AUSTIN TWP. — If necessity is the mother of invention, it also made Joe Vatter the father of a recipe that has grown in stature around Michigan’s Thumb area for about 36 years.
“I saw an opportunity that noboby else was doing at the time,” said Joe Vatter, who took a job as a sausage maker at Erla’s Packing in Cass City rather than work – or move – out of Michigan when the state’s economy sputtered in the early 1980s.
“Deer hunting, back in the 1980s, wasn’t as big as it is now and bow-hunting, for sure, wasn’t, but people wanted some sausage made, so I started making summer sausage,” Vatter said.
Vatter said he gained knowledge from the late Henry Kocan, who also worked at Erla’s. On his own time, Vatter devised a way to create and season summer sausage from boneless meat, a method that gained favor with customers and earned him the nickname “Smokin’ Joe.”
“It was back in the 1980s when everybody was looking for work, and they were saying ‘Would the last one to leave Michigan please turn out the lights?’” said Vatter, who later took a job with Maurer’s Meat Processors Inc. near Ubly and now runs a business specializing in meat made with his recipe.
The business, located about 14 miles east of Cass City at 1745 E. Cass City Road, made sausage, meat stick, bratwurst, jerky, bacon and hams from about 30,000 pounds of boneless meat customers brought to the plant.
A base of about 250 customers regularly bring boneless meat to Vatter’s business, where he and relatives burn hickory sawdust to help flavor the meat in three smokehouses. About 10 employees work at the Joe’s Smokin’ Recipe plant during Michigan’s firearms deer season – the busiest period for the business.
“From Nov. 15 – the beginning of (firearms) deer season – to Dec. 15 is the one month we’re busy around the clock, logging all kinds of hours,” Vatter said.
These days, Vatter advertises his recipe on a billboard on M-53 at M-81, and via a website. The recipe has come a long way from the days when it simply brewed inside Vatter’s head.
“I worked construction in the early 1980s and I didn’t want to move,” Vatter said. “I was happily in love and didn’t want to leave my wife. So I got a job at Erla’s, thinking it was maybe going to be temporary until I found something, and I just kind of fell into (sausage-making).”
While at Maurer’s Meat Processors Inc., he also picked up tips from a good friend, Werner Schmidt, who had come to the U.S. from his native Germany to work in the meat-processing plant. Vatter also discovered that his recipe had generated a following.
“Customers would come into Maurer’s and they’d say ‘Make sure I get Joe’s recipe,’” Vatter said. “That was the kind of summer sausage they wanted. They kind of referred to me as ‘Smokin’ Joe.’”
The business isn’t full-time for Vatter, a driver for Cass City Oil & Gas Co., but he said annual revenue hasn’t shrank in any of his years using the recipe.
“Every year the business has either grown a little bit or stayed about the same,” Vatter said.
Customers simply wanting to taste his products may buy one pound of his signature “Beef BBQ” stick – and other meat products – for $10 at his business at 1745 E. Cass City Road. A rock, painted at the entrance of the one-quarter-mile-long gravel driveway leading to the business, bears the words “Joe’s Smokin’ Recipe.”
Customers can buy the other signature product, Joe’s Smokin’ Recipe summer sausage, for $15 per pound.
“Nobody else puts the sausage in small (packages) like we do; everybody else uses a 4-pound stick, a bigger log (of sausage),” Vatter said. Joe’s Smokin’ Recipe sells the sausage in a 1.5-pound package.
Business hours, from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, are from 2 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
Vatter makes Joe’s Smokin’ Recipe summer sausage for $2.75 per pound for customers bringing him at least 10 pounds of boneless meat.
“We don’t tweak our recipe,” Vatter said. “If somebody comes in here and wants us to add more pepper or more mustard seed to Joe’s Smokin’ Recipe, we will not add those things for them. Mainly because if somebody gets our summer sausage a different way, then they’re gonna expect that when they come here to get our summer sausage.
“This way, it’s always the same product.”
The product is made, more or less, by the same people, as it’s a family business employing Joe Vatter and his wife, Ann; their daughter and son-in-law, Rhea and Mike Merriman; the Merrimans’ daughter, Grace; and Joe Vatter’s father, Don Vatter.
“Everybody in the family has their own job,” Vatter said. “My dad runs the mixer. He is 80 years old, and still mixing.”
The “recipe” keeps attracting new customers. First-time customers bringing boneless meat use a marker to sign their names on a wall in the front office of the 1,875-square-foot plant, a beehive of activity in the fall.
“We do this all after hours, all on weekends, and it’s a major job,” said Vatter, whose wife helps run the business when not working as a billing clerk at Pigeon’s Scheurer Hospital.
“We started from very little – doing a few hundred pounds of (boneless meat) each year,” Joe Vatter said.
Joe Vatter said his business has “leveled off to what I think our maximum is, because I think the deer population in this region is on the decrease, and we have that much more competition that didn’t used to be there.”
“Smokin’ Joe,” however, has no plans to flame out anytime soon.
“The business is strong enough that, hopefully, when I retire in six or seven years it’ll be a nice little income besides working for somebody else,” Vatter said. “When I retire, I still want to do this.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com