Earlier this month, we had a chance to speak with Sam Edwards III, President, CEO, and Third Generation Cure-master from Edwards Smokehouse, famous for their dry-cured, hickory-smoked country ham. This fourth-generation family-owned business has been offering authentic cured meats from their Surry location since 1926 and, in this episode, Sam shares his perspective on the ways that sales and marketing have evolved and how the next generation is using digital marketing to fuel sales. We are also joined by Keith Roberts, Edwards’ own Ham Evangelist, who shares stories from the wholesale side, highlighting how the flavor and quality of their heritage breed hams has given them a national reputation with chefs. This is just the tip of the ham hock. There’s so much more to learn about Virginia ham, so make sure to tune in today!
Get to Know Keith & Sam:
Name: Keith Roberts, Resident “Hamevangelist”
Years in the food industry: 45
Favorite Food: Bacon (go figure)
Least Favorite Food: Steamed Okra
The last thing I ate and loved: 5 Spice Asian Pork Tacos w/ Pickled Veg and Sesame Slaw
Name: Samuel “Sam” W. Edwards III
Location: Surry, VA
Years in the food industry: 50
Favorite Food: Meat
Least Favorite Food: Anything super spicy
The last thing I ate and loved: Many-layered chocolate cake from Becca, a restaurant in the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach.
Key Points Mentioned in this Episode:
Find out more about Sam and Keith as they introduce themselves in a nutshell.
Sam explains how Edwards Smokehouse was affected by the pandemic from the retail and direct-to-consumer perspective.
Hear about the wholesale side of the business from Keith and the creative strategies he used.
Partnering with chefs and heritage breed producers to become the largest user of heritage breed pork in the country.
The importance of maintaining breed diversity to reduce the likelihood of disease.
More about their social media and digital marketing strategies, spearheaded by Sam’s son.
How the company has kept moving forward from generation to generation by staying flexible.
Why they keep their product line simple and consistent; you can’t be all things to all people.
How things have changed in the last 30 years, like catering to the growing popularity of home charcuterie boards.
Hear how Edwards’ Surryano ham stands up against the best from Italy and Spain.
Keith tells the story of how he came to be known as the Ham Evangelist.
Sam reflects on the positive trend in online sales and self-use purchases over gift purchases.
New products to expects in the 2021 catalog, like a ham tasting platter.
Sam and Keith’s recommendation for getting your Easter ham: order early, ship early!
Links Mentioned in this Episode:
Click Here for Full Transcript:
[00:00:01] Sam Edwards III:
What opened my eyes was tasting animals that were humanely treated from beginning to end, including at the harvest process, because they produce enzymes right at the end. If they don’t handle it correctly, that impacts the flavor profile of the fresh pork negatively, which in turn impacts the cured taste of the pork. We just jumped on board with that and became the largest user of hams in the country of that heritage breed pork.
[00:00:35] Georgiana Dearing:
Welcome to The Virginia Foodie Podcast, where we lift the lid on the craft food industry and tell the stories behind the good food, good people, and good brands that you know and love. If you’ve ever come across a yummy food brand and wondered, “How did they do that? How did they turn that recipe into a successful business?” then we’ve got some stories for you.
[00:01:02] Georgiana Dearing:
I’ve got a treat for you today, foodie fans. Earlier this month, I got a chance to speak with Sam Edwards III from Edwards Smokehouse. This fourth-generation family-owned business has been offering authentic cured meats from their Surry location since 1926. We talked about the ways sales and marketing has evolved and how the next generation is taking charge of all things digital. Keith Roberts, Edwards’ own Ham Evangelist, was with us, sharing stories from the wholesale side, highlighting how the flavor and quality of their heritage breed hams has given them a national reputation with chefs. The conversation was a delight and I feel like I learned so much, and yet, there’s so much more to learn about Virginia ham.
[00:01:57] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, hi, Keith and Sam. Welcome to the podcast.
[00:02:00] Keith Roberts:
Thanks for having us.
[00:02:01] Sam Edwards III:
Glad to be here.
[00:02:02] Georgiana Dearing:
So you’re kind of an icon in Virginia food, but for those out there listening who don’t know, could you tell me a little bit about yourselves and your business?
[00:02:11] Sam Edwards III:
I’m Sam Edwards. I’m President of S. Wallace Edwards & Sons, a third-generation country ham, bacon, and sausage company. We’re celebrating our 95th year this year. That’s kind of it in a nutshell.
[00:02:25] Keith Roberts:
Keith Roberts, wholesale sales manager. I joined up; I had the opportunity to come work with Sam. Golly! Sam, it’s going to be 11 years this April. Think about that one. But I’ve been in food service basically all my life. Started in restaurants at 14, did that for 26 years, did the distribution side for 13 and then the planets aligned about 11 years ago and certainly jumped at the opportunity to come out and work with the cure-master of the legend that is Sam Edwards III.
[00:02:55] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, 95 years is a long time, and that is kind of what puts you in icon status. But I’ve been starting all my interviews lately talking about the last year or so, from the pandemic. The food industry is taking some big hits, and I want to know, how did it play out for you and your brand?
[00:03:14] Sam Edwards III:
Well, this conversation, I’ll let Keith talk about the wholesale side, and I’ll focus a little more on the direct-to-consumer side. For us, because we’re a multichannel, we have two stores, two retail stores and direct-to-consumer side, which is the catalog and website. Because we have those channels as one, even pre-COVID, things go up and down on every channel. They don’t all go in the same direction all the time. We wish they did, but they don’t.
For us, as people began to hunker down in their own homes, the direct-to-consumer sale side was booming, thankfully. Our two stores suffered because people were staying at home. We shut down for several weeks, and then we reopened with curbside service, and then eventually, gradually opened back up because we had plexiglass and protecting the staff. But it still was a slow recovery. The store in Surry did quite well.
I think people once the weather started to turn and people just needed to get out, Surry location was kind of a day trip. They could stop and grab some sandwiches, and maybe pick up a ham, bacon, or sausage to start their pantries with or refrigerator with. The Williamsburg store, because it requires or we rely on tourism, the tourists are just not in town. It hasn’t been for a year.
[00:04:39] Georgiana Dearing:
Virginia Beach is hit that way.
[00:04:41] Sam Edwards III:
Right. All things up here like it’s going to recover this year, we hope. We’re keeping our fingers crossed. The catalog however, I mean about this time last year, was when the surge happened and we were seeing numbers of 100% to 130% up over previous year. That’s what really kind of pulled us through this time period last year. We actually, because of product demand, really kind of cut back a little bit on marketing, because we were having a struggle to keep up, which is really unusual.
[00:05:14] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah, I heard.
[00:05:16] Sam Edwards III:
But we did a lot of things that we normally do too. I mean, we kept our emails going and did some — we were doing podcasts last year too. But normally, Keith is our wholesale side that has seen significant growth since he’s been here. Of course, since COVID, we had these three-times-a-week meetings via Zoom and he was able to keep us up to speed with what’s going on on the wholesale side.
It is always this in-house conversation about how does the direct-to-consumer sales compared wholesale sales among the different sections of staff. Of course, Keith has always seen significant growth on the wholesale side, so he’s always banging the bell about, “Yeah. This week we had a 10% increase. How’s the direct-to-consumer sales doing?” Which is great, I love that inter-company competition. But poor Keith, this past year, I’ll tell you, retail sales are — restaurant sales this year, as you can imagine. I mean, all restaurants this year just was tough. It was really tough.
[00:06:22] Keith Roberts:
Yeah. The food service side definitely took a hit. As soon as early March a year ago, when the governor started putting restrictions in place and just people started hunkering down, a lot of our restaurants and distributors that we work with – you know, the world of wholesale here, it’s kind of unique. People ask me what my territory is. I say yes as long as it’s continental United States. But it’s restaurants, it’s food services, distributors, grocers, retailers, smaller specialty stores, even multigenerational customers. It’s a really interesting twist because we do have multigenerational customers. We have folks that will still swing by and pick up country hams in their pickup truck.
The flip side of that, because of some of the products that we do, we’re fortunate enough and really honored to be working with no less than 50 James Beard Award winners across the country and another hundred plus nominees. It’s a wonderful customer base to work with. It certainly keeps me on my toes. This year, with restaurants taking a hit, as with anything, you had to get creative. Where can I expand? Which markets can I switch up and go after? We were doing some larger grocery business with Wegmans and the more upscale Krogers and a few other stores. We actually saw some increase there, where grocers, at some point, when there were some production issues just on fresh pork out there. We’re not relying on the fresh pork market. We have hams that have been hanging for months in the process. It was like, we have plenty of inventory, so we’re able to kind of shift the model a little bit this past year.
We did have the home delivery customers, say like Neighborhood Harvest down here in our neck of the woods. They have recently expanded up into the Richmond market. Then 4P Foods, out of Charlottesville, part of the local food hub group out there. They saw incredible increases in their business. Fortunately, I know in the 4P Foods’ case, they went from 300 deliveries a week to almost 3,000 a week.
[00:08:29] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah, they did.
[00:08:30] Keith Roberts:
God! They were pulling their hair outright. How can I figure this out? I said, “We can help. You don’t have to worry about fresh. We can help in that.” It’s a matter of making that shift. If nothing else, 95 years, you learn to be flexible. We’ve faced a lot of adversity over 95 years. My running joke is, we just chalked this up to one more crisis management folder on the bookshelves sitting there behind saying, “We’ve got a lot of them for all the things we’ve been through.”
But what was really interesting for me was working with some of the chefs in food service industry. Those who got creative made the best of a bad situation by opening up and doing weekend pop-up farmers markets, the concept really being, opening their pantry to the public and looking at more retail pack items. Still, all focused on small local craft Virginia producers, which was really cool concept. For them to push, I think it really made the general public aware, not just aware, because I think most people know about Virginia and Virginia’s finest program. I mean, we have over 400 small craft companies here, just food companies in Virginia. Then you have the breweries and distillers, I mean, you’re pushing over 1,200. But they also got comfortable preparing that product at home. Say, “I’m here to trade pork from Autumn Olive Farm”. Say, we’re mostly direct or 85% of their business was restaurant. They were concerned, needless to say. “How can we shift?”
Then in talking to them and teaming them up with chefs to do pop-ups and getting them involved with some specialty stores and the general public realizing that, “Hey! I can cook a heritage pork chop at home. It does taste better. I don’t have to go to a restaurant and spend $35 for it.” It seemed they were always almost worry about spending the extra money at the local butcher shop to pay for the premium product, whether it’s beef, pork, poultry, whatever the case may be. They didn’t want to go shopping with 200 and 300 people at a time. They started hitting the smaller stores and realized that it really is worth the money, and I can do this at home. I think making the best of a bad situation.
We’ve been preaching heritage breed and local for years, but I think the general public has really had an opportunity to see what it’s all about, and really start taking advantage of it. It’s been challenging, no question, but general food business who has been able to get creative and stay the course, not just here at Edwards but I think food service people in general, we’re a very resilient bunch. You have to be insane to do what we do, especially in the restaurant. Again, I did it for 26 years, you have to be nuts to do it, but if you’re passionate about it, you’ll find a way.
We are all very hopeful now that things are moving forward. We’ll be able keep some of these trends going and I’m feeling pretty good about 2021 as we continue to make progress with vaccines and everything else.
[00:11:34] Georgiana Dearing:
Good! Yeah. You mentioned something in there that piques my interest. You sort of segued into talking about partnering with chefs, but also with heritage breed producers. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with them? I mean, you’re a cured meats company and you’re talking about getting some of your partners to helping them provide fresh? Let’s talk about that for a minute.
[00:12:00] Sam Edwards III:
Back in 2003, 2004, 2005, we were really looking for pork that reminded us of the pork that was preindustrial. Because the leaner generation pork that was being raised focused on in the ’90s wasn’t conducive to producing dry cured meats like we do. So I was literally on the phone trying to find farmers who raised, I called, fatter pork. I stumbled across this guy, I can’t remember if he found me or I found him. He actually is in Brooklyn, New York, but he had put together about 20 farms in the Midwest that were raising pasture-raised, certified humane, breed-specific like Berkshires, Red Wattles, Tamworths, Gloucestershire Old Spots, which are again, preindustrial breeds, all certified humane. We literally were going out there about once a year to meet with the farmers, typically in a van full of chefs, which was kind of harmful to my health.
[00:13:05] Georgiana Dearing:
That sounds like a movie.
[00:13:06] Sam Edwards III:
It was a lot of fun.
[00:13:07] Georgiana Dearing:
A van full of chefs.
[00:13:08] Sam Edwards III:
Yeah. That was a lot of fun, and it was usually in February, in Missouri, it’s cold. But anyway, but it did prove a point that — at first, it made sense to use those breeds. But what opened my eyes was, tasting animals that were humanely treated from beginning to end, including at the harvest process because they produce enzymes right at the end if they’re not handled correctly that impacts the flavor profile of the fresh pork negatively, which in turn impacts the cured taste of the pork. Long story short, they didn’t have a problem getting rid of the pork chops, and the bellies, and the trim, and things like that, but it was a struggle to get rid of the hams, because there aren’t many people that can take a whole muscle like that in large enough volume. We just kind of jumped on board with that. It became the largest user of hams in the country of that heritage breed pork.
Not only that, besides the guy in Brooklyn, but other started calling us and we became known for it. With the Surryano products, it was originally kind of folded back into the Edwards brand label. We were doing bacon, and sausage, and ham but the chefs demand for the bellies, I couldn’t compete with what they were willing to pay for the belly, so we got out of the curing bacon because the chef kept jacking the price up on the fresh bellies.
[00:14:40] Georgiana Dearing:
I am so glad I asked this question because I don’t think I didn’t really realize your history with the heritage breed. That’s just really fascinating.
[00:14:51] Keith Roberts:
That was really kind of triple fold. I mean, as Sam mentioned, bringing pork back to what it was preindustrial, basically. The quality of the hog itself back in the day, certainly to support the small farmers out there, which is huge. These are small family farmers. This is what they do for a living, competing against the big five as far as commercial hog producers out there. Most importantly, another big piece to that was the breed diversity. When you consider, this was in 2010, we had a little porcine bug flu around the states and the pork market went nuts. That’s what can happen when you’re producing umpteen million head a year. We’re maintain that diversity. So important just to the overall food chain.
[00:15:39] Georgiana Dearing:
That is an important issue in American agriculture, is to try and get that diversity back into our food supply.
[00:15:46] Keith Roberts:
That could be a whole separate podcast for us on that.
[00:15:49] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:15:51] Sam Edwards III:
I don’t think most people in this country realized that there are only four companies that control 90% of the protein in this country, of which, two of them are owned by foreign countries.
[00:16:05] Georgiana Dearing:
Okay. Tell me a little bit about that.
[00:16:07] Sam Edwards III:
That’s another podcast.
[00:16:08] Georgiana Dearing:
Okay. We could, but just quickly.
[00:16:11] Sam Edwards III:
JBS is a Brazilian company. Of course, Smithfield is a Chinese-owned company.
[00:16:15] Georgiana Dearing:
Right. I knew about Smithfield.
[00:16:16] Sam Edwards III:
Yeah. JBS is Brazilian.
[00:16:19] Georgiana Dearing:
Okay. And who are two other companies?
[00:16:21] Sam Edwards III:
Cargill and Hormel.
[00:16:23] Georgiana Dearing:
Yeah. Okay. That’s another whole podcast. I’m going to put a pin in that and I’m going to come back to that story. But wow, that’s really crazy.
[00:16:30] Sam Edwards III:
I don’t want to get off subject of your next thought there but, before I forget about it, because I know you wanted to talk about how we communicate with our customers and use social media and things like that. Well, we’ve been fortunate. First of all, before my son came back in the business who has the same name as me, but he goes by Sammy. His background from JMU was Science, Media Arts, and Design, which was about websites and social media, so that was kind of his cup of tea to begin with.
We were using outside firms to help us with the website. Our first website was in the mid to late 90s, and I can remember, the people we were using with direct-to-consumer sales, which is mostly catalog at that time, were going, “Oh! This is just a flash in the pan. You’re wasting your money focusing on a website.”
[00:17:22] Georgiana Dearing:
Oh my goodness!
[00:17:24] Sam Edwards III:
About 2000 or maybe 1999, we kind of convinced them that maybe this is something that was going to stick. Anyway, by the time Sammy got here in 2008, 2009, I think it was – you really have to be tech savvy to understand, and I don’t, all the different facets of how to stay in touch. You had to be light on your feet. Even the outside firms that we were reusing, they don’t give you that attention sometimes that you can have as an individual company. But using a blog, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, a newsletter, email that we were using, Twitter, we also use a PR firm.
I think Sammy will tell you the product that you have, that you’re solving a problem. Not a problem in our case, but hopefully you have a product that everybody wants, and then you’re able to get that word out and be light on your feet when an opportunity pops up, like for instance, Good Food Awards, which expounds on our connection with the Heritage Foods movement. And the fact that we’ve won, how many times, Keith?
[00:18:34] Keith Roberts:
Five times out of the 11 years. We didn’t make it this year with the new Iberica product that we’ve — our Surryano ham has brought five back out of the first 10 years they run the event.
[00:18:46] Sam Edwards III:
Whenever we win an award, a chef might mention this on their menu or just things like that to be able to take advantage of that little bit of news. Sometimes it’s big news. You can’t let it slip by and not toot your own horn a little bit.
[00:19:03] Keith Roberts:
I think one thing also that Sammy has definitely brought this to light as far as which avenue works best, which platforms works best for which customer base. Where I’ll say, Facebook, Twitter, those tend to lean a little bit more towards our B2C, direct-to-consumer customers, where we saw a shift over really the last three or four years. Where more food service, chef-oriented have made that more of a shift away from Facebook and Twitter, and there’s a lot more action on Instagram on the chef side of things. Whether it’s the quality of the picture, or video content, or whatever the case, but chefs have kind of lean that way.
While any of our platforms, any post that goes out, Sammy will actually kind of clean it up one way or the other, depending on which platform or when he’s creating a post or anything along those lines. We try and make it if it’s Instagram, perhaps a bit more chef and foodie centric versus direct-to-consumer. Who’s going to be on Facebook versus who’s going to be on Instagram, Twitter, whatever the case may be.
[00:20:20] Georgiana Dearing:
That is so true.
[00:20:22] Sam Edwards III:
He’s been very complementary of what you’re doing in Virginia Foodie, because he said, you’ve got a direct-to-consumer side and also a side that’s geared toward manufacturers to help the community, so to speak, of both sides of the food world in Virginia and Virginia food-centric, which is a big, big plus.
[00:20:45] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, thank you for that. You mentioned a couple of things that I talk about all the time and one of them is that bringing things in house. We have served as an outside source and continue to do that for some brands. The trick is, to have good content, you have to have a really integrated relationship with the internal workings of the business that you are supporting. Because it’s like being the receptionist, like people will ask questions, and if you cannot give them responses or reply that are kind of timely and in sync with the business you’re supporting, that’s kind of hard to do.
A lot of things we will say is, we can get this started, but ideally, you want to grow to the point where someone can manage it in house, how great that you have Sammy coming in and doing it? The other part is that, I have kind of been watching you be your own test market. I have seen how your emails have evolved and shifted a little bit, try one thing and see if it’s bringing you the kind of business you need, and then adapt it, really, to the audience you’re talking to. Actually, that’s kind of the key why I was having you on here, is that you’ve got all the pieces that some of the brands we work with aspire to.
I’m curious a little bit about the business side of things. I mean, I guess having Sammy be family, that made some of these conversations a little bit easier, but it is a bold move.
[00:22:16] Sam Edwards III:
Oh! I don’t know about that. Keith has been on the sidelines watching these conversations.
[00:22:24] Keith Roberts:
I was actually doing a podcast at Williamsburg Winery a year and a half, two years ago and we were chatting. Mike Kimball, he tried to bring that, “Well, how about working for a family business?” He tried to get me to fall in that trap about 18 times. I’m like, “Not going to do it, man. Not going to do it.” Again, before generations, certainly — I mean, Sam has shared some stories with me. He’s not going to share any here, but there are always generational differences.
[00:22:48] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:22:49] Keith Roberts:
But I think it goes back to how have we stayed around for 95 years? It’s that, we stick to the traditions, recipes, methods, and really family values. This is from an outsider’s view, since my last name is Roberts, not Edwards. To really see how it’s grown from generation to generation, you do have to be flexible, you do have to switch with the market, you do have to reassess the company, not just every generation, but multiple times throughout each generation. How can we continue to move forward? How do we stay consistent one with the product, one with maintaining our values, but also stay flexible with the market? Some of it goes to something that was just brought up, staying light on your feet.
Part of that is, people have a very short attention span today, and that’s where the Q&A, the cured meat Q&A, we did that maybe about four or five months. Previous to that, there was a weekly blog that we did for, again, about four or five months. But after a while, you see the trend where it’s like, “Interest. Interest. Yeah, it’s kind of cool,” and then it starts trailing down. Okay. Now what do we — That’s where Sammy has really been by being in touch with the markets and what is working out there in the electronic world, whether it’s social media or just communication in general. What can we do to kind of spike that interest and bring it back into the fold and keep the company message going out there?
[00:24:18] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, you talked about four generations. There are whole industries built around transition and how to move a business from one generation to the next or out of the family. At some point the thread dies. It’s exciting to see that you got four generations who are interested. But Keith, you mentioned something about being light on your feet and I’m going to flip this back around to talking about your product, because I’m curious, what have you seen change recently? You talked about changes in retail and wholesale. Has portion or cut sizes, has that changed because the market has changed?
[00:24:56] Keith Roberts:
We’ve always tried to stay pretty consistent with our product line. If we see a need, when you figure, when we’re done curing a ham, you’re looking at this whole, uncooked, bone-in country ham, you don’t necessarily want to say, “How many ways can I cut that to take it to market?” I will say, when I first joined and came on the team from a wholesale side, we probably had over — well, I know we had over 175 SKUs in the wholesale side. That just happened over time and I think various people in my position before were trying to be all things to all people, which – you will never be successful in business doing that. You just can’t do it. You end up with old inventory. They don’t live up to their commitments.
One of the first things I did in the first year was, whittle that down. Then we suffered the fire in 2016, and again, we had to look at — I looked at, “Okay. What do we do best for my food service and retail customers, including our ham shops and keeping that into the play?” The website, we were able to expand a little bit, but for a wholesale, just from limited storage and everything else that we were dealing with, what do we do best for food service and retail and limit it down?
Right now, I’m down to maybe 28 items, but we’re super comfortable with the quality of every single one that we do. I would love to expand a little bit more with say three or four more items, but keep it simple, keep it to my core items that I know that work. Certainly, if a big enough customer comes along, the board wants to do something special and a solid commitment, absolutely. We’re certainly happy to do that.
[00:26:39] Georgiana Dearing:
You are really focused on your market, that’s – and probably is making a lot more sense on the business side of things. 100 SKUs is a lot to keep track.
[00:26:48] Keith Roberts:
It’s a lot of SKUs, but it does go back to it. I think if any business out there — I mean, you just can’t be all things to all people. You can try, but —
[00:26:57] Sam Edwards III:
That 128 SKUs are literally remnants of when we used to slaughter back in the 60s. So you had to get rid of every part of the pig, so we just kept on making those products, which typically, we took fresh pork and we cured it, every part of the pig. Then when we stopped slaughtering, we just went by the parts and still continue curing them, because our customers expect, especially the stores, and we were selling crossroad country stores basically. I think the largest chain of stores that we sold at the time was Ukrops, up until 10 or 12 years ago.
[00:27:38] Keith Roberts:
Yeah, brilliant until they sold. Even there, we were doing a special country ham just for — we actually call it the John Sharp Ham, because John Sharp was the buyer. We were like, “What are we going to call it?” “Well, we’ll call it” — I still deal with John. He actually does some work for Libbie Market up in Richmond now on the cheese and charcuterie side. He and I chat every now and again. The first time he called, he said, “John Sharp,” and I was like, “Okay. Wait a minute” and then it clicked. “Oh my God! Yeah.”
[00:28:05] Georgiana Dearing:
We have a ham for you, sir.
[00:28:07] Sam Edwards III:
Yeah. But talking about how things have changed over the last 30 years. Certainly, Keith was talking about the whole country ham. Thirty years ago, 75% of the ham were sold were whole raw country hams and it became more and more. Now, it’s 98% of the ham we sell are cooked. It may be cooked and deboned. It may be cooked, deboned, and sliced. It’s becoming more and more convenient oriented.
People don’t need to buy 10 pounds of ham at a time, except maybe at Christmas. Even then, we’ve produced a petite ham that’s two to three pounds that seems to fit the lifestyle of what people are interested in now. People say, “Well, isn’t that cutting your sales?” No, because it appeals to more people. We’re selling more product just in a different format. Same way with the slices, where in the off season, we sell more tonnage because a one-pound package, you just grab and go. Which, in the case of COVID, made more sense too, because people didn’t — the deli struggled under COVID. They didn’t want to slice and hand touch anything, so we had a pre-packaged item ready to go. Same way with the Surryano, it was pre-sliced Surryano ham, it made sense for delis.
[00:29:29] Keith Roberts:
Yeah. And we went back, I was just going to say on the Surryano, we went from a whole bone and short shank. We had the whole bone in, hoof on for chefs that want to carve off the stand. We did a whole boneless, we have the pre-sliced and, actually, I guess three or four months ago, three and a half months ago, we just introduced what we called the Surryano wedge, which is a 0.75 to 1.25 pound center cut chunk for people who don’t want to work with a whole 10-pound boneless or don’t want to — I mean, sure, they could get a stand and it could sit in their kitchen. I go against the best from Spain and Italy with that one and it drives them crazy at the fancy food show floor every time. But the wedge itself and that smaller portion, because a great quality ham like the Surryano is always better when you’re slicing it right before you eat it. The slices do great and it’s also kind of fun to have about a one-pound chunk on your home charcuterie board or for retailers to offer something unique.
[00:30:27] Georgiana Dearing:
I was just going to say, that trend in charcuterie boards.
[00:30:30] Keith Roberts:
When I saw charcuterie wreaths this Christmas, I was like, “Oh my gosh! Come on now!” When Fisher Price came out with a charcuterie board as toy for kids, I knew we were in trouble. But I think that has been a cool trend, and that’s really kind of grown over the last six, seven years. I mean, getting into the craft of charcuterie, and again, the general public certainly comfortable with it in restaurants.
There’s a place down in Virginia Beach that started during COVID. It’s a business and she kind of kicked it off. It was one of those food services guys that got creative, and it’s like Boards to Go, I think is the name. I don’t know if that’s it, but she actually builds charcuterie boards and delivers them to your home.
[00:31:14] Georgiana Dearing:
There you go, there’s some creativity.
[00:31:16] Keith Roberts:
We actually did a Q&A, a cured meat Q&A on what makes a good charcuterie board. That’s been really neat as well to see that trend over the last several years. Because for years, so many consumers in this country just thought, “Well, it’s got to be prosciutto,” or “It’s got to be Serrano from Spain.” The reality is, there are some amazing charcuteries being made right here in the country. Our flagship, of course, being the Surryano, the 18-month aged, heritage breed, phenomenal product. But to be able to educate people on that, and I think that’s really been — it kind of goes back to everything we’re talking about.
We really started focusing on the education side of a better product. Not just the history and heritage of Edwards, but also the history and heritage of the breeds that we use. Why it’s important, how the breed of the hog, the feed of the hog, how they’re raised, how they’re slaughtered, the [inaudible 00:32:19], the age, the cure method all has that direct impact on the finish flavor profile.
[00:32:25] Georgiana Dearing:
That story is so important.
[00:32:27] Keith Roberts:
It is. We actually did a series of tastings we did. I guess it was 2015, we did one up in Brooklyn with Heritage Foods, with our heritage meat guy. We did one in San Francisco and one up in Napa, and we invited — by the tail end, it was 100 chefs, food writers, charcuterie guys that we respect and respect what we do. We looked at 17 dry cured long-aged hams from around the world. We had four from Spain, basic jamón. Then we had a nice Jamon Serrano and then two Ibérico, one Ibérico [inaudible 00:33:01] acorn. Four from Italy, one from Tuscan, prosciutto, which really didn’t mean anything. But then we had two from Parma. Then the balance of the 17 were domestic.
We asked everybody to just write down their flavor notes. It’s like, it isn’t about who’s better, who’s worst.
[00:33:21] Sam Edwards III:
Blind taste test.
[00:33:21] Keith Roberts:
[00:33:22] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:33:24] Keith Roberts:
Because everybody’s going to have their favorite, but we just wanted their flavor notes. We actually created a ham flavor wheel. Again, based on breed, feed, cure method, age, [inaudible 00:33:33], the whole bit. It’s really kind of interesting to see where say our Wigwam ham, our nine-month aged Wigwam ham, was kind of in line with those younger prosciuts or Serranos coming out of Spain. The Surryano, we actually had a limited release peanut fed vintage that year on the Surryano as well. But how the Surryano and the peanut fed was right there in line flavor profile wise, blind tasting, with the best prosciut and Serranos coming out of Spain.
[00:34:01] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:34:03] Keith Roberts:
hat’s another podcast. Because some of that is —
[00:34:05] Georgiana Dearing:
It is there’s so much to talk about and someone called you the Ham Evangelist and I thought —
[00:34:13] Keith Roberts:
Yeah, Janine Latus from Distinction magazine came out to chat with us probably about seven years ago. She and Sam had a great conversation and then she listened to me pride along, and the next thing I know, Ham Evangelist shows up in there. It’s kind of stuck. It’s like my own official hashtag of when I’m working events or anything, ham, bacon, sausage, or anything. That’s my hashtag out there on Facebook and Insta and the whole nine yards.
[00:34:42] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:34:43] Keith Roberts:
Ham geek is another great word for it.
[00:34:46] Georgiana Dearing:
Ham geek, yeah. Well, I have one question for Sam, and I’m making a guess, but because you talked about your catalog and your first website, and that’s your direct-to-consumer sales online, I want to know, have you seen a shift? Like in my mind, specialty food sales online for a long time were sort of in that gift category of the Harry and David’s behavior, where you looked for something special and you bought it online. Now, I’m imagining that it’s more every day. Is that true or am I making that up?
[00:35:20] Sam Edwards III:
Well, I think in our case, we certainly have self-use purchases, no question about it. I mean, that’s January through, really, November until Thanksgiving. I mean, we still do 65% to 70% of our business between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s just unavoidable. But there’s plenty of people that are — it’s just week in and week out or month in and month out purchases, repeat buyers that are buying for self-use. We came out with a provision pack that has 25 pounds of bacon and sausage packages and ham packages that has done actually quite well, better than I thought. I think we sold it for like 299 bucks. Just a variety pack that people, during the COVID outbreak, they started buying because it was enough to get them through a quarter.
[00:36:19] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:36:20] Sam Edwards III:
For big buyers of bacon, sausage, and ham. We just kind of did it in a whim. I think we set a side like 100 units, and like within a month, they sold out. I went, “Wait!” I wasn’t paying attention to it. Next thing I know, we were out and it was too late in the season to restock and we just now got back in stock on it.
[00:36:41] Keith Roberts:
That almost started, we were just kind of joking around one day and Sammy said something, “We need to do this huge pack” and then of course, “What do we call it?” We figured, “Well, we can’t call it the pandemic pack.” That was actually an option at one point. “No, we have to come up with something.”
[00:36:57] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:36:59] Keith Roberts:
That’s where we you know, “What do we call this one?” That really was, and I mean again, I think —
[00:37:04] Sam Edwards III:
But the point was, it was considered something that’s not a gift that you’re going to give somebody, but a self-use thing. Now, this year we’re doing one more item like that, just a variety pack of all the different kinds of ham, kind of a ham collection. Actually, for a ham tasting of four-month, six-month, year-old, and twenty-four-month-old hams, and the city ham, which is a mild and sweet ham, so you could do a tasting between the four different hams that we make.
[00:37:37] Georgiana Dearing:
I’m interested in that. That’s an exciting product. That’s kind of cool. What else? Is there anything else cool coming in 2021?
[00:37:44] Sam Edwards III:
For the catalog, that’s the new thing. Then, because we’ve been slow to introduce the Iberico Surryano version because of the supply of the Iberico is so narrow, it’s so limited to us, but it has potential. That’s all I could tell you. But the supply of that product is, the fresh product is so, so narrow. I think we’re going to have problems getting enough fresh pork from that breed. They’re raised in Texas and the way they’re free ranged and they forage for acorns, prickly pear —
[00:38:21] Keith Roberts:
And sweet mesquite beans.
[00:38:23] Sam Edwards III:
Yeah, sweet mesquite.
[00:38:23] Georgiana Dearing:
[00:38:25] Keith Roberts:
Brings a really amazing flavor profile. The Iberian hog versus for the Surryano, we use mostly Berk. But you put them side by said, and there’s a difference in the fresh pork, there’s a difference in the marbling. Certainly, the feed comes back into play and that’s been kind of fun to our role out. We started with a whole hoof on and a whole boneless, and we’re looking at doing a two-ounce pack of slices. Probably, a couple of months before we released those, but again, it comes down to availability and access to the breed itself. It does crack me up, because the guy calls himself a hog rancher since he’s in Texas. We keep telling him, “Dude, you’re a hog farmer.”
[00:39:08] Sam Edwards III:
Pig farmer. He takes offense to that.
[00:39:10] Georgiana Dearing:
He’s a hog rancher. Well, we’re going to air this in March, which is right before Easter ham season. Is there any recommendations you have for anybody listening?
[00:39:23] Sam Edwards III:
Order early, ship early.
[00:39:25] Georgiana Dearing:
Order early, ship early.
[00:39:26] Sam Edwards III:
Not just because the supply, but UPS, Federal Express and the postal service is still inundated it seems to be with just freight. They’re struggling. And whether it’s still having an impact and may be still — Easter’s early this year, so we would rather get the order early and ship it probably a week earlier than you’d like. But this past Christmas, I’m glad there was a lot of people that took our suggestion for the catalog and it paid off because there were some that just like, “I always order my ham December the 10th", and literally by the, I want to say 10th or 12th, we were out of a lot of things, or UPS was taking longer than two weeks to get to wherever they were by ground, and even the air packages were taken to the air were taking four or five days and so on.
[00:40:21] Georgiana Dearing:
Well, you’re singing the songs of the pandemic in 2020. Unit count in shipping. That like has been a crazy, crazy ride for the food industry.
[00:40:32] Keith Roberts:
The one good thing, as long as it’s not one of our spiral hams, and even our spiral hams have a great shelf life. But when you’re looking at cured meats, get a whole uncooked bone-in ham at July, hang it in your garage, it’s going to be amazing come Christmas time.
[00:40:46] Georgiana Dearing:
There you go. Order way early.
[00:40:49] Sam Edwards III:
Right. And the stores, I mean, even the stores, they need to place their orders now. I mean, because Easter is here.
[00:40:57] Keith Roberts:
Yeah. Actually, I have a number of Easter orders that will be going out actually in the next two weeks, so they can get it out to their shelves in time, ready to go for their customer base and they need to set up time. That’s the trick about an early Easter. It’s one of those holidays that tends to sneak up on people, because it changes every year. It can be anywhere from the last weekend of March to the last weekend of April. Usually, around January, I’m emailing all of my customers and saying, “Hey! Here’s Easter, let’s talk.”
Especially in our world, it’s like holiday time. I started talking to customers about fourth-quarter Thanksgiving, Christmas orders in May. They’re like, “What?” It’s like, “Dude, keep in mind, this is cured ham that takes us X amount of time. So communication is key.
[00:41:42] Georgiana Dearing:
Sure. Well, saying communication, tell people where they can find you if they don’t know already before we go.
[00:41:50] Sam Edwards III:
www.edwardsvaham.com. Actually, there’s a wholesale access there also on that same site. The 800 number is 800-222-4267, which spells 800-222-HAMS. Down the wholesale side, it’s 800-200-4267. Ask for Keith, the Ham Evangelist.
[00:42:21] Georgiana Dearing:
There you go. Well, thank you guys for joining me. I feel like I have had a crazy education in ham and I appreciate it.
[00:42:29] Sam Edwards III:
Well, it’s just the tip of the ham hock.
[00:42:33] Keith Roberts:
Yes. Appreciate it, Georgiana. Again, any time. I think we said, there’s a whole new podcast.
[00:42:41] Georgiana Dearing:
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