it. I think if they knew what a hole-in-a- wall place their product was coming out of they’d probably scratch the name off of the menu. But we’ve been very fortunate that they do that.
KN: Did you start out at this location? AB: No, when we started out, there was an old fellow over between Madisonville and Sweetwater on old Highway 68, and his name was Albert Hicks. Albert started this business almost by accident in 1947, and he was curing his product in a building behind his house. He ran that till 1973. I had been working as a guidance counselor at the old Vonore High School up the road. I enjoyed the work; I just knew
I couldn’t ever make a living. I quit
my job and heard this fellow had quit making country hams. I talked him into leasing me that building in his back yard, and that’s where I started, about ten miles away. I built this building in 1978 and moved over here to where we are now. If you walked through it, you’ll realize how piecemeal it is; it’s been added onto a few times.
KN: What was your background in working with pork?
AB: We always killed hogs. We rode up to my grandparent’s place in Virginia every Thanksgiving. We got up there on Wednesday nights, and we killed hogs on Thanksgiving Day. That was the traditional mountain way of doing things. We butchered the pigs and spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday working up all that meat for both sides of the family: canning the sausage in fruit jars, putting the hams and bacon in cure, and it was country living at its best. That was the lifestyle.
KN: And that lifestyle became the basis of your business?
AB: Yes. Then I got into it. Before I put the first meat in cure, I was riding to universities all over the south, trying to learn more about what I was doing because I wanted to do it really well.
I soon figured out that we had all the expertise that I needed 35 miles up the road at UT. Every time I hit a rough spot in those early years, just to be able to call one of those professors and say “this is what I’m doing, and I think I’m on the right track, am I?” To hear them say “yes, you are,” or “no, you’re not” was priceless.
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