House-cured-and-smoked honey-orange bacon. A thick, juicy New York strip. A simple, high-quality tenderloin. Hand-ground and stuffed sausages.
Following hot, seared and roasted on the heels of the booming popularity of fresh local produce, specialty meats like those, while sometimes more expensive, are carving out a growing place at dinner tables in Billings, with a growing number of local businesses ready to serve them up.
And with a wide and ever-growing variety of choices, cuts and flavors available at meat counters across the area, there’s something for everybody.
While a quick Internet search of Billings businesses using the keyword “meat” brings up no fewer than a dozen meat-processing businesses and butcher-type shops in less than a second, each one brings a little something different, be it a focus on smoked and cured treats or an emphasis on simple, high-end cuts.
Even with the variety, there’s a common
thread running through Billings’ specialty meats providers and its something owners and employees say sets them apart.
“We’re very fussy on what we buy,” said Mike Christianson, the butcher at Poly Food Basket, 2448 Poly Drive. “High-end quality. Period.”
Looking over a butcher counter piled high with freshly cut, bright red steaks and tubs of just-ground beef mixed with other goodies like blue cheese, bacon or jalapenos, Christianson said quality is important at a place like Poly.
He realized several years ago that the store couldn’t compete with the low prices of larger, national markets and they went the other way, focusing instead on high-quality meats consumers couldn’t find elsewhere — all either USDA choice or prime cuts.
It’s a strategy that others around town say works well. Kevin Harrell is co-owner of 4th Avenue Meat Market, at 117 N. 25th St. and a second location in Red Lodge.
He said that one of the store’s most popular items are its handmade sausages, and customers appreciate knowing that it’s all made in-house using mostly traditional methods.
“All of our sausages are homemade right here,” he said. “We use hog casing and do it the old-fashioned way. It’s not Hillshire Farms or whatever you’d find at the grocery store. People like that.”
Bacon and sausage
Sausages and bacon, often infused or coated with herbs and spices, like what’s made at 4th Avenue, are some of the most consistently popular items at specialty meat shops and counters across Billings.
At the meat counter at the recently opened Lucky’s Market, 1603 Grand Ave., Patrick Price looks over thick cuts of three kinds of house-cured bacon, which sit next to trays of six or seven different flavors of sausages made from both pork and chicken.
He said the sausages and bratwursts, which range in flavor from spicy to sweet and a little fruity, are made using quality chicken or pork shoulder. The bacon — one of the best-selling items at the market — is cut from pork belly and cured in the store for 11 days before spending 18 hours in a smoker behind the meat counter.
“It just flies off the shelves here,” Price said. “It never just sits there. We go through about 300 pounds of bacon a day here.”
Just down the street, Shane and Tanya Flowers recently opened Ranch House Meat Co. at 1313 Grand Ave. as an expansion of their Huntley-based Project Meats. While they also sell steaks, burger patties and other meats, much of the store’s space is dominated by all kinds and flavors of bacon, bratwursts and snack sticks.
“When you’re looking at this vicinity, sales in things like jerky and bacon are always big,” Shane Flowers said. “And I don’t even know how many brats and snack sticks we have out right now. We want to be the candy store for meat enthusiasts.”
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He said, in addition to their natural flavors, bacons and sausages are popular because so many other flavors can be added. At ranch house, the shelves are filled with items like garlic pepper bacon and jalepeno-cheddar wurst. 4th Avenue has a cinnamon bacon, among others, while Lucky’s offers traditional, peppered and honey-orange bacons.
“Nobody can copy our recipes,” Shane Flowers said. “There’s so much variety and everybody has their own.”
Cut-to-order and local
While smoked and cured meats are a hit, thick slabs and fine cuts of beef, pork and chicken have always been staples at any butcher shop or meat counter.
Price said he’ll see the same customers come by three or four times a week to pick up fresh meat.
“They come and they’re buying fresh,” he said. “They’ll buy for today, maybe tomorrow, and then they’ll come back.”
At Poly Food Basket, Christianson said that traditional steaks, such as T-bones and rib eyes, remain the biggest sellers, with the tenderloin selling the most.
He said people know they can come to his counter for not only a quality cut, but also the exact cut they want. Cut-to-order meats add to the appeal of specialty shops, allowing customers to specialize the meat to their needs.
“It’s just amazing what we sell that way,” Christianson said. “If you want something a certain way, we do our best to do that.”
Adding to the appeal for some is the possibility of buying locally raised meat. While it’s not always a possibility, many shops around Billings sell local when they can.
Flowers said that his business spends about $150,000 annually on local meat.
“That’s what people are going for and I think Billings is really driven by local product,” he said. “We believe in the farmers and ranchers and we believe in agriculture.”
Harrell said his business, which also processes and sells wild game when it can, sells as much local meat as it can, but they also have to seek out outside producers to meet demand and, occassionally, cost issues, something with which other businesses agreed.
“For example, there’s just not enough pigs in Montana to provide a consistent supply for us,” he said.
‘It comes in fresh’
Meat counters at specialty shops around Billings feature just about every cut of steak or pork a customer might want and, chances are, one of them can get it if it’s not under the glass.
Nearby, they’ve got piles of house-made bacon and sausage mixed with everything from apples to cayenne, from jalapenos to honey.
The popularity of one item or cut or another might fluctuate — it can be affected by everything from the price of other meats to its popularity in local restaurants or on the national food scene — but the people who make, butcher and sell the specialty meats all say something pretty similar when it comes to what somebody gets with their purchase.
“It comes in fresh,” Price said. “It doesn’t come in tubes or anything like that. You won’t find that. It’s just about as fresh as you can get it.”