- Associated Press - Monday, February 16, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Each fall for the past 17 years, the corner of White Bear and Minnehaha avenues on St. Paul’s East Side becomes a mini deer-processing factory.

Armed with a refrigerated tractor trailer in its parking lot and a host of overtime-hungry butchers, Big Steer Meats has accepted hundreds of hunter-killed deer each November - more than 600 one year - which are skinned, quartered and further broken down, ground and mixed as sausage and other links before being returned to proud hunters.

No more.

This fall’s handling of some 300 deer was the last for Charlie Cory, Big Steer’s 47-year-old owner who’s been putting steel blade to carcass since he was 12.

Cory’s not retiring. In fact, the end of his venison processing run is a casualty of his success.

In March, the company will break ground on a $1 million expansion that will allow Cory to expand his wholesale business, which is undergoing a growth spurt processing locally grown meat free of hormones, antibiotics and other less-pastoral ingredients and practices.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Cory said recently as he knifed through pork cuts between coordinating deliveries, answering the phone (he can jabber and butcher simultaneously), and making carry-out sandwiches for the lunch crowd. “In 1978, my dad bought Big Steer when it was about three blocks away. We moved into this old 7-Eleven, but my wholesale keeps expanding. We’ve just outgrown the place now.”

When the adjacent house came on the market last year, Cory bought it. He plans to demolish it and erect a 4,100-square-foot, federally licensed processing facility. The St. Paul City Council has already signed off on the zoning change, and Cory’s application included letters of support from neighbors.

Big Steer will continue, as it has for decades, to be a walk-in butcher shop, where customers crouch to study fresh cuts and peer over the counter to ask advice for, say, “shredded pork for about 40 people.” That was the query of Marge Kaiser of Maplewood, who was making the meat run for her great-grandson’s first birthday party.

“How long have I been coming here?” Kaiser smiled coyly. “A long, long time. The meat is always good. Always.”

Among Big Steer’s most celebrated products are Cory’s own recipes for sausages, dagos, chorizos and breakfast links.

It’s those products that have become the backbone of his wholesale market. For years, Big Steer provided meats for Twin Cities pizzerias, including Angelo’s, Carbone’s and Mama’s. Four years ago, the company began making smoke sticks and jerky for Kowalski’s grocery stores, and in December, the chain added several other Big Steer-made items, including fresh Italian sausages, which Cory describes as containing “a private family recipe.”

While not necessarily USDA-certified organic, Cory said his meats are increasingly targeting “that customer who’s looking for a nitrite-free, antibiotic-, hormone-free wholesome product.”

Big Steer supplies bratwursts from “vegetarian-fed pork raised on fresh-air enclosures” to Gerhard’s Brats sold in 21 Minnesota co-ops, and Cory said he’s planning to expand his products to a North Dakota distributor.

That jump outside the state’s borders prompted Cory to seek federal licensing, and that’s where the whole-deer processing side of the operation hit a roadblock.

“The problem is I can’t have any (deer) hair in here,” he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1J4EB1C ). Separation of livestock, slaughterhouse and meat processing operations is a common theme for food safety experts and regulators, and deer, for a number of biological reasons, are viewed with extra scrutiny - especially deer killed and gutted by hunters in the woods.

Cory doesn’t quibble with the regulations; the refrigerated truck outside - half meat locker and half processing area - allowed him to separate his regular operations from deer processing. In fact, he said, after 17 years, he was ready to give up deer, in part because of the sanitary and quality challenges hunter-harvested deer created.

“You’d be surprised at how many deer come in and still have the bung hole inside,” he said, noting that a field-dressed deer should have all internal organs removed and hunters should use special care with the downstream end of the intestines. “There’s a lot of people that aren’t field-dressing properly. A lot of leaves and debris in there, and I do think it’s gotten worse. Maybe people have gotten lazier over the years. There are plenty of times we’ve had to turn deer away because they just weren’t wholesome.”

Hunters who have already skinned and quartered their deer will still be able to bring parts in to be ground or made into sausages, Cory said, but no more whole carcasses.

Cory had actually planned to turn away deer last fall, but he changed his mind when those who’ve relied on him for years reacted.

“Charlie called and said, ‘Would this leave you in a dilemma?’” recalled Stuart Fox, manager of parks and natural resources for Eden Prairie. “I said, ‘Yes, it would.’”

Fox oversees Eden Prairie’s deer management activities, which for more than 15 years has involved hiring a team of sharpshooters to kill deer at night.

“They’re so efficient that early on, when we had a larger deer population, they took 175 deer in two weeks,” Fox said. The haul threatened to overburden the Department of Natural Resources, which had been accepting the carcasses. “We didn’t want to see a waste of the natural resource.”

Fox put out a call for someone who could handle the volume that Eden Prairie’s hunt was producing, and Cory stepped up. His refrigerated truck stayed open late to handle incomings, and he and his crew worked through nights to keep up.

“He did a heck of a job,” Fox said, noting that Big Steer was paid the standard rate - generally between $75 and $150 per deer - for processing. “All that meat went to food shelves, and when we saw how high that demand was, we knew we had provided something tremendous.”

Cory said the prospect of those deer going to waste - or the hunt being canceled - prompted him to keep the deer service open for one more season.

Eden Prairie now holds hunts every other year, and Fox said he’s hopeful he’ll find another processor. “I’ve got a year and a half to find one, but we’re sorry he’s going to stop.”

Cory is recommending his customers bring their deer across town to another St. Paul fixture, Stasny’s Food Market at 1083 N. Western Ave. Stasny’s, which has been in the family for 93 years, has been taking hunters’ deer for more than four decades, owner Jim Stasny said. Cory plans to “loan” Stasny some of his deer specialists during the regular firearms season, when the flow of carcasses peaks. “We appreciate the business, and we should be able to handle it,” Stasny said.

For his part, Cory has never shot a deer. Yet.

“When could I?” he chuckled. “I always had to work during deer season. It was the busiest time of year. Now, I’ll actually have the time to go hunting if I decide to.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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