Bear Creek Smokehouse continues growth through generations 

 

By Christina Lane 
clane@news-journal.com
April 15, 2015 at 4 a.m.

MARSHALL — Nestled deep in the piney woods in a land called Bear Bottom, Bobby, Robbie and Hunter Shoults are carrying on a family tradition that began in 1943.

While the family describes Bear Creek Smokehouse as "one of the best-kept secrets in East Texas," a recent invitation to cook for congressmen in Washington, D.C., filming for a national food channel and a visit from a TV chef are certain to change that.

"We haven't compromised our quality in all of our years of business, and we have a customer base that doesn't mind paying for a quality product," said Robbie Shoults, vice president of Bear Creek Smokehouse.

Robbie Shoults is the third generation of his family to own Bear Creek, which is off of Texas 154 between Marshall and Harleton.

While the Shoults family purchased the property in 1917, it wasn't until 1943 that the smokehouse began. That's when Robbie's uncle talked his grandfather, Hick Shoults, into raising turkeys as a means to supplement the family's income.

That first year, the family raised 600 turkeys on its little farm in Bear Bottom, increasing the number each year after that. The Shoults built their first little processing plant, Shoults Famous Turkeys, shortly after.

In 1972, the Shoults built their current facility.

Their first customers were local grocers and orders placed at the local Agricultural Extension office, but now Bear Creek customers number in the thousands as their products can be found in Wal-Marts in 12 states, Publix, H-E-B, Kroger, Brookshire's and Brookshire Brothers. Customers also come from online orders.

Holiday favorite smoked hams and turkeys remain a staple, but newer, unique items such as bacon bark — a chocolate bar with real bacon bits in it — and bacon jam also have become popular, novelty products.

One of their primary products today is their cured salt pork, which Robbie Shoults described as a commodity item used to help season other foods, such as beans.

And their business is continuing to grow.

In 2013, Bear Creek Smokehouse was named Family Business of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration-DFW District, Shoults said.

A woman from Washington came down for an awards ceremony, and recently invited Shoults to come to the nation's capitol to serve food to state directors and congressmen at America's Small Business Development Center spring meeting.

"We took our food up there and showed them how we do it," he said. "Everybody loved our food."

In February, a national TV network came to Bear Creek to film. Details could not immediately be released, but Shoults said he will make them available as soon as he can.

And, in late March, Food Network chef Sunny Anderson paid a visit to Bear Creek Smokehouse.

"It was a blast meeting with her. We're working on some things with her," Shoults said. "She hopes to be back here within a month. She's very interested in what we do here."

As the business has continued to grow, so has the factory itself.

The processing plant has been added onto seven times throughout the years, and Robbie's son, Hunter, said they've also made equipment upgrades to further the process.

For example when the plant was built in 1973, it contained two brick ovens that could cook 600 turkeys at one time. With a hollowed-out space underneath, someone would have to crawl beneath the building to light a fire for the ovens.

Today, they use new stainless steel smokehouses that cook, Hunter Shoults said, similarly to a convection oven. Two of the smokehouses can cook 150 turkeys apiece, and the third can cook 400 turkeys at one time, he said. And whereas the old brick ovens required 23 hours of cook time, the new smokehouses can cook the turkeys in 11-12 hours.

The new smokehouses have a computer that allows them to store programs for how to cook each type of meat, so with a simple press of a button, all turkeys cooked in each smokehouse will come out exactly the same.

"We're able to cook our meats exactly like we have cooked them for the last 30 years," said Hunter Shoults, who serves as plant manager for Bear Creek Smokehouse.

In a typical week, 40,000 pounds of pork are processed at Bear Creek. At the holidays, that number increases, with Hunter Shoults noting that on a particular week in late November or early December, they processed 120,000 pounds in a single week.

With demand consistently on the uptick, the family also is in the process of adding a new freezer to store its meats, bringing the total number of freezers to six, he said.

In the early '90s, the family added a line of dry goods, including soup mixes, chili mixes and dips.

And in 2013, the business expanded into a fundraising arm that partners with schools and other groups to sell products and help organizations raise money for projects and trips.

There also is a retail shop at the site that is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Starting in October and throughout the holidays, the store is open at least five days a week.

As for the future, Robbie Shoults said he primarily wants to continue expanding their line and offering different products.

But most importantly, he wants the legacy found in Bear Bottom to continue to thrive.

"This is a tradition for our family," he said. "I want us to continue to pass down this legacy through future generations."

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