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MARTY JONES | AUGUST 21, 2003 | 4:00AM
Smoking is good for Jim Barsness's health.
For thirty years, his family has run House of Smoke, a Fort Lupton company that specializes in smoked meats and game. Originally a father-and-sons outfit with a converted refrigerator as its only smoker, House of Smoke now boasts four state-of-the-art smokers and 28 full-time employees, turning out everything from smoked game meats to sausage. But this time of year, the meat and potatoes of the business is smoked turkey legs.
A summer festival in Colorado without turkey legs would be like a Red Rocks jam-band concert without fans in tie-dye, or a CU Buffs game without buzzed students. "They are a Western thing," Barsness explains.
House of Smoke is the largest producer of smoked turkey shanks in Colorado, cranking out about 5,000 pounds a week. "I don't think there's anybody else who even does them in the state anymore," Barsness says, standing a few feet away from 500 legs smoking through an FDA- and USDA-approved haze of hickory and humidity. "I think we may have run them all off."
While the upcoming Taste of Colorado may be a turkey leg's most high-profile event, the Mile High Flea Market is House of Smoke's biggest customer. Barsness has been smoking legs for the flea market for over a decade, using a proprietary recipe he spent eight months creating. The market sells Tom-turkey legs -- jumbos weighing in at between 19 and 23 ounces each -- that are purchased from an Iowa company, then seasoned, injected with brine and smoked by Barsness. Flea-market cooks heat and re-grill the legs on site, according to the market's Andy Hermes, and sell over 3,000 of them each week, at $3.50 a leg.
"We have a recipe all our own," explains Hermes. "I think it's the best item we have out here. People like the idea of eating a turkey leg."
But while House of Smoke rules the turkey-leg roost, the avian kickers make up only about 5 percent of its business. A much larger chunk of the company's yearly take comes from smoked turkey breasts and whole birds, wild game roasts, exotic meat sausages and bratwursts, and jerky meats, all custom-made and smoked over hickory. "Hickory is the most indigenous wood in the country and I like it the best," Barsness says. Because of its far-reaching habitat, hickory also has appeal across the nation. "If you're in Texas you might use mesquite, alderwood in Oregon, or cherry wood in Wisconsin," he adds. "But if you're going to sell to all of them, the common denominator is hickory."
House of Smoke makes a large chunk of change selling exotic meats to Front Range restaurants such as the Buckhorn Exchange, the Fort and Flagstaff House. But in addition to dealing directly with retailers and other vendors, House of Smoke sells its hickory-kissed offerings over the Web (www.houseofsmoke.org).
Steve Calvert, who heads the company's restaurant sales, walks past boxes packed with the foodie equivalent of Where the Wild Things Are -- meats that would make Lewis and Clark drool: alligator, ostrich, wild-boar ribs, rabbit, rattlesnake, caribou and venison. There's also the company's (and Colorado's) biggest-selling Old West meat: buffalo. "We go through 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of buffalo a week," Calvert says proudly. "The flavor's good, but it's real lean. It tastes good, and it's good for you."
He reaches into a box and grabs a wrapped duck liver that's as big as a full-grown duck. "I go through about forty pounds of foie gras a week, at $40 a pound," he says. "It's awesome."
House of Smoke fleshes out its business through an on-site deli -- a timeworn, poor man's Buckhorn that draws locals and visitors alike. Subway's Jared would jump off the low-fat wagon for the delights sold here: House of Smoke standards, along with assorted jerkies, game salamis (including an elk and a "Mountain Man" version) and ostrich franks. The mainstay, though, is the turkey-breast sandwich, packed with slabs of lightly smoked flesh.
Not putting all of its legs in one basket has been the key to keeping House of Smoke smokin'. Jim Barsness's dad, Gordon, started the business in 1973, after a smokehouse he frequented closed up shop and gave him its recipes. Gordon soon sold the family farm and started selling home-smoked meats in downtown Fort Lupton. The shop has expanded five times since then -- and Gordon, now 92, has finally retired, leaving the business in his sons' hands.
"I've had some lean years," Jim Barsness says, "and when you work for yourself, you're the last guy to get paid." And House of Smoke definitely got burned in the '80s, along with the rest of Colorado. "When the economy goes bad, it's the Cadillacs and buffalo steaks that go first," he explains. "Exotic foods go out with the corporate jet."
In those tough times, however, Barsness still found satisfaction -- in independence, if not in profits. "I decided I'd rather work for myself," he says. "If I make a bad decision, it's my mistake. I like to rise or fall on my own merits."
Today, with the country's taste for exotic and smoked meats heating up, Barsness has time to indulge his love of fishing. He's already a few thousand legs up on the competition. "Those drumsticks," he says, "keep on selling, no matter what."