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Enjoy Magazine

In Their Prime

06/27/2013 10:47AM ● By Enjoy Magazine
When Roger Lawson bought a smokehouse in a foreclosure sale in Santa Rosa, it was the beginning of the end of his day job. A meat cutter who worked for every major grocery store in Humboldt County, Lawson says he began smoking and curing meats as a hobby.

“I had no formal training and started out doing custom cutting and wrapping,” he says. After much experimentation, he decided to peddle his meats to shops around town.

“I managed to find a small cluster of businesses—a market here, a bagel shop there—who wanted to say they had local, hand-crafted product,” says Lawson.

A final affirmation came from the owner of the now defunct 5th & L Market in Eureka, a high-end niche grocery store, where Lawson was working at the time. “She wanted 1,500 pounds of corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day,” he remembers. “I told her I had never smoked corned beef, but she was insistent.” The store sold every last ounce in just three days.

The Humboldt Sausage Works, a retail business and processing plant, grew out of Lawson’s early successes. “When we started out, we were actually buying more of our deli meats commercially,” he says. “One by one, we went through them and re-created a healthier version in-house.”

Eventually, the business outgrew its space and Lawson looked east to Shasta County for its new home. “We actually took a poll within the company as to how far people would move,” he adds. “We wanted to be closer to Interstate 5, and Redding had what we needed.”

Along with his family, he relocated seven employees to Shasta Lake City in 2004 to a custom-built meat processing facility, closing the retail arm and renaming the business Premiere Brand Meats.

With annual sales of $15 million, today Lawson buys between 25,000 and 35,000 pounds of turkey breast a week. The plant processes mostly cured and smoked cooked meats, which it sells to distributors that place it into grocery stores and delis stretching from San Diego to Alaska and Hawaii.

“We’re in the choice markets, the stores that cater to quality product,” says Lawson. “We’re not the cheapest, but the best.” Shasta County locations include Tops Fresh and Holiday Markets, San Francisco Deli, Orchard Nutrition and Shasta College Food Services.

Unlike many deli meats, Premiere Brand meats are not emulsified. “Our philosophy is ‘less is more,’” says Lawson. “Emulsified products are cheaper but may contain animal skin in addition to meat. We don’t do any re-structured product and none of it is water-added; it’s all muscle meats.”

Although Premiere is a wholesaler, customers will occasionally direct purchase items they are having difficulty finding in the store (ham during the holidays, for example). “We have a handful of customers who have heard about us from a friend,” Lawson says. “We would really like people to go into their local grocery store and ask for our product.”

Premiere also creates rubs and seasonings made-to-order. “Last week, we had a bunch of events and were out of tri-tip seasoning,” says John Luntey, general manager of San Francisco Deli in Redding. “They mixed it up for us the same day we called, and Roger dropped it off after work.”

Luntey also uses Premiere’s meats, adding, “We compared the price and for the quality; it’s unmatched. It’s local and if we are out of something or have a special order, I can call them direct. You can’t always get product in a timely manner from a huge corporation.”

Recognizing the importance of keeping current, Lawson enjoys the creative aspects of new product development. “We’re working on a line of all-natural products now, carrying meats that are produced from animals that from birth to slaughter never had anything added,” he says. “People are becoming more educated about food and not wanting a lot of additives, which is fortunate for us.” •