@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images JEROMY PRICE
Shannon Binyon’s health hadn’t failed he’d still be “putting dopers in jail.” But the former cop’s back did give out, and by then he’d already gone through bypass surgery. So in 2010, after twenty-five years in law enforcement, he left the drug task force that serves Crawford and Sebastian Counties. “There’s an adrenaline rush to it,” Shannon says. “Kicking doors in. Arresting people. Getting that stuff off the street. But I felt like after I started having problems, I couldn’t do the other guys justice if they got in trouble.” Shannon rubs the back of his neck and says, “That’ll keep you up at night.” While he’s telling the story, a blue light flashes outside the eight-by-twelve foot building that houses Swamp Mama’s Beef Jerky. Inside, Shannon sits behind a small table that holds a cash register, and an iPhone equipped with a credit card scanner and about a hundred bags of jerky.
The thrumming light, which looks a lot like what sits atop a police car, directs people off Highway 64 between Van Buren and Alma, and into the parking lot. There are four signs that alert potential customers he’s open for business, and two more that announce there’s a drive through. When you’re looking to sell jerky, there’s no room for subtlety
Within an hour on one of the coldest days of the year, he’s sold more than $300 worth.
“Everybody thinks the biggest customers are truckers. You know how many truckers I sell to?” he asks. “One.
“About half my customers are little bitty, petite women,” he says. “I don’t know why.” And as if on cue, a young mom in a big SUV pulls up, tastes a sample, decides on the mild kind – there are only three flavors: mild, spicy and Swamp Mama hot – and doles out twenty dollars for two five-ounce packages.
After she drives away, Shannon says, “There’s this one little lady. Must be eighty, at least. She’d come in and buy ten bags a week. I call her the ‘Fat Lady’ because she doesn’t like the fat cut off her jerky. I’ll make it special for her. I made the mistake of calling her the ‘Fat Lady’ to her face one day. And I really had to backtrack out of that one.
“How all this got started,” he says, sweeping one beefy hand across the short expanse of the room, “was because of my local watering hole in Fort Smith, Faux Pas, back in 2009. There was this guy who sold jerky there on Friday nights, and I thought, I could do that.
In December I went to Walmart and bought a little roast and a little round dehydrator. I ordered a CD off the Internet with 100 jerky recipes. After about twenty recipes, I got tired of looking at them. I fiddled around for about a month before I got my own recipe working. I’d make up a batch, take it to Faux Pas and tell them to test it and not hold back. They sent me out crying a few times. When they said, ‘Don’t change a thing,’ I stopped and I haven’t changed nothing since.
“After that I bought a big commercial dehydrator that held about eighty pounds of meat at a time. I have four of those now.
“Now the business, Swamp Mama’s, really belongs to my wife, B.J. I met her when she was working for the Sebastian County Prosecutor’s Office and I was with the police department. She left that job when this business started taking off. We were traveling around by then, going to sell at the County Line flea market, Ozark, up to Clarksville, all over around here. We can sell forty bags traveling around in one day.
“About a year ago I pulled my pickup over on the side of the road up there,” Shannon says, pointing toward the section of the highway not far from Interstate 540, “and I’d sell it from my truck.
“It got too hot in the Bronco. Finally I set this little portable building up here in June, where I got air conditioning.”
Shannon felt like he’d hit the big time when he started going through twenty pounds of eye of round roast a week. Now, he’s up to 150 pounds a week, which equates to about 50 pounds of jerky, and he’s barely keeping up.
Shannon has his routine down. He trims the fat, and then cuts the roast into thin slices. “Now me and my sixteen-year-old son, Dylan, we’re the only two knows how to mix the marinade. I’ll put the roast in the marinade and refrigerate it, always for at least six hours. Most of the time it sits overnight. Then I load it on the trays for seven hours. After that we trim off the fat we didn’t get before we dehydrated it, bag and seal it up. My little girl, Faith, she’ll help sometimes with the labels.
“Last batch I made, I stayed up till one in the morning, and I was back up at four-thirty the next morning to get things going again. Then I tried to sleep a little, because I have to be here by two.
“I’ve sent it to soldiers in Afghanistan myself. I’ve had other customers do the same. I’ve shipped to New York. There were some folks traveling from California to New York. They stopped in here and bought ten bags. Now they’ll email me and order ten or twenty bags at a time. I got some other people that hear about Swamp Mama’s. If they order by mail they’ll usually go ahead and get ten packages and that’s $100. Buy ten and you’ll get a free one. That sells a lot of jerky.”
This undercover-cop turned jerky king gets marketing. “I sell a good product,” he says. “Try it once and I guarantee you’ll come back around. It’s got a good name. Makes you happy just to say Swamp Mama.” Then he smiles. “Kinda got in trouble when I first started. We named it Sasquatch Jerky, and then this fifteen page letter from a high-powered attorney comes in the mail. A really big company was already using the name. I call him up and he says, ‘Can you wait a minute?’ and I hear something click, so I ask if he’s recording the call and he said he was. So I told him I was just a little guy in Arkansas with about $100 worth of labels, nothing I was willing to go to court over. Turned out to be a real nice guy. He helped me research the Swamp Mama name, then he ordered forty dollars worth of jerky from me.”
If you ask him, Shannon will say things have a way of working out. Watch him long enough and you’ll realize he’s the one doing the work. Every kid gets a piece of candy. He tells one customer he’ll come in on his day off if he needs him to. He ships to his regular customers just on their word, believing they’ll pay up when they can. “Yeah,” he says, “they always do.”
Right now, the Swamp Mama empire is exploding. Beside the jerky hut is a vending trailer that will soon be home to Swamp Mama’s Hogs and Dogs. “Folks around here don’t have a lot of choices for places to eat out. I think they’ll stop in for hot dogs and barbeque.”He’s also adding a snow cone machine. After last year’s 110 degree weather, he thinks he could sell quite a few when the sidewalks start to sizzle. He wants to say more, but then another customer walks in, and Shannon’s back at it. “What kind you like?” he asks the guy, only to watch him pull a list from his pocket. He’s come to buy for the crew he works with in Miami, Oklahoma. They tried Swamp Mama once, and like Shannon predicted, they had to come back for more.
Swamp Mama’s Beef Jerky
4806 Alma Highway
Van Buren AR
Tues – Sat from 2-7