Eudora firm cooks last batch of jerky

LAWRENCE — One of Pyle Meat Co.' s staple items, the Hombre Beef Jerky, sits on racks to cool. The company in Eudora is closing up shop after 50 years in business. The cooling jerky is the last batch.

The company has been in business since 1959. Since the late 1970s, it has been making a name for itself by selling Hombre beef jerky and smoked sausages at convenience and grocery stores throughout the Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City area.

But this nationwide recession has tempered the flames of backyard grills everywhere and has left many a lunch pail unused. Pyle now says what many business owners have felt — this recession has been unlike any other.

"It has been far worse than any other, maybe twice as worse," Pyle says. "This time it hit almost all at once. I kept thinking it will be all right, it will be all right. But I was wrong. It's not."

An auction to sell the business's equipment is set for April 21.

When Pyle took over the aging butcher shop in downtown Eudora, there were 800 people in the Kaw River town just east of Lawrence. There also were five grocery stores.

Early on, one grocer — long since gone — came by to say hello. He welcomed the newcomer to town and gave him a bit of advice. Just make a living butchering a few steers and hogs for the local farmers. But don't go stocking that meat case to sell to the townsfolk.

"He said if I did, he would run me out of business," Pyle recalled. "I told him that may happen. I said I had a thousand dollars to stock that meat case, and when it was gone I would walk up the street and tell him he was right. I never walked up that street."

That seems like a long time ago. Around the lunch table, though, the memories are still fresh from when the shop operated its own slaughterhouse — up to 5,000 head a year. Occasionally a nervous steer would escape out the front door and run down Eudora's Main Street.

That's the same street where employees — at one time there were 18 of them — would sit along the curb to take their 15-minute breaks. The traffic along the street was so heavy that it was nearly certain somebody would stop to shoot the breeze.

"A 15-minute break usually turned into a 30-minute break, much to the chagrin of the boss," said Pat Pyle.

Pat is one of four Pyle children — along with Tom Pyle Jr., Roberta Lehmann and Rose Pyle House — who still work for the company. All seven of Pyle's children have worked for the company at one time or another. About the only Pyle who has never officially worked for the business is Pyle's wife of 59 years, Alberta.

When things were really rolling, Pyle Meat Co. would smoke 1,200 pounds of beef jerky a week. Now, a batch of 400 pounds is about it.

Pat can see what's behind it all too.

"I think most everyone would agree that beef jerky is kind of a luxury snack food because it is a lot more expensive than just buying a bag of chips," Pat Pyle said.

Controlling costs is easier said than done. Jerky is a time-consuming product to make. Each batch takes at least six hours in a 185-degree smoker. The bottom line is, you have to make so much jerky to cover basic overhead costs.

That's why big snack food companies — who also happen to make beef jerky — can survive. They can pay stores for the best shelf space. Pyle's never did, and sometimes got placed in the oddest of places — right next to the condoms in one convenience store. Who knows? Maybe it worked.

But it doesn't anymore. That is what the Pyle Meat Co. has come to understand. But understanding it doesn't make it any easier.

"Going home from that auction," said Pat, who has worked for the company for 30 years, "I suspect I'll have to pull off and stop a few times."