Wolf Creek Generated boom for beef jerky

(The following is an article reprinted from the Kansas City Star, September 20, 1991 by James J. Fisher)

Le Roy, Kansas -- The proponents and opponents of nuclear-generated power are still out there, only seemingly quieter now.

Occasionally there's a commercial on the television screen promoting generating plants, saying more of them would lessen our foreign oil dependence.

Conversely, when there's an accident or some other problem at one of the facilities, the other side comes out of the woodwork saying they said it would be like this.

Martin Luther -- yes, that's his real name -- doesn't get embroiled on either side. Still he admits to having a certain fondness for the Wolf Creek Generating Station up the road in Burlington, Kansas.

Why?

It put him in the beef jerky business on a national scale.

Now beef jerky, dried strips of beef, and high-tech nuclear power may seem miles apart. Not so when you hear Luther's story.

"Back in '74, I was running a slaughterhouse here," Luther says, "As a sideline we made beef jerky. Back then only me and a guy named Bob Bowser up in Meriden, Kansas, were making the stuff. Now everybody is in the business.

"Jerky had been popular back during the trapping and pioneer days, but real beef jerky -- slices of steak dried and smoked with hickory -- it has sort of been forgotten."

Luther and his wife, Shirlee, would make up a bunch and people would come -- hunters, fisherman, campers, and believe it or not, people with teething babies -- and buy it. Pretty soon people were showing up at the door and flat demanding the jerky -- even when Luther was busy cutting steaks and loins or grinding hamburger. It was that good.

Luther made a decision. He sold the slaughterhouse and went into the Jerky business full time.

But there was a problem. Le Roy isn't exactly downtown Wichita or Topeka with a lot of drive by business. No way Kansas 58 could be mistaken for Interstate 70.

And Luther wasn't crazy about stocking scads of convenience stores through a wholesaler because who knew how long the jerky would sit around before it got to the customer. Good jerky, says Luther, is fresh jerky, made with a minimum of chemical preservatives. Maybe those old trappers could gnaw on a strip when it was a couple of months old. But not people today.

Wolf Creek Nuclear Generating Station

Then Luther had a idea. There was a little crossroads store near where all the construction on Wolf Creek was going on. Luther took some of his jerky up to John and Ethel Hess, the owners. Maybe there would be a market among the construction guys. You know, something to chew on between breakfast and lunch, lunch and quitting time.

Guess what? Pretty soon, the Hess's were selling 200 pounds of the stuff a week. The construction workers loved it. So, in a sense, some of the energy that built the nuclear power plant that now keeps a lot of the lights burning in Kansas City came from Luther's beef jerky.

Still Luther knew that a good thing would end. The plant would be built and the workers would go on to other projects.

"Ethel Hess came up with the idea of giving our name and address to the workers that were leaving," says Luther. "Mail Order. We still sell to those construction guys. And they pass our name on. Heck it works for L.L. Bean. It works for us."

Currently Luther is selling to all 50 states and to some convenience stores who promise to stock only fresh jerky. He has an 800 number (800-322-0868). United Parcel Service knows him well.

And for the past year, there's been one other thing. A barbecue restaurant called Luther's on the west side of Le Roy that's drawing folks from as far away as 100 miles.

"The jerky's still a big thing," says Luther, pointing at a resurrected Derby gas station sign out front that, with the changing of two letters, now spells "Jerky."

"But the restaurant is doing well. And we're having a lot of fun. Which is what it's all about, isn't it?"