From Daydream to Dream Job: Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Co.
When Dan Marino was 14, his family drove through Jackson, Wyoming on a summer road trip. "We came in through Togwotee Pass in the north," he remembers. "I saw the Snow King ski resort, and I tapped my mom on the shoulder and said, 'I'm moving here.' "
He never said another word about that daydream until he graduated from high school. That's when he loaded up his 1966 Mustang with everything he owned. "My mom said, 'Where on earth are you going?' I said, 'Jackson Hole,' and I never looked back," says Marino, now 53.
Making a living in a resort town wasn't simple. For years, Marino ran a power washing business, cleaning everything from log homes to commercial kitchen stove hoods. And he worked part-time cutting steaks and filleting fish at the now-shuttered Cadillac Grille, a popular restaurant on Jackson's historic town square. He met his wife, Suzanne, there. She was an owner and chef.
Then in 1997, Suzanne saw a tiny classified ad in the local newspaper. The Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Co., founded in 1947, was for sale.
"It was the perfect fit," Suzanne says of the company. It seemed to epitomize Dan's love of Jackson, the nearby Teton Mountains and the broad valleys cut by the Snake River. "He's just so passionate about this place."
They bought the business, which sold buffalo jerky as well cuts of game meat out of a small storefront and via mail order, and set out to see if they could combine business with the love of the land.
Chapter One: Where the Buffalo Roam
Turns out that the Marinos ended up loving the buffalo, not just the land they called home. The more they learned about the animals, technically the American bison, the more fascinated they grew.
Bison will go through almost any barrier, even barbed wire, and can jump a six-foot fence from a standing position. While they weigh up to 2,200 pounds, they can run up to 35 mph and are powerful swimmers. "They are spectacular to see," Dan says.
Their prowess adds a new level of meaning to the phrase "where the buffalo roam," he adds, explaining that the massive animals wander "anywhere they want to."
Most of the United States and parts of Canada were once the perfect fit for the American bison with its tall-grass prairies and ample water supply. Millions of them roamed for thousands of years from New York to Idaho and from the Yukon Territories to the Gulf of Mexico.
For the Plains Indians, the huge herds were a source of food and shelter. They ate the meat and used the hides for teepees and clothing. But instead of forcing bison to follow them -- as Europeans had done when they domesticated cattle -- Native Americans followed the herds.
The animals also helped make the Plains Indians a formidable enemy to the U.S. government and the country's plans for westward expansion. So throughout the 1800s, a campaign of extermination began, and an estimated 50 million buffalo were killed.
"They did it to put stress on the population of the Native Americans," Marino says. "Take away their food source, take away their shelter source, take away their livelihood, and you can control them."
By the early 1900s, all that remained of America's bison was a herd of an estimated 25 animals protected in the confines of Yellowstone National Park about 60 miles northwest of Jackson.
From that decimated base, the American bison began to come back in the mid- to late 20th century. Today, there are enough bison, often farm-raised, to supply firms like Jackson Hole Buffalo Co., which processes about 350 to 400 animals a year. The bison population now is in the several hundred thousands, including wild and farmed herds.
While far eclipsed by the multibillion dollar beef industry, Dan says bison is a good alternative to cattle for a number of reasons. Cattle are content standing in one spot and "buzz the grass to the ground," he says. "Bison always leave grass instead of destroying the ecosystem. They're just easier on the environment."
Chapter Two: Buffalo Jerky and the Internet
When the Marinos bought the company, the owner was running it primarily as a mail-order business. He also operated an ice-making company and a photography studio that took sepia-tinged photos of tourists dressed up in frontier gear. Dan says the man was ready to retire after running all those businesses for several decades.
The Marinos, only the third owners of the company, wanted more focus and believed they could turn the business into something bigger by sticking to selling buffalo and game meat. The previous owner, with all his other businesses, had taken that business only so far. He had shifted the operations from primarily a cold storage company, where people could store their game meat, to making jerky, elk salami and selling a few cuts of meat to locals and tourists.
But his marketing was simple and local. Paper flyers for the local meats were displayed in racks around town that also included flyers for fly-fishing on the Snake River and outfitters who would take people to the top of the 13,776-foot Grand Teton.
Marino keeps one of the flyers, returned in the mail a few years ago after being lost for at least a decade, on the wall in his cramped office. The dog-eared piece of paper is a reminder to keep thinking ahead.
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-We do sales every month now that we used to do in a year.%Instead of waiting for people to mail in the card to receive a catalog, he decided to turn the flyer itself into the catalog. So he kept the same size to fit in the racks, but added more pages filled with descriptions of what he had to sell. It didn't take long before "we had customers walking in and saying, 'I'll take this and this.' "
And then there was the Internet, which in 1997 was just taking off as an e-commerce platform. The Marinos created a website to sell their products as well as bison, elk and even wild boar sausage throughout the U.S. "We do sales every month now that we used to do in a year," he says.
But if the future hinges on one product, Marino is betting it's the jerky. That business is booming along with the popularity of diets like "Paleo" that mimic, ironically, Native American diets -- more protein, nuts, and berries. Marino's team of 10 employees used to make jerky every two weeks. Now they make it every day.
The way Marino makes jerky isn't that dissimilar from the way the Plains Indians and the trappers who followed their lead made dried meat centuries ago. He just does it inside and faster. He also adds a few extra ingredients such as white ginseng and vitamin B-12 into his Wild Times jerky, which is popular with hunters and hikers. Marino refers to it as an "energy bar in jerky form."
"The Indians cut the meat with whatever they had -- obsidian and then tools they made out of metal they scavenged or took from wagon trains -- they would drape the strips of meat over aspen or willow branches in a teepee and then smoke it to cure it," he says.
At Jackson Buffalo Meat, there are no teepees. The jerky, along with salami and sausages, is made in a 1,400-square foot-factory connected to the retail store by a heavy metal swinging door. On the other side of the door, the smell of smoking meats and salty-spicy smell of jerky seasonings takes over, as does the hand-made work that transforms bison roasts into dried meat.
For the popular "trapper jerky," the bison meat is sliced thin on an industrial slicer and laid in layers in red plastic tubs. Sylvia Vargas then expertly seasons the meat. Sylvia, who with her husband Isaias, has worked with the Marinos for more than 20 years.
The meat is then refrigerated for 24 hours and then the slices are laid on trays in a smoker that pulls moisture out, cures the meat and turns it into jerky. The result is jerky that is less chewy and tough than other commercially produced products. Bison, whether in jerky or on a grill, also is leaner, with less fat and fewer calories than other meats, including beef.
Chapter Three: Daydream to Dream Job
But the Marino's operation isn't big enough to handle growing demand. So almost two decades into owning the business, they are looking to expand. Dan would love to double his factory and his production.
Making that next dream happen will take even more skill and planning as the Marinos face what so many made in America companies have to overcome -- finding skilled labor and a reasonably priced place to expand.
Jackson remains the same tourist town it was when Dan first saw it as a teenager almost 40 years ago. But now it is even more expensive to live here and even more expensive to build a manufacturing facility. The lack of available property could mean moving the core of the business up to 35 miles away to find land to build on or place to buy.
Shifting even some production from Jackson, which is part of the company's selling point, is a tough decision for a couple that turned a daydream into a dream job. They want to start the jerky meat expansion in the next year and are considering all options, including expanding right where they are in a strip mall on the outskirts of Jackson.
Until that next step into a bigger future, Marino keeps his focus on the land he loves so much and the business that has allowed him to thrive in it. Every week brings familiar routines that remind him of just how far he has already come.
"I get in around 9 a.m. I might do deliveries and then I'll be back cutting tenderloins and rib-eyes," Dan says of a typical day. "On Saturdays, we set up the food truck and cook buffalo burgers. But then we head out north and spend the night on Jackson Lake. Then we jump up the next morning and get back to work."