August 1, 2013

Ninnekah plant produces classic meat

Jessica Lane, Staff Writer,
The Express-Star

NINNEKAH — Many Oklahomans find themselves on the road during the summer. Visiting attractions large and small usually involves a drive due to the spread out nature of the state.

To refuel, many opt for the tried and true, dried and cured snack sold in any gas station worth its sodium: beef jerky.

Nestled on old Highway 81 in Ninnekah, the Blackjack Beef Jerky plant has been producing the tasty road trip staple for just over 100 days.

The facility is completely new, but has evolved over two years of planning. It is a federally inspected, USDA plant. This means  Blackjack can sell anywhere in the U.S.

The plant uses a linear flow process, which means cooked meat never touches the same area raw meat has been through.

Blackjack Beef Jerky comes in one flavor. Their motto is "One flavor, done right, every day."

"We're not into designer jerky," Paul Anthony, Blackjack Beef Jerky VP said.

Beef, worcestershire and soy sauce are the time-tested ingredients. Some beef jerky companies use pressed or shredded beef and press it into forms, but Blackjack uses eye of round, a whole muscle cut, Anthony said.

The homegrown jerky company also avoids using artificial dyes and preservatives. Some companies use a particular preservative that gives some jerky it's sheen, Anthony said.

Anthony said Blackjack even uses a higher grade of bag to carry their product. Anthony said the company aims to make every bite in the bag consistent.

"We want every bag you open to be like the last bag you bought," he said.

While Blackjack makes beef jerky as beef jerky has been made for the past 150 years, the facility uses modern equipment to speed up certain processes.

The meat slicer is especially impressive. The 72 blades, which look kind of like a record player, slice the beef jerky into thin strips. Two huge ovens hold two carts each holding 16 stacked trays, about 120 pounds of meat. A little over two hours and the meat is done, as opposed the old fashioned method which would take days. The cooked jerky is then divided and weighed on a large machine which funnels the finished product into four and 1.5 ounce portions. The jerky is then sealed and dated on one machine, then boxed and ready to ship.

Calvin Cox, Blackjack Beef Jerky plant manager, oversees the daily production of all this jerky. His day starts at about 6 a.m. with a pre-operational inspection of the facility. At 7 a.m., production begins.

There is a lot more paperwork involved than one might think comes out of a beef jerky factory. Cox completes daily checklists twice a day. There is a huge, three inch binder for each oven. Cox stays on top of regulations and the plant is constantly cleaned.

A conservative estimate of the rate of production is 1,000 four ounce bags and 3,000 1.5 ounce bags per day, Anthony said. However the plant was designed to take on more and much larger business as word of the gas station delicacy grows and demand increases.

"If someone called today and ordered 20,000 bags, we'd be able to do it," he said.

Blackjack tries to aid the local economy as much as possible, Anthony said. Even though Blackjack has been offered cheaper material through imports, they've refused, Anthony said. Even the boxes that the product is shipped in come from Green Bay Packaging in Chickasha. The seven workers in the jerky plant are all hired locally as well.

The name, "Blackjack" comes from the history of beef jerky. Blackjack hickory was once used in the making of beef jerky. The owner, Tim Smith, came up with the blackjack idea.

There is also a tie in to the logo which features a grinning bull holding cards with a black ace of spades and jack of spades behind him.

The logo itself came from a 3 a.m epiphany, Anthony said. He said he had to get up and sketch it on a napkin just to get it out of his head.

The nutritional content of Blackjack Beef Jerky is on the front page of their website, One ounce has 45 calories and 11 grams of protein. There is also no added sugar in the product, Anthony said.

What makes Blackjack so popular, Anthony said, varies in accordance to the wide variety of palates it satisfies. He said that it's popular among denture wearers for it's yielding texture and among women for it's nutritional content and lack of mess, making it a good desk snack. It sometimes causes an almost rabid reaction, Anthony said. A local football team holds their coach hostage until he gives up the jerky.

In production since April, Blackjack beef jerky is already available in 50 local stores in Grady and surrounding counties. All have reordered, Anthony said. Jerky aficionados can also buy from their website or at their location in Ninnekah.