Technology revolutionizes the Burgers’ Smokehouse ham business
When E.M. Burger and his family cured 1,000 hams to sell in the fall of 1952, most of the neighboring Moniteau County farmers thought he was crazy. How would he ever find enough buyers for the country-cured ham? Turns out Burger’s neighbors were wrong. His biggest problem was keeping up with the demand for his salty delicacy.
Imagine what those neighbors would think today, with Burgers’ Smokehouse’s orders exceeding 500,000 hams and tens of thousands of pounds of bacon, sausage and specialty meats each year.
“Chances are they wouldn’t recognize much about the process we go through to process our meats today,” said Philip Burger, vice president of Burgers’ Smokehouse. He is part of the third generation of Burgers who now run the business.
Although the company is built on an age-old tradition of curing and smoking meat with salt, sugar and pepper – specifically a recipe that E.M. Burger’s grandmother brought with her when she immigrated to the United States from Germany – today it is a cutting-edge food manufacturer.
“Our operation is automated and high-tech. We utilize some of the most innovative food-processing technology available, and we are working all the time to stay ahead of market changes and demands,” Burger said.
Today 250 technicians work inside the 300,000-square-foot facility using the latest in food-processing equipment. Even slicing the meat is high-tech. Water-jet slicers cutting with 50,000 pounds of pressure per square inch trim and size ham steaks. These steaks go through a video monitor to check height, weight and density and identify slices that fall out of specification. This enables Burgers’ Smokehouse to slice more than 10,000 pounds of ham steak in a day, with consistency and speed.
And the company keeps growing, so a 35,000-square-foot facility will be built this spring to enable increased capacity.
“Another thing that people may not realize about Burgers’ is our innovations in food safety,” Burger said. “We lead our industry in our quality control procedures, and we have our own quality control department that tests every product.”
In fact, one of Burgers’ Smokehouse’s biggest investments has been in increased food-safety measures.
“Two years ago we invested $2 million in a high-pressure pasteurization technology that guarantees every package that leaves this plant meets the highest safety standards. We are one in only 80 food manufacturers in the world to have this technology,” Burger said.
To keep up with ever-changing tastes, Burgers’ Smokehouse will add an Innovation Center within the next 24 months. The center will house a kitchen with both commercial and residential appliances for taste testing and product development.
In the 1950s E.M. Burger relied on word-of-mouth to market his hams. Today mail-order and internet sales account for one-third of sales. Burgers’ is the mail-order leader in cured and smoked meats.
Food service makes up another third of Burgers’ business. Many national restaurants such as Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House serve Burgers’-branded products on their menus.
The remaining third of the company’s business comes from private-label products produced by Burgers’ Smokehouse for third parties.
Over the years, Burgers’ Smokehouse has garnered a strong following that includes world leaders and movie stars. President Dwight Eisenhower was a consistent customer. Johnny Carson often ordered Burgers’ hams. Country music performer Hank Williams Jr. still personally calls in his order for a Burgers’ Smokehouse ham each year before Christmas.
Burgers’ Smokehouse remains a family affair. The operation is still located on the picturesque family farmstead where it was founded, perched on a bluff overlooking Moreau Creek, 3 miles south of California, Missouri.
Burger enjoys telling the story of his Aunt Margaret, the last of the first generation to work at Burgers’. She lived to be 104, and up until the last months of her life she would open, sort and date-stamp the company mail.
E.M. Burger died in 1972. His son, Morris, led the business until the 1990s when the third generation – Philip Burger, Steven Burger, Chris Mouse, Keith Fletcher and Ted Rohrbach – took over the company’s day-to-day management. Morris still often comes into the business.