Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Slicing the competition

September/October 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Butcher's family recipes and innovative sausages garner national awards

Tulare-based butcher Danny Mendes has won a host of awards for his sausages and other meats. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

For almost three-quarters of his life, Danny Mendes has been sharpening his butchery and sausage-making skills, offering traditional and inventive sausage flavors and cut-to-order beef, pork and game. During the last four years, his sausages and cured and smoked meats have earned more than 45 state awards and seven national awards for Tulare Meat Locker & Sausage Co.

How did you start in the butchery business? Tulare Locker Service was established in 1976. I was born and raised five blocks from the business. The owners were friends of the family, Joe and Lucille Leal. When I turned 13, Lucille asked my parents if I was interested in becoming a clean-up boy. I started going to work, kind of started learning the trade: retail, sales, the art of butchery. It's an art, a dying breed.

You were an ironworker in the Bay Area after high school. What brought you back? In June 2003, the owner of Tulare Locker Service called me. They were interested in selling and knew I always liked the business. I was 25 at that time. All my friends and family were in Tulare, and I had the opportunity to buy a business that I initially loved to do. In July 2003, I came back, purchased the business in September 2003. Sixteen years later, I'm still here.

How did you get into sausage making? In 2014, I wanted to get more into the smoking and curing of sausages; I wanted to make my grandma's linguiça recipe. But I didn't have the right equipment. I built an extra room, bought the smokehouse, a mixer, a stuffing machine. And I started doing linguiça, like I wanted. Then I started getting into the different flavored sausages. I changed the business name to Tulare Meat Locker & Sausage Co. We started doing pulled pork, beef jerky, anything that has to do with smoking and cooking. A year and a half later, I bought a second smokehouse because we couldn't keep up.

You've won more than 45 state awards. How have you fared on the national level? I joined the American Association of Meat Processors in 2017. The first year, we competed in their America Cured Meat Championship—this is the best of the best—and we got Grand Champion for our smoked sausage—a smoked bratwurst—and a Reserve Grand Champion for our andouille sausage. The second year, Champion for boneless ham, Reserve Champion for bacon, Reserve Grand Champion for bone-in ham and Braunschweiger—a liver sausage—and Grand Champion for hot links. They announced the hot link Grand Champion winner and everyone was like, "What? The guy from California got the plaque?" I dubbed it the Kansas City Hot Link, and we can't keep it on the shelves.

Butcher shop employee Amparo Ochoa assists customer Ashton Shoenhair with a purchase. Photo: © 2019 Tomas Ovalle

When you joined the California Association of Meat Producers in 2016, you entered your first smoking and curing competition. How did you fare? I went to my first show and came home with 11 awards. The second year, 10 awards. In four years of competing, we've won over 45 state awards, including two best of show awards: for olive loaf in 2017 and for Italian bacon—bacon coated with Italian herbs and spices—in 2019.

What are some of your most popular products? We make around 70 sausages, 15 snack sticks, five jerkies, flavored bacon, bone-in and boneless ham, different flavors of summer sausage. Anything that's smoked and cured meat, I'm going to do it. I'm just passionate about it.

Popular sausages include Jalapeño Cheddar, Smoked Bratwurst, Smoked Hawaiian Sausage. I like to come up with new ideas and one that stood out was the Dorito Bean Dip Sausage. It's just like it sounds: Nacho Cheese Doritos, black beans and olives—incorporate it into pork meat and it tastes just like bean dip.

Do you have any specialty products? Linguiça is No. 1. There's a big Portuguese community in Tulare County, so I always try to think how I can offer more traditional products to the Portuguese community. So we'll make a Portuguese blood sausage: morcela.

I wanted to think outside the box, and everything tastes better with bacon, so I took our linguiça and we form it into the shape of a pork belly, smoke it, slice it thin and we call it Mendes Linguiça Bacon.

We're also famous for our Mendes Old-Fashioned Smoked Turkeys; we'll do over 500 of them for the holidays.

Where would you like to take the company in the future? I own the building next to me. It's an old milk barn from the '50s. I outgrew my freezer already. I need to expand my freezers into that building and I want to offer more of a retail area. Right now, you walk in and it's more of a mom-and-pop storefront: a meat case and a two-door freezer. My vision is to expand, put in more meat cases, focus on more visual products people can see when they walk in. Offer more marinated stuff, more seasoned stuff. Spices, marinades, sauces. I would like to carry local stuff. That would be awesome.

And then, somehow, incorporate a sandwich shop with all the products being made in-house: pastrami, roast beef, ham.

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