Sausage competition links Hburg man to business expansion

By BUSTER WOLFE,

After four years of basically teaching himself how to process deer, Dustin Strickland decided to attend the American Meat Processors Association convention in Lexington, Kentucky, back in July.

Because the convention holds the American Cured Meat Championship, Strickland decided to enter three contests – sausage with Cajun seasoning, sausage with blueberry-maple seasoning and andouille sausage – to get reaction to his products. He had run out of the Cajun seasoning he was using, so he substituted his original seasoning that he used when he opened the business.

While all three entries scored high among the hundreds of entries, his sausage with the “old” Cajun seasoning gave Strickland the title of National Sausage Champion.

“That was all the encouragement I needed,” he said recently. “Needless to say, we are using the Cajun seasoning that we used when I opened the business.”

Strickland is a member of the Strick’s Bar-B-Q and Catering family who opened Strick’s Deer Processing in 2013. After the first year in operation, he almost decided to stop the deer-processing business. But he knew he couldn’t.

“As far as the restaurant and smoking as a family business, I’ve been doing that since I could walk,” he said. “Where that all began was that I grew up in the food business here and I was dead set on going into a culinary career. I was ready to make that jump to further my career in the food business, but I didn’t want to hit that fine line of small portions and all that froofroo. That’s where I was stuck. I’ve been barbecuing and all of a sudden you turn out a 6-ounce portion; that’s why I never did pull the trigger. I just came straight out of high school and into this, a full-blown restaurant. That was back in 2008 and in 2013, I just wanted to take that next step.”

Ironically, the success of the restaurant bolstered the opening of the processing business.

“That’s what carried us over the hump,” Strickland said. “A lot of people are pretty iffy about where they get their deer processed.”

His success with the deer processing has allowed Strickland to expand his business to offering a pickup location in Collins, which opens Thursday. He said he hopes to also add locations in Laurel or Meridian, where the deer will be picked up in refrigerated trucks and carried to Hattiesburg for processing.

At first, Strickland didn’t know what to expect.

“We started with a full-fledged meat market in the front, and then the deer processing just took it over,” he said. “Developing the recipes for spices was the hardest thing. When we started, we just got run over with customers. We started with 600-700 head of deer the first time, when I wondered, ‘What on earth am I going to do?’ There were multiple times when it was just me and a couple of other guys. I didn’t know what I was getting into; I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing. To debone a deer, I didn’t where to start. It took me forever.”

The amount of work and the lack of sophisticated equipment forced Strickland and his employees to spend days at a time at the business. Things got so bad he once nodded off while writing a check to a supplies.

“After that first year, I was seriously to the point of being in hospital sick because of working 40-60 hours before I ever left,” he said. “Where we are now, you put the sausage down, you use this, this and this, the times are set, you hit the button, it’s done and everything’s consistent.

“When we first started, there were no systems in place. There were times that I would set a kitchen timer that we use in here for the fryers that was really loud. I would take it out over there at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, sit down by the smoker and try to take a nap. I would set the timer for an hour to wake me up so I could check the sausage. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I would check to see if it was getting too much smoke or not enough smoke.”

Strickland said he was especially concerned about the outcome because of the product he was smoking.

“The problem is you are using somebody else’s meat, so if you ruin it, you can’t go to the grocery store and get more of it,” he said. “There isn’t any turning back. If you ruin it, it’s over. That was the pressure on that stuff. There’s no monetary value you can put on that meat. If you could give them $500, they are still going to be happy. That was one reason I had to force myself to go home and get a couple of hours of break just to get my head on straight.”

However, help did come from other resources.

“During the time we started, my wife was going to Southern Miss to be a teacher,” he said. “She’d be up here helping out, take a nap in the car and then come back and try to vacuum pack sausage. It was crazy. We ran everything over there in an 8-by-8 cooler; that was it. We had to hand-crank sausage and it would hold 15-20 pounds at a time.”

The volume was tremendous, but the equipment was not up-to-date.

“That first year, we did 3,000 pounds of sausage with a hand-crank stuffer,” he said. “I didn’t go to the next step of equipment is because when you start a business, the next size up for a sausage stuffer is from a $500 hand crank to a $10,000 hydraulic. In the first year of business, you don’t want to spend $10,000 on that out of the blue, especially on a seasonal business.”

Strickland said he knew he was either going to have to stop processing deer or figure out how he could do it more easily.

Although the menu was already stuffed, “Every now and then, we will add something to the menu,” Strickland said. “We added tamales; I had never made a tamale. We made 700 dozen in the first year. We now have a machine that makes it a little easier, but that first year, my brother and I made them all by hand. It was so labor-intensive. It’s still hands-on with tamales now, but it was terrible. Looking back now, it was awesome, but there was a lot of coffee consumed.”

All their hard work paid off after the first year of business, Strickland said.

“At the end of the year, we got such a response from folks coming in, saying, ‘This was the best that I ever had. There’s no way we are going anywhere else. No matter what price you put on it, we’re coming back,’” he said. “At that point, I knew that if I quit right then, it would put such a bad name on Strick’s that it would hurt the restaurant. Once we started, I was handcuffed and couldn’t turn back.”

The past season, Strickland was evidently successful, processing about 2,800 deer. In the processing, the business made 100,000-plus sausage, the same number of ground patties, 1,000 dozen tamales and 800-900 pounds of dried jerky.

For Strickland, the idea is to give the hunter a pleasant return on his investment.

“What we push and strive to do – and we are still working on that – is to put a different thought in somebody’s mind when they hear ‘deer processor,’” he said. “You get the stereotypical deer processors pictured as a shack behind the house with cats running around and you can smell it from the road. We wanted to create an experience for the hunter. That’s our slogan, ‘The experience doesn’t stop in the woods.’ We’re a your-kill, our-skill meat processor. We don’t batch anybody’s meat; if you bring in 10 pounds, you’re going to get back 10 pounds plus what we add to it.”

The Hattiesburg location is at 3802 W. Fourth St., and the Collins location will have a ribbon-cutting at 10 a.m. Thursday at 3049 U.S. Hwy. 49 S.