Feature: Kent Wenzel
“I call myself the Butcher Boy just for fun. But you don’t have to say that. Just make me look good.” -Kent Wenzel, Wenzel Lonestar Meat Company
Oh, Kent. Kent Wenzel is the first meat cutter I’ve interviewed that I already knew previously. I’d guess I met Kent about 4 or 5 years ago maybe. So, when I arrived at Wenzel Lonestar Meat Company in Hamilton, Texas, I knew I was in for a treat. (And, by “treat,” I mean endless jokes and entertainment.) Kent definitely has one of those larger-than-life personalities!
As we walk in to his shop, we are greeted by the retail and deli manager Vana. Kent is at the bank. She immediately begins to tell us all about their history, their offerings, and Kent. She offers samples of house made Jagerwurst, Jalapeno Bologna, and Smoked Gruyere cheese for which I was truly grateful! (Yes, it was only 10:30am, but girl’s stomach was quite vocally letting me know it’s empty.) As I’m trying to listen to Vana, my attention is pulled all over the place. I notice that if Kent’s personality manifested itself in physical form, this building is it. Nods to Willie Nelson, Lone Star Beer, and John Wayne hang on the walls. Old butcher knives and saws and other such tools of the trade hang alongside a bison head mount. Old Americana… Uncle Sam, Rosie The Riveter… these are just a few of the things that steal my focus. Yep. I’m officially in a beer drinkin’, old country music lovin’, good ol’ boy’s meat market.
Though I’ve got a camera stuck to my face trying to capture all this goodness, I know when Kent arrives. I don’t immediately see him, but I can hear him! Pretty much anywhere Kent is, there is a steady and constant big, booming, belly laugh. I pull the camera away from my face, and I’m greeted with a hug. We exchange the typical pleasantries and head back to an office to sit and chat.
Straight away he says, “ I’m not a butcher. I’m a meat purveyor.”
“Hmmm,” I think. “What direction do I take this?” After all, I already know what he does. But, I also know that butchers or meat cutters or meat purveyors are quite particular about their titles and what is/is not acceptable to call them. (Right, guys?) So, though I’m confused, I will respect this statement and try to draw out a little more explanation.
“What is your expertise?” I ask.
“My expertise is coming up with ideas for new products. What those new products are, I don’t know. I come up with it when I’m driving down the road. I’d come up with something, go to the kitchen, and work it up. If it works, it works. I’m a meat scientist,” he responds.
And, Kent’s right. His skills and talents likely don’t fall in the normal definition of meat cutter or butcher. But, then again, I’m finding those terms to encompass many different facets. I already know that Kent processes deer. I also know that he makes award winning, handcrafted sausages and meats as well as rubs and sauces. Wenzel Lonestar Meat Company is, in his words, “like a European deli.” But, how did he get here? Where the heck did he come from? I need to know these things. And, perhaps along the way, we will come to some sort of agreement that he is, in fact, a butcher or meat cutter in some way. Perhaps?
I thought I recalled hearing that his dad ran a meat market when he was young. So, the obvious question bursts from my lips, “Did your dad have a meat market?”
He laughs, “Not a meat market, per se, but… yes. Was he a true butcher? He was more of a meat scientist. He was into product development; he wanted things in his case that no one else had.”
He continues, “My dad was managing the Gap Food store. He’d pick me up every Saturday… I don’t know why he wouldn’t take any of those other kids. [Speaking of his brothers.] That was back in the mid 70s… I’d help with stocking shelves or deer processing… whatever the case may be.”
After that, I find out that his dad, whom he affectionately calls The Dutchman, opened his own shop in Hamilton, Texas, aptly called The Dutchman. But, then, he tells me that The Dutchman (the business, not the man – ha!) burned down in ’79 or ’80. He explains to me where the fire started, but it involves some sort of machinery (possibly a smoker?), and it gets a little too technical for me.
From there, his dad bought out another little shop outside of town and moved his business there. Kent tells me, “I went to TSTI for a year, but then I came back and helped him open the Dutchman Hidden Valley store. I helped the Dutchman during deer season. I’d do it for 10-12 hours a day. It gave me time to think. Do I want to do this? I think I could do good at it.”
After a soiree into construction, Kent decided that he would, in fact, like to do “this.” “I maxed out 5 different credit cards and went to 3 different banks to open this place in 2003. We were still putting finishing touches on the place. You could still smell polyurethane on the floor when they started bringing deer in. We couldn’t make it if we didn’t take deer that first season because of all the loans,” he says.
“I was doing all phases from sausage kitchen to retail to cleaning commodes and introducing the new business to customers. In the beginning, this was gonna be a butcher shop. I’m GOING to become a butcher,” he laughs. “Which, I never became good at. It was going to be ‘Fresh Cut Fridays.’ I’d bring in beef quarters and hang them 21-28 days. Then, I had him [The Dutchman] come in, and I’d bring in this carcass and say okay, now what do I do? It didn’t pay off. By the time I hung it that long, I had to mark it up so high to make a profit, and that didn’t work out.” He rubs his face as if reliving the stress of not quite making it. This typically jolly fella gives me a glimpse of his struggle with the simple motion of his hand across his face.
Okay, so, I’m wondering how he evolved from a failing butcher shop into a highly successful European style deli. “Well, Kent,” I say, “when did you start serving food in here?”
“Well, whenever we wasn’t making it on Fresh Cut Friday, when the numbers were not there, John Schoedel [a good friend] was telling me for 6 months… he said, “Wenzel, what you ought to do is put some tables and chairs in here, shave up that meat, and stick it on some Rye bread. That’s what you need to do.”
He continues, “I was gone to a gun show or festival, and John and my hard headed Norwegian wife must have gotten together while I was gone because there were tables & chairs in there when I got back,” he waves towards the general vicinity of the shop. “If Germans are stubborn, Norwegians are twice as stubborn.”
I stop him.
Me: Kent, did you just say, ‘my hard headed Norwegian wife?’
Me: Okay. And, I can write that?
Kent: Oh yeah.
We share a laugh. I’m guessing she’s heard that a time or two.
He continues, “We went through hard times. It was damn hard times. For two years before this, we’d go to auctions and buy stainless steel equipment: slicers, tenderizers for cheap. We had a warehouse at The Dutchman Hidden Valley store crammed with this stuff. Then, I’d have these $39 days, $59 days here, and I’d sell the equipment to put money in the bank.”
“Then, one day, I was drinking too much Jack Daniels Whiskey in that office there,” he waves his arm over his head and behind him towards his private office. “I don’t know if God was talking to me or Jack was talking to me. And, “Bite My Butt” came to mind. I was gonna bring pork into the BBQ market. Pork Butt Fridays. Around these areas, pork, at that time…” he trails off. He starts to get excited and shifts gears.
“BBQ really boomed, what, 8-10 years ago? People were thinking in terms of BBQ as beef. I was thinking about Tennessee and the Carolinas. I said, ‘you know what, we’re gonna try this pork butt’. 20-22 hours of cooking this pork butt. Wonderful, hot, juicy, & tender butts,” he looks at me sideways, and waits for me to catch what he just said. He’s proud of his humor, and we share yet another big laugh.
Here in these parts, I know ‘Bite My Butt’ Pork Butt Fridays are a big deal. He’s kind of famous for this. I know it’s one of those get-it-while-you-can sort of things. So, I ask him, “Kent, how did it get so popular?”
He responds, “I made flyers with ‘Bite My Butt’ and the pig on them. I delivered them to everyone in town. You get the town of Hamilton on board, and it will spread. I made signage to stick on the highway that said ‘Bite My Butt’. I put a big sign on Highway 281. Around 6 or 6:30 in the morning, I’d go stick out those signs every Friday, every time. And, then I’d pick them up every Friday evening.”
“About 30, 60 days come by and my mole came in and said “I need to talk to you, Wenzel. With this ‘Bite My Butt’ thing going on, the Baptist or Church of Christ women are mad at you.” He ducks his head a little lower and a little closer, and he whispers, “you know… every business has a mole, right?” I nod my head in agreement, but I totally didn’t know that.
He continues, “They’d [Baptist or Church of Christ women] sneak in and buy four or five sandwiches and leave. Austin Chronicle put in a nice plug for me. Believe it or not, people were here waiting in lines out the door. People drove in from Austin just for that pork butt sandwich.”
Something he neglects to tell me but I already know is that Forbes has actually written a little something about his ‘Bite My Butt’ campaign. That may have had something to do with it’s success, as well. You can read it for yourself HERE.
The ‘Bite My Butt’ thing is what pulled Wenzel Lonestar Meat Company out of their low. It’s obviously their thing. But, beyond that, Kent and his team process 600 – 700 deer a year. He tells me, “In some cases that’s nothing. That’s nothing compared to the heavy hitters. We’re individual processors. We cater just to your deer. We don’t bulk anything. Even if you bring in an old family sausage recipe, we’ll make it just like you want it or try our best to. We’re not gonna mix the meat.”
And, folks, I’ve heard nothing but great things about Kent’s deer processing. Even before I knew him, I knew he was the guy to go to in these parts. Now, I’m thinking, here’s my chance to get him to acknowledge that he is, in fact, a meat cutter. Nope. He still denies it. Even though he calls himself the Butcher Boy jokingly, he still won’t accept the title.
I ask him what he loves most about processing deer. And, in true Kent fashion, he answers, “I like it… well… for the same fact of meeting the people. It’s good to see the same person coming back year after year after year because that means you’re doing a good job. When people come to pick up, you may have 3 or 4 trucks out there. You’ll have the repeat customers telling the new guy, ‘he may not be the cheapest price in town but he’s the damn best one.’ I do it because I enjoy it.”
He continues, “Customer satisfaction. I’m doing something good. I thought I made a mistake with that porcelain sign that says money back guarantee,” as he waves towards the deli area. I went to an auction and decided I wasn’t gonna waste a whole day there and not buy a cotton pickin’ thing. I got to bidding on this damn sign… I had a number in my head. But, this other guy kept out bidding me. It was nothing more than a pissin’ match. Who has the bigger cajones, you know?”
“Kent, did you go over your number?” I ask.
He answers with a little irritation in his voice, “Well, hell yes I did. Why the shit did I do that? Are you kidding me? I told myself, ‘well, you’re gonna have to put it up in the shop to make it worth it.’ And, I’ve honored it a few times. I mean, if you’ve got a customer, you’ve got to listen to them.”
“I really like working with the people. I like telling them about my product, and if they’ve got any questions, they’ll come to the source. And, plus, I get to be on stage. I get to be humorous about it. I tell people about my sausage that it’s basically the equivalent of a Cracker Jack Box. You know how you get something different in each box? Well, I like to tell people, ‘you don’t know if it’s gonna be a bandaid, a fingernail, or a rat tale.’” He laughs hysterically while I just stare at him with a crinkled nose and furrowed brow. I make no effort to hide my disgust. He’s full of jokes, y’all.
So, here’s what we can deduce. This guy is definitely a jokester. He’s definitely a meat purveyor. He’s definitely good at marketing campaigns. He can definitely cook. He’s definitely an entrepreneur. But, though he calls himself ‘Butcher Boy’ as a joke, and he processes 600-700 deer per year, he still doesn’t own the title of meat cutter or butcher. I wonder why. I know that he wanted to be able to call himself a butcher. I know he respects the trade. I know this because I showed him the video of our second meat cutter, Paul Hale, breaking down that deer. And, with a mix of awe and excitement, he tells me, “He’s damn good. He knows what he’s doing. He’s an artist. I’m pretty good at it. I’m pretty quick. But, that guy… that’s a true butcher right there.”
And, part of me wonders if he won’t allow himself to call himself a butcher in seriousness because Fresh Cut Fridays didn’t quite work out. I wonder if he doesn’t call himself a butcher because he’s humble? Because he doesn’t think he has the chops to hang with the guys that are truly called butchers? I don’t know. Perhaps there’s a completely different reason. Who knows. What I do know, though, is that it’s time for lunch! Here’s hoping there’s not a Cracker Jack “prize” in my sausage!
Wenzel Lonestar Meat Company | Hamilton, TX
The Nitty Gritty
YEARS IN MEAT CUTTING: “My dad was managing the Gap Food Store in Cranfills Gap, Texas. I’d go in every Saturday… I don’t know why he wouldn’t take any of those other kids [speaking of his brothers]. That was back in the mid 70s… I’d help with stocking shelves or deer processing… whatever the case may be. That was back in about 1974ish.”
FAVORITE TOOL OF THE TRADE: 6″ Boning Knife
BATTLE SCARS: “End of my thumb and end of my fingers have been taken off. Oh yeah. Oh yeah. Duct tape it, put a glove on, let’s go. You get a little too fast… you better start paying attention.”
FAVORITE CUT OF MEAT: Beef Filet
DO YOU LIKE TO COOK? [Insert hysterical laughter followed by his effort to pretend to think] “Does a bear shit in the woods? Is the Pope Catholic? Yes, I love to cook. I LOVE to cook. It’s amazing… we live in a small town where you can’t have everything. But, Butcher Boy jumps the hurdle. You make things work with what you’ve got. You improvise. I enjoy that.”
EVER HEARD OF DAVID LETTERMAN’S “KNOW YOUR CUTS OF MEAT”? No
WHAT I LOVE MOST ABOUT KENT: His outrageous, over the top, larger than life personality!