The idea of a family business - guided by principles like secrecy and loyalty - might seem like a bygone concept.
But the Pyle clan of Eudora churns out 1,200 pounds of its regionally famous Hombre beef jerky each week using a covert combination of spices and cures perfected over nearly 25 years.
"All the family members started working here in about the fourth grade," Pat Pyle says of himself and his three siblings. "We just started working down here after school and on the weekends. It's a fun job, and it's always changing."
The family enterprise, founded in 1959 by Pat's father, Kansas City native Tom Pyle, distributes jerky from Bonner Springs to Spring Hill, Topeka to Kansas City. And that's just one of its products.
What makes the jerky so good, the family says, are the ingredients that go into it: Better spices and meat make for a higher quality product. Rose Pyle House, one of Tom Pyle's daughters who has been involved in the business since she was 7, says she and her siblings always have followed their father's wisdom that people will pay for quality.
This axiom has proved true through the years. Seasoned veterans - no pun intended - of the meat-smoking world swear by Hombre. Kent Lee, a Vermont Street BBQ employee, says it's one of the best jerkies he's ever had.
"I love beef jerky. There was a point of my life when I lived on Hombre," he says. "It was an everyday thing when I used to eat Hombre in high school. You go to the Kwik Shop, and that was lunch."
'Meat's in my blood'
It's hard telling how many others share Lee's affinity for the tasty cuts. A large percentage of area residents may not even realize Hombre is made in Eudora and not distributed very far afield.
And that's the Pyles' intention; they're careful about advertising the smoky snack. Tom J. Pyle, son of Tom Pyle and one of two full-time employees at Pyle Meat Co., says people learn about Hombre mostly by word of mouth.
"The marketing is a whole other face for us," he says. "At this point, if we marketed the right way, we could be in trouble because we couldn't keep up," he says. "We got to put our ducks in the right pond for right now. There's going to be a day."
Even though Hombre isn't looking to expand right away, that doesn't mean there's not plenty of work for House, who's in charge of distribution and billing to the company's nearly 170 retailers. She settles all the accounts herself - in person.
She admits to spending most of her time behind a windshield.
"I have (our accounts) broken up into 10 different routes, and I hit each route every two weeks," says House, 51. "I drive anywhere from 300 to 500 miles a week, depending on which route."
House has no qualms about her workload, however. She is quick to declare her love for her job.
"I'd say meat's in my blood," she says. "I really feel a lot of loyalty to the company. I know I could make a lot more money somewhere else, but I've never really thought of looking for another job."
Although the Pyles make sausage at their Eudora plant as well, jerky dominates their work week; it takes most of four days to produce two 600-pound batches.
They start by machine-slicing inside rounds of raw beef that go into a vacuum tumbler, which opens the tissues and fibers so the cuts can soak up spices and cures.
"You can speed up your process by doing that because cure salt takes quite awhile to penetrate through the meat," says Pat, 43. "By opening up the tissue, you drive the spices and the cure deep into the meat. It speeds up the curing process, plus it gives it a more even cure, and the flavor is the same throughout every piece of jerky that comes out of the house."
When the meat comes out of the tumbler, it's laid onto screens and sent into the smokehouse, which can handle 600 pounds of meat at a time. The Pyles use hickory sawdust to slow cook and smoke the meat for seven to nine hours.
Later, the jerky is cut into bite-size pieces with a band saw, weighed into 1 1/2-, 4-, 8- and 16-ounce sizes and vacuum-sealed into pouches with the familiar red and black Hombre label affixed.
A taste of home
The majority of the Pyles' jerky doesn't make it more than 200 miles beyond Eudora, but the company has found another marketplace for its product: the Internet.
People across the U.S. have been embracing Hombre, and its popularity is spreading.
"Right now the Internet is only about 2 percent of our business, but every week it's picking up," says the elder Tom Pyle, who has seen shipments go to Texas, the Carolinas and California, among other locales.
In the Eudora headquarters of Pyle Meat Co. hangs evidence of the farthest reaches to which its famous jerky has traveled. An authentic Iraqi flag, "liberated" by Kurt Nahopson, a Eudora native and U.S. Army sergeant, was embroidered specially for the Pyles with "Hombre Beef Jerky" and sent back to Eudora in gratitude for the meat company's support of the U.S. armed forces.
Since May 2004, the company has been offering free shipping to anyone who wants to send the gourmet meat to U.S. troops overseas. Many people have taken advantage of the perk.
"It would be in the hundreds of pounds now," figures the elder Tom Pyle, who was recently elected mayor of Eudora. "It's been over a year, and we've been sending eight to 10 pounds a week; it adds up. They can travel with that stuff over there - it doesn't spoil in the desert."
The Pyle Meat Co. is looking to the future. It recently doubled its production capacity with the expansion of its facilities, graduated from state- to federal-level inspection and reopened its famous line of sausage that spent years on hiatus.
But their mission remains unchanged, and the Pyle family's feet are still on the ground.
"We hope we'll get a lot bigger without losing control of it," House says. "Bigger is not always better. You get too big, you lose some of the quality. We've built our reputation on quality."