Local Flavor is the Secret That Keeps One Vermont Business Smokin'
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Certain things stick out in your mind—your first kiss, the first time you drove a car, the birth of your first child, and of course, the first time you tried Vermont maple syrup. Not only is Vermont home to a sweet substance that can turn a stack of pancakes into a life-altering event, but the Green Mountain State also gave rise to smoking customs that infuse bacon, sausage and ham with a mellow, sweet taste that for some redefines breakfast meat. It’s that local flavor that has kept Vermont Smoke and Cure in business for more than fifty years and is growing the company into a national brand that supports small, natural farmers.
Vermont Smoke and Cure got its start when the French-Canadian Roland LeFabvre opened a smokehouse, dubbed Roland’s, in the early sixties. It was a time of peace, love, and ham brined using the traditional Vermont methods—sweetened with maple syrup and smoked using natural fuels like maple wood and corn cobs. Roland’s drew its product from nearby Quebec farms, and over time came to be housed inside a local restaurant. For area old-timers, the meats harkened back to childhood, reminders of the way bacon used to taste when their families smoked it, backyard style, the Vermont way.
In the early 2000’s, a former farmer named Chris Bailey came to work in the restaurant that housed Roland’s. Bailey had originally gotten into agriculture after building databases for the EPA of wells polluted with agricultural chemicals. Bailey realized “that was not a really productive end of the problem to be working on” and switched to working in the fields himself. By the time he came to Roland’s, Bailey had farmed for seven years, took a detour for an MBA, and was primed to see the potential in Vermont smoked meat. The unique flavor could support nearby farmers, and surely could develop a market stretching south to Washington, D.C.
Bailey became CEO in 2006 and rebranded the company as Vermont Smoke and Cure. The company soon launched a line with antibiotic-free, pasture pigs, as well as its 5 Knives label, drawing exclusively from Vermont-grown meats. While in the time since 5 Knives continues growing as a limited-supply label, the antibiotic-free line has become the biggest part of the company’s business. Bailey hopes that within a few years, Vermont Smoke and Cure will be able to move the business entirely to either 5 Knives or all-natural and humane meats.
Either move would bolster the market for area farmers, and it’s not a surprise that having a former farmer as CEO would translate into a company mindful of that key constituency. In addition to building its own lines, Vermont Smoke and Cure also opens its USDA-inspected processing to 75 local farmers. It’s a way to help more local farmers put meat on others’ tables. Bailey admits that in some ways things would be simpler for the company without offering the processing services, “but we know that they’re important to farmers, and they’re the reason we’re here.”
Those farmers include Beth Whiting, who on a grass-based livestock farm—Maple Wind Farm in Huntington, Vermont—raises one hundred percent grass-fed beef and lamb, pasture-raised pork and poultry, eggs, organic vegetables and maple syrup. She’s seen an increase in demand in Vermont for pasture-raised pork over the past few years and explains that “the products that VSC offers us are in line with what our customers want—no nitrates and local.” Whiting sees working with Vermont Smoke and Cure as a way to add value to the food she produces and working with the company as a way to develop more markets for her farm’s meats—like for this year’s new barbeque-flavored beef snack stick made with no nitrates.
Supporting local farmers—including a healthy population of more than 600 backyard hog farmers—has meant that even during the recession, Vermont Smoke and Cure continues to grow; in fact, its growth rate only suffered for one year during the worst of the downturn. “We just kept hitting the basics,” Bailey explains, “which for us have been in-store demos, having people taste our products.” And though the company has maintained its roots to Vermont-style methods, it hasn’t let a locally-minded philosophy stop their successful growth. Their range of products are vaccuum-sealed and packed in stay-cool containers so the company can count on serving customers beyond the state; they ship their trademark hams, bacon, and other favorites across the country, bringing true Vermont flavor to far-flung Whole Foods stores in southern California, foodies directly ordering up shipments online, and New England markets just down the road. Vermont Smoke and Cure’s decades of success fall back on an old recipe that’s one part local farming, another regional flavor, and of course, its all tied together with undertones of sweet Vermont maple syrup.