Crown Foods isn’t open today.
Not officially, anyway.
But like most Sundays during hunting season, owner Scott Byers and his 83-year-old mother, Gwenn, will be there. And the curb outside the plant at 1402 W. Northwest Blvd. will be lined with pickups, each dropping off a carcass or two.
Gwenn Byers recalls one hectic Sunday when she and Scott accepted 60 deer in a three-hour span.
So much for days off in the custom meat-processing trade.
Scott Byers described the business and offered advice for preserving wild game during a recent interview.
S-R: What’s your earliest memory of the business?
Byers: I started here when I was 13 years old, doing whatever Dad wanted me to do – the front counter, cleanup, hauling products. He didn’t let me play with the knives until I was 16 or 17. I worked summers during high school and started full time right after graduation. This has been my life.
S-R: Which of your dad’s lessons stuck with you?
Byers: Keep your fingers away from the blade and your hand out of the grinder.
S-R: What was his business philosophy?
Byers: Treat the customer right, and turn the product around as soon as you can. There’s an old saying in the meat business: If you don’t sell it, you smell it.
S-R: How have things evolved since you started?
Byers: We’ve added new equipment, but it’s still basically the same business.
S-R: What animals do you process?
Byers: Everything from deer, elk and moose to yak and Alaskan muskox. Last year I did a buffalo that weighed 1,018 pounds. It took two of us 4 1/2 hours.
S-R: Is it difficult to process game you’re not familiar with?
Byers: Four-legged animals all have pretty much the same body structure.
S-R: What trends have you noticed over the years?
Byers: It’s not like it used to be. In years past, we’d do as many as 1,400 wild game in three months. There aren’t nearly as many hunters now, but we still do anywhere from 800 to 1,000 during the season.
S-R: What does it cost to have a deer processed?
Byers: There’s a $75 minimum charge for a small deer. Anything over 86 pounds is 89 cents a pound. That includes custom cutting and wrapping – the whole nine yards. We also can make jerky, pepperoni, salami and sausage.
S-R: Do you have clients who have been coming here for decades?
Byers: Some are fourth-generation customers. Even people who move still come back to hunt each fall and drop their meat off here. It’s a family ritual.
S-R: Do you hunt?
Byers: No, I’ve never had the opportunity. My busy season starts the first of September with archery, and it’s seven days a week from then on into spring.
S-R: Do customers sometimes give you game meat?
Byers: Yes, but we don’t eat it. I’ve seen enough of it in my lifetime that it doesn’t really appeal to me. But it doesn’t go to waste. We participate in Safari Club International’s “Sportsmen Against Hunger” program, and, with the help of our customers, each year we donate thousands of pounds of processed game meat to outlying food banks.
S-R: What’s your favorite meat?
Byers: I’m a London broil and rib-eye fan.
S-R: What do you recommend hunters do to make sure their game meat is in top shape when it gets to the table?
Byers: Always gut and skin the animal immediately. I recommend taking two or three jugs of frozen water to drop into the cavity to force the heat out. Water doesn’t hurt the meat – you can wash it down as much as you want, and I would appreciate it if you would. And get it to a processing facility as soon as possible.
S-R: What are some mistakes hunters make?
Byers: Leaving some of the entrails in. Not taking the hair off. Not doing a good washing. Not having ice to cool the carcass. Not having a basic knowledge of field dressing. I’ve always thought a lesson in field dressing should be required along with the hunter safety course, because we see a lot of spoilage that could be avoided.
S-R: Are there any changes in the works here?
Byers: We’re adding commercial cold-storage space to take up some of the slack created by Empire’s move out to the Valley. I figure we’re more convenient for food brokers on the North Side.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Byers: Being in business for myself.
S-R: What do you like least?
Byers: The long hours. A typical day is at least 10 hours, but that’s OK.
S-R: When you do have free time, how do you spend it?
Byers: I play golf. I’ve been a member at Wandermere since I was old enough to be on the course.
S-R: What’s your handicap?
Byers: At one time it was pretty low, but now it’s around seven or eight. (Editor’s note: The average handicap is 16.1 for a U.S. male golfer. The lower the number, the better.)
S-R: What are you most proud of about Crown Foods?
Byers: Our longevity, and what we do here. It’s not glamorous, but it’s a service that needs to be done.
S-R: What challenges do you face?
Byers: I always thought it was competing against the grocery stores, but we don’t. We’re completely different. All our beef is raised up in Bigelow Gulch – no GMOs. We dry-age it for at least two weeks – something you don’t get at the supermarket – and sell it by the pound or by the side, whatever the customer wants. Individual T-bones are $9.39 a pound; porterhouses are $9.59 a pound. A side of beef, which runs anywhere from 280 and 300 pounds, is just $2.94 a pound.
S-R: What’s the future for this business? Will you train someone to take over?
Byers: I don’t think people want to work this hard anymore. I might be wrong. We do have a couple of great kids working with us. But this type of operation is a thing of the past, in a way, and I’m too busy to train someone to do it.