Young family pioneers with jerky, coffee shop
by Rachel Coleman
J.R. and Christi Doney inhabit a 21st-century life: college-educated, professional people with Internet access, they connect easily to the wider world beyond the high plains of Southwest Kansas.
Yet the couple and their young daughters also personify the pioneer paradigm as owners of SmokeHoss, a beef jerky/barbecue/coffee house hybrid that beckons travelers from the north side of U.S. Hwy. 54 in Meade. SmokeHoss opened early in 2011, so named "to reflect the real smoke-cooked meats and cheeses, and old-timey barbecue traditions," Doney said. "Adding the name 'Hoss' seemed like a fun representation of a good ol' boy barbecue expert."
Like the settlers who headed west more than a century ago and later thrilled television viewers in Western-style programs, the Doneys were keenly aware of their endeavor's risk factor.
"It takes a lot of faith to open a new business," said Doney, who earned a degree in marketing at K-State. "The numbers say anyone's shot at making it is not good — more than 85 percent of businesses fail within five years. At this point, and for a while, it's not about making money. It's about surviving."
The Doneys are already comfortable with choices that contradict the status quo. Both Kansas natives — he's from Wathena in eastern Kansas, and Christi grew up in Fowler, just up the highway from Meade — the couple met at college in Manhattan. After graduation, they moved to Omaha, Neb., where they savored the pleasures of a midwestern city — career-track employment, restaurants, concerts, places to go dancing on a date night.
But something was missing, Doney admits: "Our two little girls didn't know their grandparents," he said. "Family is important to us. Our faith is important to us. We felt God calling us back to this area."
When a position opened in the admissions department at Seward County Community College, the family knew it was time to move back to the region. Doney's job enables him to use his trade skills in design and marketing, and he loves the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of his advisees and students.
"I'm so fortunate," he said. "For me, the day job comes first."
Even so, the Doneys were drawn to the idea of striking out on their own as entrepreneurs. Having grown up on an eastern-Kansas farm — where the challenge was often "too much rain," he recalled with a laugh — Doney was a lifelong hunter who knew how to make jerky and sausage, and enjoyed doing so. Yet it's hard to make living off something people perceive as a snack food, even if it is high protein. Doney knew he'd have to develop the idea.
As he considered the market, he noticed a lack of healthy options.
"I couldn't see a natural, grass-fed beef jerky out there. And I know there are people who want that," he said. Accordingly, Doney began to perfect his jerky recipe. Forty-five batches later, he felt sure the naturally marinated, smoked product was ready to sell.
"This is 100 percent natural and organic. No preservatives. No MSG. I think people would be shocked if they realized how much of that is packed in commercial jerky," he said. The key ingredient is the grass-fed beef, "which we buy from a farmer near Ashland. We always try to buy local first, whenever we can, even if it isn't necessarily the cheapest. We're excited about how this could grow."
Grass-fed beef brings in nearly double the money for producers, Doney said: "I pay $4 a pound for mine, and it's worthwhile. Right now, folks haven't really accepted grass-fed beef as a viable alternative to the way things have worked. But I think there's room for growth."
Outside Southwest Kansas, Doney's hunch appears to be right on the money.
"We sell at least half our products through the online store. It's gotten really big in Texas and Florida, and that's encouraging," he said. "The all-natural, grass-fed organic way of eating is catching on in other places, and I think it's going to begin to resonate with people here in Kansas. At some point, people are going to recognize the health benefits and the economic opportunities it provides, and say, 'Hey, this is a good thing.'"
In the meantime, the Doneys sell jerky, along with sandwiches, barbecue and bistro fare, at the coffee shop on the highway. J.R. said Christi manages and runs the place "with incredible skill. She's instrumental,"he said. "I can't say enough about what she does. I help on weekends and evenings," drawing on previous years' experience in restaurant work and cooking that helped pay his way through college. The smoking and barbecue master, Doney is especially proud of his ribs and barbecue, which he hand-rubs, smokes 16 hours and meet his exacting standards for gourmet meat preparation.
Still, Doney finds time to bow hunt, bird hunt, fish and garden. Accustomed to the leafy enclosures and river beds of eastern Kansas, he said he relishes the open space and wide expanses of the southwest part of the state.
"I'm by no means a hippie, but I like being connected to the earth and the outdoors," he said.
Work, though, always beckons.
"We could work 25 hours a day and it wouldn't be enough. And there's got to be time to sit down with my girls, my wife, and enjoy our family," he said. Sometimes, it's possible to combine the two. SmokeHoss provides catering services for parties, receptions, weddings, and even special events, like a weekend concert sponsored by SmokeHoss and other local entities in November.
"We went in with another young couple to put that on. The idea is to bring more entertaining things to Meade, good, clean fun for folks. It's nice to give people an option to take your wife out to dance, enjoy some barbecue, get together as a community," he said. "I'd like to see more young families stay around here."
He'd like to see SmokeHoss in it for the long run as well.
"Whether we make it or don't will depend on our customers and folks to spread the word. It's important for us to be good neighbors, building a foundation so we can be around here for a long time, create opportunities and jobs for folks. We knew it would be slow going, but we have a strong local customer base, and we're really thankful for that."
Doney says he resolved long ago not to compete with the handful of small businesses that operate in Meade.
"I won't put anything on my menu that someone else is already selling," he said. "I don't know if that matters to other people, but it matters to me. What we're trying to do is genuine."