Visit to Benton Country Hams - Part 1
I have flown from Washington to Tennessee to meet Allan Benton, probably the most famous producer of premium country cured ham and bacon in the country. His products are used at many top restaurant across America.
A mutual friend made the introduction. But, I am a total stranger and there is no reason for this guy to spend more than 15 minutes with me. Tops. It will be a long way to go to say hello/goodbye.
We end up spending hours touring his plant, eating lunch and chatting with my new acquaintance and the steady stream of locals from all walks of life that come into the little storefront seemingly just to talk.
He tells his story very simply. “I’m just a hillbilly making country hams the way hillbillies did it for generations in Southwest Virginia where i grew up. The big deal is that everyone else has forgotten how to do it that way.”
Allan bought the business in 1973. There were lots of other companies making “country” hams. Benton’s Country Hams struggled, because while everyone else was trying to figure out how to make their hams faster and cheaper, Allan was trying to figure out how to make his better. He barely made a living. Prospects were dim.
One day, he got an order from a restaurant in New York City. Out of the blue. He decided to fill it just because it would be fun to say that he once made a sale to someone from the Big Apple. Things worked out differently. He started getting calls from other restaurants wanting to order product. He had discovered that there was a lot of people eager to buy his products. He just had to look in the right places.
Allan Benton is a smart businessman, deeply inquisitive about both the art and science of his craft and relentless in his pursuit of the goal of improving his products. If you know anyone stupid enough to think “hillbilly” is an insult, send them to Madisonville Tennessee. They will get an education worth the trip.
As a man once said, here is the rest of the story.
I did not mention that my long time friend Frank met me at the airport and drove me over to meet Allen. Frank is a local that grew up just a few miles from Madisonville. After selling his business based in Northern Virginia, he moved back home. He wanted to meet Allan too.
Frank and Allan quickly slipped into the easy conversation of two locals. High school football coaches, Boy Scout leaders, hiking in the Smokies - that kind of stuff. People came in and joined the conversation, seemingly without effort. Their only purpose seemed to be to enjoy each other’s company.
This is a community very different from any i have known. Relaxed, interested, talkative. I am not going to leave my North East roots, but would be lying to say that i was not at least a little envious of life in East Tennessee.