Steamboat Springs Rick Spencer learned the meat business from the perspective of a small town processing plant that cut its own steaks and made its own bratwurst from scratch.
Lately, Spencer has been thinking globally but it's not German sausage that Spencer is shipping around the world. It's jerky. And he's selling the flavorful dried meat from his own Web site.
There are plenty of places to buy jerky in Colorado. In summer, there seems to be a roadside jerky stand at the top of every mountain pass. And every convenience store in America sells several brands of meat products claiming to be jerky. But most of them have been mass produced from some reconstituted meat and have all the texture of an overcooked hamburger.
Spencer is focused on producing the most authentic and high quality jerky possible for a clientele that appreciates quality and is willing to pay for it.
"Our customers understand the value of quality," Spencer said. "You can buy jerky everywhere. My flavors took me years to develop. I won grand champion in state meat contests all over."
Spencer is reaching out to 300 customers from as far away as Holland through his Web site at www.jerky-of-the-month.com. He even has a customer who is a sailor on board a U.S. Navy war ship. Wherever the ship comes in to port, Spencer tries to have a package of jerky waiting for the homesick sailor.
World headquarters for Jerky of the Month Club is an office in Spencer's home on Cherry Drive. For $58 plus $12.95 shipping and handling (in the U.S.), Spencer will ship out a 4-ounce package of a different flavor of jerky for each of six months. The flavors rotate through Spencer's family recipes including: roast garlic, jalapeno, green chili, cajun and more.
Spencer and his siblings, Ron and Nancy, learned to make jerky in their parents' meat plant, OK's Meats, on Yampa Avenue in Steamboat Springs. Keith and Darlene Spencer purchased the business in 1968 after Keith decided to step way from his longtime position as the meat department manager for a local grocery chain.
Darlene died in 1974 and the Spencer kids worked harder than ever in their father's business. Their smoked meats won more than 20 awards including two grand champions for jerky at the state fair.
Upon Keith's retirement, the business was sold to Bill Hamil of the Steamboat Seafood Company and the name of the business was changed to Steamboat Meat and Seafood Company. The new ownership brought with it a well-established catering business and a long list of local restaurants who purchase their fresh fish from Hamil. Spencer remains at the business on a contract basis. He continues to make his customers' jerky on the premises, although it is a separately owned concern.
Spencer said he conceived of selling jerky over the Internet before his father's business sold, as a way to take it to another level.
"I was always frustrated with the ups and downs of the business," Spencer said. "We lived from hunting season to hunting season. But hunting season is only 45 days long. I was always looking for a more stable business."
He tried selling elk and bison meat to distant customers, but found that business very competitive. Jerky turned out to be an ideal food product to sell over the Internet each package weighs just a little over 4 ounces, a fact that keeps shipping charges down, especially when compared to some other "of-the-month-club" products like beer and wine. Once the jerky is sealed in a vacuum pack, Spencer is free of worrying about keeping the product refrigerated during shipment.
Spencer has learned a lot about doing business on the Internet and has been fortunate to call upon local people with expertise in the field. Scott Ford of the Small Business Development Center at Colorado Mountain College is a neighbor of Spencer's and Spencer says Ford has provided constant guidance.
Ford said Spencer is savvy enough to use the Web to sell his product, but knows enough not to become preoccupied with e-commerce.
"I am impressed at how well Rick knows his customer. That has and will be the ongoing key to his success," Ford said.
Spencer's secure Web page was created by Nadja Rider of RiderWeb in Craig. Rider said Spencer's site is fully capable of real-time credit card processing.
Spencer's site is effective because it focuses on a narrow niche and that helps it come up high on the list when people type "jerky" into Internet search engines, Rider explained.
"Rick's site is successful primarily because it's a very focused product," Rider said. "He was successful right from the start, which blew me away. He began receiving orders immediately. There are very few Web sites we launch that have that much success right away."
The site is well organized and loads quickly. It contains a concise description of Spencer's product and several well-executed photographs that show him at work. Customers can quickly access the ordering form and Rider has made it easy for visitors to forward the page to friends.
Despite the sophistication of the Web page, Spencer finds himself at a critical juncture in the history of the company. He has been stuck on 300 customers for some time, and feels the need to take the Jerky of the Month club to the next level.
"My plan was to grow slowly," Spencer said."You have to work it you have to work your business on the Web."
Part of his reason for growing slowly was to make certain he could keep up with product fulfillment. When customers type their credit card numbers into his ordering form and submit them, the money is put into an escrow account for three days, then downloads directly into the business's bank account.
He wants to make certain he has time to maintain his database and concentrate on customer retention. The "churn" or turnover in his customer base is a concern to Rick. But when people are receiving a six-month jerky subscription as a gift from a third party, getting second-hand customers to write a check themselves isn't always easy.
One step Spencer is contemplating would involve contracting with a medium-sized jerky company to custom make his jerky to his recipes and specifications. That would give him access to higher production without having to invest in costly specialized ovens and drying equipment. The key question is whether the quality of the product would remain as high as it is now.
Spencer ships his jerky on the first of the month, so he mails out certificates announcing it to new recipients. When they receive the jerky, they also get a copy of Rick's latest newsletter, written in a homey style.
Many of his customers are corporate gift givers. If he could penetrate that market more deeply, he believes his business could grow.
Ford believes Spencer has the right makeup to succeed with his new business. "Rick in my mind is a model entrepreneur," Ford said. "Rick may be 'home-grown' Steamboat but he is world-wide in his approach to doing business."
If the Internet had never become commonplace in households across America and the world, Rick Spencer would still be making jerky. But the kick he gets from receiving orders from places he's never visited has opened his eyes to an entirely new way of doing business.
"The people it goes to that's what's in it for me," Spencer said. "I have a map on the wall and I put a pin wherever I have customers. There are pins in Canada, the Bahamas and the United Kingdom. It's amazing to sit in your little room in Steamboat and download orders from all those places."