Heading south on Highway 50, one might think their GPS is lying on their first trip to Koehler’s Wild Game & Custom Processing. Only the small red sign at the junction of Rocky Point Drive and the highway, about three miles out, marks the left-hand turn off up to the comfortable brown ranch house shrouded by leafy cottonwood trees. A second sign on the garage directs customers to the shop out back, down a gravel road about 100 feet or so from the backyard fence.

Keeping the signage in place used to be a problem for Todd Koehler after they were snagged several times over the years. Why people would steal his company signs is a mystery to him, but eventually he got smart and covered them with Anti-Seize Lubricant.

“Man, that stuff spreads and you can’t even get it off,” he said of the slimy, sticky adhesive that apparently lives up to its name.

Behind the shop parked on the gravel road alongside a neighbor’s pasture is the portable mobile unit, an innocuous white trailer, which Todd and his 19-year-old son Peyton use for on-site “dispatching” of cattle and hogs on neighboring farms and ranches. A hoist and hook built into the back of the unit lifts the larger animals for them to skin. Pulleys and more hooks keep the carcasses stable during transit. This is an important feature to keep the trailer from tipping over, Todd said. Every piece will later be meticulously tagged and dated with the name of the customer included, so they know they’ll be getting back their own animal. That’s a big deal to him, having that trust to know that everything he takes off-site will come back to them in one form or another.

This is the only aspect of the business that Todd’s wife Lara refuses to be involved in. She went once and that was enough. Now, Peyton and Todd go alone or with a small crew on bigger jobs. 

For a guy with no ranching or farming background, Todd has comfortably slipped into this new life out in the far stretches of northeast Wyoming, where up until 15 years ago, he’d only visited once a year for hunting. They’d come each year from Minnesota, where he and Lara are from. Their blonde coloring and slight flattening of vowels typical of that part of the country are the only hints that they aren’t from around here. In his old life, Todd was a mechanic for 20 years, but when the businesses’ former owner wanted to sell it, he contacted Todd to see if he’d be interested. Todd had always used the place for his processing, and with Peyton still just a kid, raising their son in Wyoming and running their own show appealed to the couple.

Todd knew nothing about processing meat when they started out, and he admits it’s been a constant learning curve. A lot of hands-on training from people who know what they’re doing and the rest, trial and error. That’s the best way to learn, he pointed out, and now it feels like second nature.

“This is about as Western as you can get,” he said, raising his hands up to the sky as he looked around him. The flat fields of grass greening up under the heat of the morning and a meadowlark adding its two cents from the top of a fence post.

SLICE OF LIFE

Todd ignored the cell phone buzzing in his pocket as he meticulously worked a hunk of ribs through a bandsaw. At separate stainless-steel stations surrounding him, Lara and Peyton and their sole full-time employee Mary Jo Dunbar worked with equal concentration as they cut bacon, wrapped sirloin and squeezed homemade brats and sausages into tubes made from natural casings, which has a nice elastic snap when you bite into it. Not taking his eyes off the task at hand, Todd sliced each beef rib into its own Medieval-size steak, complete with large bone-in handle. A couple centimeters in either direction might mean a thumb, but Todd remained undeterred as he sliced through the tendons and muscle.

“Now, this is a good steak,” he said, lifting one rib up by the handle to admire the meat and his handiwork.

These are tomahawks, he explained, and will run you upwards of $100 in a restaurant, but they sell them for $40.

There’s a rhythm to the carving, slicing and wrapping and the electric hum and whoosh of freezers opening and closing as products are shelved or rotated in their stock of inventory.

On a nearby meat slicer, Lara shaved down a large, smoked pork belly into several pounds of bacon. They smoke these on-site with a couple different flavors, and on any given week, might cut up to 250-400 pounds. Once cut, she sealed them under a standing glass dome that immediately sucked the bacon into place inside the cellophane.

“It can also boil water,” Peyton said with a grin before filling up a bag to demonstrate.

There’s a rhythm to the carving, slicing and wrapping and the electric hum and whoosh of freezers opening and closing as products are shelved or rotated in their stock of inventory. Their freezers are stuffed with tubs of steaks, burgers and sausages with customers’ names on them as well as separate freezers for their own large inventory of sliced meats, cheeses, beef, bacon, brats and other meat by-products.

At this point, the Koehlers run at least three separate operations depending on the time of year. In the fall, they stay busy through Christmas processing up to 20,000 pounds of wild game sausage for hunters. Then there’s the mobile service, where they’ll bring an animal back to the shop and custom process it to any specifications – excluding organ meat.

“I don’t touch that stuff,” Todd said with a grimace.

The third arm of the business, which they added about 10 years ago, is processing their own assortment of meat products, which they buy from a company in Montana, and sell to walk-in customers.

On the opposite side of the “employee only” entrance, there’s a door marked “office” where customers can walk in during business hours and buy anything off their extensive menu.

“Not too many people around here know about that,” Todd said, “but we sell right out of here.”

 

WILD IDEAS & EXPERIMENTATION

Not surprisingly, the Koehlers eat a lot of meat and try out their products before putting any into their deep freezers or on their shelves. Today, they’re sampling a new brat patty recipe of Todd’s, which Lara is overseeing on the large oval, cast iron-top grill outside the shop door, where currently half a dozen burgers and brats are snapping and sizzling.

Todd’s pretty good at figuring out spices and can even try to recreate a lost family sausage or brat recipe based on a description of its flavor. But he doesn’t bother writing anything down. His favorite part of the job is coming up with new recipes that may or may not pan out.

Some of their more successful concoctions include the a.m. morning sausage perfect for breakfast burritos, complete with eggs, sausage, hash browns, bacon, cheese, peppers and onions, as well as the horseradish bacon brat, ghost mac and cheese, and pizza with tomato, mozzarella and pepperoni. Then there’s the cheesy wild rice, pineapple, olive cheese, and their most popular, the jalapeno beer brat.

“Some of our wilder ideas have bombed,” Lara said. Like the raspberry chipotle and blue berry pecan brats, for example. “People just weren’t ready for those.”

Todd shrugged. “We get bored.”

Jerky is another one of Todd’s projects, and right now he’s working on his latest, Hillbilly Beef Jerky, but it’s not quite there yet, he said, shaking his head. He’s working on it.

By: Jen C. Kocher
Photos: Adam D. Ritterbush

Tips from Todd

Q.  Favorite steak cut?
Porterhouse or ribeye filet.

Q.  Best way to brat?
Open fire (for wieners also).

Q.  Key to grilling a good a steak? 
Pay attention, don’t over cook or over season.

Q.  Favorite brat flavor?
Horseradish bacon.

Q.  Key to good sausage?
Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Leave a comment