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Tuesday, June 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Business

Mixing up a new business model

Butcher supplier adapts as chefs and others adopt do-it-yourself attitudes

Joyce Bailey Vannoy has gone into the family business, in a way.

It’s just that the family business isn’t what it used to be.

Her dad was an old-school butcher in Coeur d’Alene. Vannoy is the owner of The Michlitch Co., a 61-year-old Spokane company that sells seasonings and equipment for butchering, smoking and curing, and sausage-making.

But there aren’t a lot of folks like her dad in business anymore, so Vannoy has adapted. If she does less business now as a wholesaler, she does more as a retailer, selling equipment to hunters, farmers and others interested in doing their own meat-cutting. And she steadily has added products, from the wide range of spice mixes, barbecue rubs and gluten-free baking mixes sold under the name The Spokane Spice Co.

A part-owner of the company since 1980, Vannoy saw the writing on the wall when she bought out her brothers to become the sole owner in 2002, she said.

“The trend was for large grocery stores to take over and the smaller ones were just gone,” she said. “That was our bread and butter, the small grocery store that made its own sausage.”

Now, “we’ve changed substantially,” she said.

Tucked in an out-of-the-way corner a couple blocks off East Sprague at 130 N. Stone St., Michlitch carries a wide range of food-preparation products, ranging from meat grinders and sausage stuffers, to casings and seasonings, to knives and sharpening equipment. Vannoy holds classes on gluten-free baking and making sausage and jerky.

A large part of her customer base is hunters, and she says the fall and winter are her busiest seasons. But the rising interest among home cooks and restaurant chefs in local foods, in do-it-yourself approaches, and in reducing food waste are giving the business a little boost, as well.

David Blaine, chef at Latah Bistro, wrote recently about the company on his blog, calling it “Spokane’s Best-Kept Food Secret.”

“They’re the only people doing what they’re doing” in Spokane, he said.

Blaine and Jeremy Hansen, chef at Sante Restaurant and Charcuterie, are part of a trend among chefs to do more of their own butchering and use more parts of the pig or cow than just the marquee cuts. The idea is partly a return to tradition, partly a commitment to freshness and quality, and partly an outgrowth of the desire to use sustainable, local foods. The movement is more pronounced in major cities, but both chefs hope it can catch on here, too.

“There’s a lot of interest, even for restaurants that, for whatever reason, don’t have the facilities or the menu flexibility to do that sort of thing,” Blaine said. “Everybody’s chomping at the bit to do that.”

Hansen’s restaurant opened last September, and he’s doing virtually all his own butchering – breaking down whole animals, making his own bacon and a wide range of sausages and cured meats.

“We use the whole, entire animal here,” he said.

Like Blaine, Hansen gets a lot of his supplies at Michlitch. Vannoy said so far she’s not done a lot of business with local chefs, but would like to see it grow.

“We haven’t done very much with restaurants,” she said. “I’d like to do a bit more.”

The company was founded in 1948 by Gil Michlitch to supply local butchers and small grocers. That remained the company’s focus for decades. Vannoy’s family purchased it in 1979, with ownership divided among her, her brothers and her parents. She took it over on her own in 2002, moving from its site on West Pacific to the current facility, a 12,000-square-foot plant on North Stone.

It’s not exactly a prominent spot for drive-by business, but Vannoy said, “I theorized that we’re a destination. People don’t find us by driving by.”

They still sell some of Gil Michlitch’s original seasonings for sausages and meats, but have expanded the spice business, adding more mixes and rubs. Vannoy’s husband, Don Vannoy, does the mixing in the 200-gallon metal tub that spins the ingredients together. The front of the shop has smokers and grinders, shelves of spices, and high-end cutlery.

In the back is a test kitchen, where they develop new spice blends. “It’s a mess right now because we’re trying to figure out our new fajita mix,” she said while leading a tour of the business last week.

Business has been steady, if not explosive. She says the company has annual sales around $700,000 in recent years, and that it hasn’t taken a big hit in the recession.

“I think we have an inverse relationship with the economy,” she said. “When the economy goes down, more people do their own thing.”

Vannoy has also kept alive the memory of her father. Cy Bailey ran Cy’s Meats in Coeur d’Alene for nearly 30 years. Today, on the shelves of his daughter’s store, you can find his seasoning mix for pepperoni, packaged as Cy’s Pepperoni.

“I’ve got a picture of Dad cutting meat, and I want to get it blown up and put it up on the wall,” she said.

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