March 23 • 08:59 PM

Business is smokin' hot at Almont specialty shop

Country Smoke House plans two-phase expansion project

July 08, 2009
ALMONT TWP. — Local entrepreneur Steve Francis hoped he might be onto something 18 years ago, when he opened the Country Smoke House on North Van Dyke, just south of the I-69 freeway.

He couldn't have known then that the niche market he was appealing to would grow exponentially into one of the Tri-City area's most successful businesses.

Not only is the Country Smoke House keeping its head above water in Michigan's economic abyss, it is thriving and growing.

Francis recalls how in 1988, he began the original deer-processing business as a hobby, working out of his tiny garage in the Village of Almont.

Three years later, he and wife, Sue, took a gamble and opened a new retail shop at the current location, selling gourmet meats and specialty foods. By 1998, the couple had to expand to provide needed working space and accommodate a growing customer base.

"We never thought it would grow like this," says Francis, as he discusses future plans and Sue works diligently at the computer. "It started out as just a way to make some extra cash. But it turned out there was a real need for this.

Sue and Steve Francis form the successful team that has transformed a niche market into a local business on the verge of growing even larger. photo by Tom Wearing.

"I had to talk Sue into it," he remembers. "She was an RN at Crittenton Hospital and was kind of forced into this endeavor. She's my best friend and my right arm. I don't know what I would do without her.

"Some people think it must be difficult working with your wife," Francis continues, "but I love working with her. We have our days, but there are more good ones than bad." Sue nods her head in agreement.

The couple's ability to work together is now translating into even bigger things for the business.

Francis was recently granted C-3 (commercial) zoning approval from the Almont Township Planning Commission and Township Board, allowing him to proceed with a three-phase 35,000-square-foot expansion at the site.

The first phase of the expansion involves a 2,750-square-foot addition to house coolers, office and storage space, and other operational necessities.

The second phase will include construction of an 18,000-square-foot federally-inspected meat plant; to be followed up with an expansion of the retail store to accommodate the sale of cooked and prepared meats.

While some may view the couple's success as having come quickly, Francis insists it's been hard-earned and fraught with challenges.

"It took two years dealing with MDOT (Michigan Dept. of Transportation) just to get the driveway in," says Francis. "(Rep) Jud Gilbert helped to make that happen. It's so hard to get anything done. Even in (economic) times like these, there are so many hoops to jump through. Fortunately, the current (Almont Twp.) planning commission and township board have a more pro-business approach.

"We're ready to move forward with this ASAP," Francis says. "We'd like to get started in the next couple weeks. Right now, we're trying to deal with the soil and erosion people and getting the building permits."

Francis says his ultimate goal is to sell Country Smoke House products to larger stores like Gander Mountain, Cabela's and Bass Pro.

"Once this addition goes on, we can go after the higher-end markets," he says. "We did test marketing of our products at those locations and it went well. As it is now, we can't wholesale across state lines. That's the next step."

Francis says he's not shy about marketing the business and investing in its future. That includes taking part in trade shows, advertising, creating a business logo and talking it up with customers.

Francis continues to draw attention to the business with the physical addition of the "giant cow" that stands out front; beckoning out to passersby. Two years ago he began offering outdoor barbeques for hungry customers and passing motorists. More recently, he purchased the already "conspicuous-by-its-presence," Moose Car.

"For about six months I kept seeing it (the Moose Car) on E-bay," says Francis. "I ended up offering the guy $5,000 and he agreed to ship it here."

Not everyone is crazy about the car, he admits. Not long ago he attempted to pile his children in the vehicle to go to church. The young Francis' were resistant to Dad's chosen mode of transportation.

"The kids didn't want to come along," Francis says. "I think they were a little embarrassed. But it's good marketing," noting that the car's appearance at the church drew a comment from his priest at St. John's Catholic Church in Allenton.

"It took us 20 years to build this niche market," says Francis. "Things like the cow and Moose Car attract people. "The weekend barbeques are also bringing in people that otherwise might not have stopped," he points out. "You have to promote and advertise. Otherwise people are not going to know about you and not going to walk in the door."

The couple currently employs 30 part-time and full-time workers at the Country Smoke House; a number that doubles during deer-hunting season. Francis anticipates that when the expansion is complete, as many as 20 additional employees could be added.

Indeed, the couple credits their loyal employees for having contributed to the continued success of the business.

"Some of these people have been with us from the start," Francis says. "We sell pleasantness here. Our employees are friendly, have a good time and like to be here. Our customers like and trust them.

"Our success is based on getting to know our customers," he continues. "If we don't know you when you come in, we'll introduce ourselves. You're only a stranger here once."

Honors and awards

The Country Smoke House has been the recipient of numerous industry awards for its quality products in recent years.

In the most recent round of awards presented by the Michigan Meat Association, the Almont business was honored for its snack sticks, specialty turkey, specialty buffalo jerky, specialty venison salami, and Vienna hot dogs.

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