On a typical December weekend, Sonny and Lois Noland, owners of Noland’s Catering in Macon, are busy preparing hundreds of meals for corporate Christmas parties. This year, they’re turning deer meat into summer sausage for hunters instead.
Macon is located in northeastern Missouri at the intersection of U.S. Route 36 and U.S. Route 63. A convenient stop for travelers and truckers and a hub for hunters, the rural town of about 5,400 people sees its fair share of traffic, especially during the opening weekend of firearms deer season.
“We’re just backed up when hunting hits. You have a hard time getting out and going anywhere, because we are just full of traffic,” said Sue Goulder, director of Macon County Economic Development, describing a typical year. “Every place that you visit, whether it be our restaurants, or Walmart, or grocery stores, the hunters are great, great, great about shopping local.”
Hear more: Macon’s hunting entrepreneurs on the Speaking Startup podcast
According to the most recent state-level data gathered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting-related expenditures in Missouri totaled $907 million in 2011. Expenses like food and lodging, transportation, equipment rental, magazines, membership dues, licenses, permits and land leasing and ownership make up the expansive economic ecosystem that 576,000 hunters sustain annually.
Hunting traffic drives dollars to businesses that cater to the sport, but these establishments are far from the only ones benefiting. Others, like Noland’s Catering, have found ways to take advantage.
A reliable customer base
Regular hunting traffic has become the norm for Macon, according to Goulder. But even amid tough times, it seems hunters have remained a reliable customer base. Rob Southwick is president of Southwick Associates, a market research firm specializing in outdoor recreation. He said there has been a 12% increase in hunting this year nationally, citing COVID-19 lockdowns as a contributor. Southwick said he’s seen an increase in past recessions, too.
“People have time on their hands,” he said, “and they want to get back and reconnect with activities that have always been a traditional part of what they do.”
Like many in the food service business, the Nolands spent several months this year trying to make up for lost business. Facing more than $100,000 in catering losses, they turned to offering carryout meals. Then, in September, with no relief in sight, they got creative. With hunting season just around the corner, the Nolands saw an opportunity.
“In our space here, we do not have the ability to process deer, nor did we want to do that,” Lois Noland said. “But we knew we could do the summer sausage.”
A hunter himself, Sonny Noland had prior experience making sausage. So, on a Thursday night in September, the couple found themselves on the road from Macon to Lansing, Michigan, to pick up a piece of equipment they needed – a mixer/grinder they paid for with part of a $25,000 loan from Macon County Economic Development. An additional investment of $22,000 funded a building expansion. And after spending a few thousand dollars on spices and casings, getting a new smoker and passing the necessary health inspections, the Nolands were operating the new business just in time for the hunters’ arrival.
“We didn’t really get everything pulled together until about a week and a half before deer season opened,” Lois Noland said. “We put one ad in the newspaper, and I said one little blip on Noland’s Catering Facebook page that got shared about 150 times. And yesterday, we took in the deer from customer No. 107.”
The Nolands have differentiated their sausage by producing it in individual batches for each hunter, rather than mixing multiple hunters’ meats together like some processors. Lois Noland said hunters who take good care of their meat deserve the same care in return. Making sausage has helped the Nolands fully recoup the revenue they would have generated catering, but it has helped prevent them from dipping into their savings through the pandemic.
“Financially, we can make a lot more money doing a large event for 400 than we can doing 25 batches of deer,” Lois Noland said. “I will tell you this: At a time when everything’s not about the money, looking at my husband doing something he loves and watching him smile while he’s at work and having a good time, that is also worth a lot.”
Historically, hunting has helped provide jobs and dollars when the economy is slow, according to Southwick. Just five minutes down Highway 63 from Noland’s Catering, the proprietors of another husband-and-wife-run business have had a similar experience. Chuck and Carol Koopman own Macon’s only bed and breakfast, Phillips Place. Although the Koopmans are not completely reliant on hunters for business, hunters helped provide the extra revenue boost they needed after losing over 170 nights of bookings due to COVID-19.
“The hunting season this year basically helped us come back to hopefully meet our bottom line,” Chuck Koopman said.
This year, Phillips Place lodged 55 hunters who booked their trips through a local outfitter. An outfitter is a business that provides hunters with guides, access to land and other accommodations. Chuck Koopman said that guests came from New York, Florida, Texas, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon.
Nationally, Missouri ranks sixth for number of non-resident hunters and eighth for resident hunters, according to an economic impact study conducted by Southwick Associates for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Ryan Jones, district supervisor at the Northeast Regional Office of the Missouri Department of Conservation, attributes the high volume of hunters from outside the state to Missouri’s whitetail deer population and relatively affordable non-resident permit tags. According to Jones, regular rifle season attracts the most non-resident hunters.
“During gun season, we were full,” Chuck Koopman said. “We set up extra beds during that period of time to accommodate more of them.”
Carol Koopman said that Phillips Place would not have hosted that many hunters had they not booked their trips through the outfitter. Phillips Place provided out-of-town hunters a place to rest and three meals a day during their stay in Macon.
As the pandemic presses on, business owners like the Nolands and the Koopmans will need to continue to attract customers, a challenge that could grow as deer hunting season comes to a close. For Carol and Chuck Koopman, word-of-mouth recommendations, repeat business and traffic from Truman State University in Kirksville are all important to generating revenue. Now equipped with the tools and space, Lois and Sonny Noland will continue to make summer sausage for hunters in future seasons. They even plan to offer new flavors and snack sticks. Pandemic or not, Chuck Koopman said one of the hardest parts of running a business is waiting.
“The challenge then is whether you can be patient to wait for that call, how many you’re going to have,” he said. “These are all anticipations of business, you know, any business. It’s whether you’re going to get them to walk into the door or not.”