Have you ever wondered where that shrink-wrapped package of hamburger or pork chops you purchase at the store come from? How does a cow grazing in the field or a pig wallowing in mud come to be nourishment on our plates? Shane and Tanya Flowers, owners of Ranch House Sausage Company, helped unravel some of the mystery surrounding how meat is butchered into proportions for cooking, and then how items such as bacon and sausage are produced.
Ranch House Sausage Company is located on the outskirts of Billings, right off Highway 312 just outside of Shepherd and Huntley. The building is nondescript, and you could easily drive by it. But in this facility there is a 1200 square foot retail space where you can buy meat, seasonings, jerky and sausage. Behind the store, thousands of pounds of meat are processed for consumption.
The Flowers purchased the 40-year-old Project Meats, “Retail Meat Sales and Slaughter House” in 2007. When Shane and his wife bought the business, it was solely a custom processing plant. In wanting a more understandable and universal name, they renamed the business to Ranch House Sausage Company, and in 2014, opened a small market in midtown Billings called Ranch House Meat Company.
To be true to their name, they started making sausages and bacon along with adding beef sticks and jerky to their offerings alongside their custom butchering of hogs, cattle and wild game for clients.
Growing up in Cody, Wyoming, Shane was surrounded with the ranching lifestyle with family members working in the agricultural business. When he attended college at Northwest College in Powell, he said, “I took some meat cutting courses down there, but my big passion was business, not necessarily the meat side, but I was always looking for a business to get into.” He admitted to knowing little about the meat processing business, but he and Tanya quickly learned firsthand every aspect of their company.
“I committed myself, and Tanya as well, and it didn’t matter if it meant cleaning the floors or washing knives, we did everything here. When we first started we had about eight employees here, and we decided we needed to streamline a few processes,” trimming the staff to six. At that time, when business was slow in March or April, the Flowers gave employees paid time off, but times have changed.
“We always have something to do,” Shane said. Whether they are custom processing, butchering after fairs or getting product ready for the holiday seasons, they are always busy. With business taking on a rapid growth, Ranch House Sausage Company now only accepts wild game that has been cleaned whereas in years past, they took in whole animals brought in by hunters.
During a year, Shane estimated they process “on the average, a beef is about 1400 pounds live, 800 pounds hanging weight, so you’re talking about 800,000, 900,000 pounds of beef”.
The main spaces in the plant include the harvest room and the main production room. Next to the production room is a large cold room where carcass halves hang before they are broken into smaller portions. In the main production room, two grinders, a saw and packaging equipment are housed.
Bacon is one the popular products the company sells. They offer fourteen different flavors ranging from garlic pepper and honey maple to jalapeño and cinnamon apple. Shane said, “We have something for everybody, but everyone looks for lean, and fat is actually what carries the flavor of bacon.” To establish the selection, Tanya said, “We have a little support group that likes to come and give us their ideas.”
The Flowers have brought in equipment to help accelerate and facilitate the processing of their meats. A vacuum tumbler is used to is used to cure bacon and hams processed at the facility. The tumbler accelerates the process. Shane said, “We can cure bacon in about two hours and hams in four hours whereas it used to be weeks to cure that kind of stuff.”
After curing, the meats can be smoked or injected with flavor. The Flowers have a machine about the size of a large oven with a conveyor belt and a dozen hypodermic needles. Meats can be injected with flavoring rather than sitting in a marinade for days.
With three smokehouses, Shane shared, “We can do thousands of pounds of product in a day. We’ve got some product that is smoked-cooked in four hours. There are products that take twelve to fourteen hours to take through the whole process.” Two of the smokers look like large steel refrigerators. The largest one is reminiscent of a small closet that could hold six adults standing side by side. The machinery is programmable for consistency and customization.
Wood chips, about the size of sawdust, dominated with hickory wood, burn in a hopper, with the smoke flowing through a hose into the smoking chamber.
The piece of equipment that Shane may be most proud of is the bacon slicer. The machine takes thirty seconds to slice a side of bacon, making it faster than any human could accomplish the job.
To facilitate sausage making, Ranch House Sausage Company dedicates a single room. “We built this room several years ago and brought in some pretty top-end equipment from manufacturers to process as quickly and effectively as we can,” Shane said. “Everything is measured down to the hundredth of a pound, as far as seasonings and all those kind of things. With this type of technology, the consumer also knows exactly what goes into their product.”
On this day, two men inserted ground meat into casings. Once the sausages are put on trays, they go into the smoker. Cellulose and collagen casings are used to provide more uniform results. “These guys can make about 200 pounds in 45 minutes, filling the smoke house, rotating the smoke houses a couple times during the day.”
Ranch House Sausage Company also makes jerky and snack sticks. “We do more snack sticks than any other product, hands down. Snack sticks are about 75% of the smoked product that come from this facility.”
While the facility off of Highway 312 has 1200 square feet of retail space, the Flowers opened the larger and more convenient Ranch House Meat Company in 2014. The couple worked with a realtor and did a market study, concluding that the mid-town location, situated near two grocery, stores was a strategic spot.
“We wanted to bring the country into town so we have a lot of wood things in here, a lot of bucket lights.” The space is reminiscent of a ranch house filled coziness and playful displays, with product organized by type, such as pork and beef. The highlight of the store may be in the back where boldly labeled “Baconapolis” reigns with three coolers dedicated to fourteen flavors of thick cut bacon. Then fresh cuts are located in a cooler named “Carnivore’s Cuts.”
Next to the meats, Tanya has placed items such as seasoning, sauces and pasta to be cooked with the meat. “We have things that compliment the meats. We have marinara sauce near our hot Italian sausage, if you are making spaghetti.”
Meat is sold in packages precut and prepackaged. In the near future, Tanya hopes to bring in a saw so that their product can be custom cut for the client.
Her goal at Ranch House Meat Company is she said, “Make it simple” for her customers.