If you blink, you might drive right past Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams. The small building is set back off of Highway 411 in Madisonville, but once you find it, there’s an ample parking lot that always seems to be full of customers, both locals and visitors alike.
When we visited this storied Tennessee business, we got a first-hand look at how the iconic brand got its start, why they’ve never advertised and learned some valuable advice from Allan Benton on what it takes to create a successful business.
To understand Allan Benton’s philosophies, it’s important to realize how he got involved with the company in the first place and the path from a backyard smokehouse to where he is today. His products can be found on some of the most influential chef’s menus across the country, but that didn’t happen right away. It took Benton decades to reach this level of success.
Lesson No.1: Recognize a good opportunity and take a leap
Benton is quick to tell you that he didn’t start this business. He credits that to a man named Albert Hicks, who was a Monroe County dairy farmer in the late 1940s. Legend has it Hicks and his wife were entertaining a relative from the North to whom they served country hams. When this relative was ready to leave, he asked about the kind of meat they had been eating, and because he liked it so much, asked whether he could buy 100 hams to take home. Hicks told him it was simply meat from his smokehouse, but that Hicks would be happy to oblige next year, after he could secure enough meat from local farmers.
As in most small towns, word of mouth regarding Hicks’ hams spread quickly and people began knocking on his door asking if he’d sell them some. Albert thought there might be something to this and began curing hundreds of hams in a building behind his house. Albert ran this business, essentially out of his home, off a long winding driveway that you had to know about to get to, until 1973.
Here’s where Allan Benton gets involved. Benton had just completed a master’s degree in psychology at MTSU and was working as a guidance counselor at a local high school in Madisonville when he realized that he would not be able to make the kind of living he had envisioned for himself and his family and decided to quit. He says he was out the door in 15 minutes.
Benton had heard through the grapevine that Hicks had quit the ham business a few months earlier and the wheels started turning. Benton’s family grew up butchering their own hogs and making country ham, bacon and sausage. With his background, Benton thought to himself, ‘this can’t be rocket science.’ Benton seized upon Hicks’ solid customer base and took over the business in 1973, still operating in Hicks’ backyard.
Lesson No. 2: A good product speaks for itself
Because Hicks’ had such a robust client-base, Benton didn’t have to do any advertising. Forty-one years later, Benton still hasn’t advertised. Anywhere. And this is a big point of pride for him. One of his primary business philosophies is quality is king. Benton believes that if you make it good enough, the dollars will take care of themselves. In fact, Benton says he would choose to produce a quality product over making a lot of money any day and has intentionally held his business back and not grown in some ways to keep the focus on quality products.
But Benton is the first person to tell you that none of this was easy, especially the not advertising part. In fact, he admits to barely making ends meet for quite some time, frustrated that his hams weren’t selling the way he knew that they could.
Lesson No. 3: Reimagine your own product
Sometimes, your product isn’t what you think it is. For Benton, that lightning bolt struck him in the late ‘80s. He had been thinking about his product purely as cured hams, bacon and sausages. Benton says he finally figured out that his product was similar to European prosciutto or Serrano and he began thinking of his meat in a different way. Benton realized he needed to start marketing to high-end restaurants.
Lesson No. 4: Embrace a change
Once he began thinking of his product in a new light, Benton says his true big break came in 1989. At the time, his wholesale market was mostly the tourist area of the Great Smoky Mountains and Benton’s business was struggling.
It was at that point that Benton got a call from Blackberry Farm. At the time, Benton had no idea who they were. He thought it was just another small restaurant asking about his product. Of course, Blackberry Farm is one of the finest establishments in the world, home to famous chefs, drawing visitors from far and wide.
During this time, John Fleer was the chef at Blackberry Farm. Fleer had previously served as Mary Tyler Moore’s personal chef out of culinary school and was looking to showcase local products in his cuisine. Fleer called Benton and told him he wanted to develop a menu at Blackberry Farm around Benton’s products. Fleer asked Benton if he was okay with him using his name on the menu.
Benton remembers he was so flustered that he said sure, but had no idea what Fleer was doing or how this would ultimately catapult his product onto plates nation-wide.
Fleer shared Benton’s products over the years with great chefs from around the country who would go back to their respective cities and restaurants and then Benton’s phone would ring off the hook with orders.
The first big restaurant Benton sold his products to was Craft in New York City, run by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio (now of Top Chef fame). Again, Benton had no idea what Craft was and had never heard of Tom Colicchio, but he dove right in and hasn’t looked back since.
Lesson No. 5: Believe in yourself
Benton says he knew he had a quality product and that his methods were on point. To this day, he sometimes gets calls from chefs who ask him to make it a little less smoky or cure it a little differently and Benton doesn’t back down.
Benton has cured his hams the same exact way for 41 years and says he won’t be changing his methods any time soon. It’s a simple recipe of brown sugar, salt and pepper, plus a lot of patience to let the hams cure the appropriate time to acquire their signature smoky flavor. Sometimes, his hams cure for up to two years!
Lesson No. 6: It’s a team effort
The hallways at Benton’s facility are stacked with boxes that have shipping labels going to all 50 states and some of the best chefs in the country. Benton says it still blows his mind to sit down at a fine-dining restaurant in New York City and see “Benton’s Bacon” listed as an ingredient. Despite national recognition, Benton says his greatest pride in all of this is selling to Tennessee restaurants and working with great local chefs.
But just as he credits Albert Hicks with starting things out, Benton credits his staff and the Tennessee workforce with keeping the business running smoothly. While he talks the talk, Benton says his dedicated employees are walking the walk. Thanks to Benton’s dedication, they’ve bought into the philosophy and are helping produce great products that continue to put Benton on the map.
The next chapter
Benton loves spending time with his children and grandchildren, but continues to dedicate himself to the business. He says he has no plans of stepping down anytime soon, but hinted that there is a plan for secession once he decides it’s time to leave the ham business to someone else.
You can learn more about Benton’s Smoky Country Hams by visiting their website.