This is deer-hunting season in Central Kentucky, and that means hunters are packing their ammo — and possibly some beer — and heading into the woods. And because hunger can creep up on a person while waiting for the perfect shot, they're also packing packages of Central Kentucky's own Mingua Beef Jerky.
"Hunting season is a big time for us," says Holly Mackley, secretary-treasurer of the company her father launched from their Bourbon County kitchen.
It was a cold late- September day nearly 20 years ago when Ronnie Mingua came in after hours of chopping corn. Tired and hungry, he turned on the television, not imagining what he was about to see would change his life forever: master pitchman Ron Popeil, the Pocket Fisherman himself, demonstrating the ease of making beef jerky in a Ronco dehydrator.
Mingua had never eaten a piece of jerky in his life but, in the hands of Popeil, "it looked really good." The smaller Ronco model was $79.98, and he decided to go for it. He called the toll-free number on the screen, called his meat connection at Ken's New Market in Paris — and before long was drying his first sliced beef.
"Dad likes to cook," says daughter Mackley.
"It was learn to cook or starve," says Mingua, who in the early '90s was divorced, with a young daughter to feed. Mackley's childhood memories include sitting at the kitchen table with her father, bagging beef jerky. Not many people can say that.
Back then, Mingua's family farmed about 2,000 acres in corn, wheat, soybeans, tobacco and cattle. That kept him busy most months. But the winters were ideal for tinkering, and that's what he did with his beef-jerky recipe. "The key is the sauce. It took quite a while to get a balance," he says.
How much would you pay?
He gave samples to family and friends, who told him, "You could sell this stuff." Mingua bought a second Ronco. For one thing, he says, it was clear by then that the tobacco world was about to change, and he'd need to adapt.
His brothers helped him spread the word and the product. People who tried the stuff clamored for more. When Mingua decided he wanted to turn his all-natural jerky into a bona-fide business, he went to see his county extension agent, who gave him the phone number for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And that, says Mingua, is where "the wires got crossed."
"I thought the rules were that I could sell $50,000 per year out of my kitchen to stores," says Mingua. What the rules actually said was, he could sell that amount to individuals, not stores. It wasn't too long before the USDA came knocking. "They got caught," says his daughter.
"Back then, you had to go personally to Washington to get your plans and equipment approved," says Mingua. So he, his brother Ricky and a contractor friend flew to the nation's capital. It was Mingua's first time in a plane. They got the government's OK and, in June 1994, opened their first building on Bethlehem Road.
But wait, there's more jerky
Today, Mingua's beef is delivered in 10,000-pound shipments from JBS Packerland, a Wisconsin slaughterhouse. Four pallets, each loaded with 25 boxes filled with fresh, individually wrapped rounds, arrive every few days. They're unwrapped, the extra fat is trimmed, and the beef is laid on the slicer.
Next it's put in a vacuum tumbler with the sauce. The vacuum pulls the beef fibers apart, allowing the sauce inside. When the vacuum is shut off, the meat closes up and traps the marinade. Then it's onto racks and into the Enviro-Pac CHU-2000, an industrial-size oven that cooks the meat to the satisfaction of the most exacting USDA inspectors.
It was a big investment. "Everything in the restaurant business starts at $100,000," says Mingua, and the oven topped that. But just like Popeil's $79.98 dehydrator, the Enviro-Pac has paid for itself over time. Mingua says it used to take him two days to get a pound of jerky from the Ronco. Now, every 10,000-pound shipment of fresh meat turns out about 3,000 pounds of finished jerky.
People seem to be hungrier than ever for jerky. Business has quadrupled during the past three to four years, says Mackley. "We're bursting at the seams as far as capacity."
There are plans to expand into a new building in the Paris industrial park by next summer. Mackley herself got involved after having a son in 2005 and wanting to work close to home. Her husband, Curtis, is now the company vice president.
As seen on TV, it's pronounced MING-ghee
The company has slowly increased its advertising. One television ad featured the Mackleys' son instructing grown-ups on the proper pronunciation of Mingua (it's MING-ghee). They have signs in Rupp Arena and Louisville's KFC Yum Center.
"It's been a wild ride," says Mingua, who eventually bought out his brothers' stakes in the company. He does not take his good fortune for granted: He's quick to credit Jesus as his business partner — and Traditional Bank for its help in more earthly ways.
Mingua products are now distributed in neighboring states and California — and at the Beef Jerky Emporium in Oklahoma City. But its biggest fans are Kentuckians, whether at home or stationed thousands of miles away. Mackley often gets comments on the company Web site from soldiers who consider the jerky a superior "meal ready-to-eat."
One comment read: "We are closing Iraq down, and there is nothing over here ... I would like to say on behalf of the Ky. National Guard, 149th Infantry ... thank you for the best jerky in the world, and I mean the world. P.S. We miss the Bluegrass and can't wait to get back."
Sometimes, it seems, a little beef jerky can help take the edge off hunger and homesickness, too.