Twelve years ago, bison ranchers in the West were feeling fenced in.
While demand from restaurants and consumers for steaks, roasts and other prime cuts was just beginning to increase, nobody wanted the rest of the beast -- the parts that get ground up and turned into hamburger. In fact, there was a huge surplus of it, sitting in freezers, threatening to capsize the fledgling industry.
So the U.S. Department of Agriculture stepped in to help, buying more than $15 million dollars' worth of surplus ground bison -- known as trim -- between 1998 and 2002 and sending it off to school lunch programs, Indian reservations and other places where it would be happily eaten ("Where the Buffalo Moan," January 6, 2000).
The government program worked.
Today, bison meat of all kinds is in high demand. Sales have doubled since 2005, and the National Bison Association is desperately trying to recruit new bison ranchers. Some credit for this goes to the Denver-based association's efforts to spread the word about bison meat -- which is trickier to cook than beef, but also leaner and more nutritious.
But Ted Turner has also helped. The onetime cable and sports magnate owns more land (about two million acres) and more bison than any private citizen in the nation. In fact, Turner currently has 50,000 head on fourteen ranches in seven states -- or about 10 percent of the total number of bison living in the United States today.
In 2002, partly because of the bison meat surplus problem, Turner and restaurateur George McKerrow Jr. decided to start a restaurant chain called Ted's Montana Grill, serving everything from burgers, chili and meatloaf to rib-eyes and short ribs.
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"The market we have created has really taken off in the last couple of years," says McKerrow, who is in town this week with Turner. "Everywhere we put a Ted's, we've increased a demand for bison. Demand is twice as much as supply."
Today there are 54 locations in nineteen states, dishing up 1.5 million pounds of bison meat each year (or roughly 2,500 animals, based on 600 pounds of meat per bison). On Monday, the pair will open their 55th location, at 1701 Pearl Street in Boulder.
"Ted is a visionary," McKerrow asserts. "He saw this as something that would happen."
And if Ted's were to close up shop tomorrow? "It might cause some ripple, but the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, on bison," McKerrow says. "Many people see bison as an everyday food now. We need more people to get into the bison business."