It is a common business strategy. When things aren’t going well, you make a course correction. You try something different.
For Adrian and Catherine “Cat” Van Zyl, it was success, not failure, that precipitated change.
For the Van Zyls, who for almost two decades have run Hunters Gold Deer Processing, success came in the form of deer carcasses. Seventy-five hundred (7,500) of them this past deer season.
This number is even more remarkable considering the Van Zyls’ remote location, about eight miles northeast of Steens on Steens-Vernon Road, three miles across the Alabama line.
“I’m one butcher taking care of one deer at a time,” Adrian said. “Everything I do is the old-fashioned way.”
Cat, for her part, plays a vital role in the business; she keeps up with paperwork, takes care of customers and helps with ordering.
A native of Durban, South Africa, he processes deer in a room that looks like a surgical theater.
“People can’t believe how clean everything is,” he says. “That is something I learned in the military.”
Van Zyl served in his country’s Special Forces unit after two years of mandatory military service.
Many of his deer customers requested the various sausages Adrian concocted using their spices imported from South Africa.
It’s illegal to sell wild game; why not use those same spices with beef, pork and chicken?
In July the Van Zyls opened Hunters Gold Custom Meats, a retail operation carved out of their processing building.
Presently the business consists of 14 upright freezers in a narrow room. At this telling HGCM offers 167 products. They have plans to expand.
Adrian opens one of the freezers displaying shelves of vacuumed-wrapped sausage. Two shelves contain a bright green link sausage made with chicken, spinach and cheese.
On seeing the green sausage, a recent customer announced he would not be buying any. Before leaving the customer, succumbing to his curiosity, bought one package.
A week later, the customer was back. “Give me 10 packs of that green sausage,” he told Adrian.
Thursday morning, when I arrived for this interview, Ozzie Bond was concluding a purchase for several bags of Hunters Gold Sweet Heat, a beef and pork sausage seasoned with seven fruits.
The product has been an unmitigated success. Adrian says he’s sold thousands of pounds of it this year.
As for Bond, his enthusiasm for the Van Zyls’ enterprise is unequivocal.
“This is a great place,” he said. “This sounds crazy, but if you don’t like the meat they put out, your “liker” is broke.”
For Adrian Van Zyl, 56, who exudes an irrepressible good humor, success has not come quickly or without long hours of toil, while maintaining uncompromising standards.
As a child he spent time in his grandfather’s butcher shop in rural KwaZulu-Natal province. After his military service Van Zyl worked for a South African grocery chain that sent him to school to learn butchery.
In his store in South Africa, Van Zyl met an American woman who was accompanying her father on safari. The two, Catherine Shook and Van Zyl, married, and in 1998 he emigrated to the U.S. He was 32 years old.
Van Zyl went to work in the meat department at the Winn-Dixie on Highway 45. During a deer hunting season he, while continuing at Winn-Dixie, rented a deer processing facility on Sand Road that was doing little business. With Van Zyl at the helm, the business flourished, so much so the owner took it back over.
A Sand Road customer later came to Van Zyl and asked if he would make him some sausage.
He resumed his deer processing using a swing set up in his front yard.
Van Zyl sold his Ford Bronco and boat and built a cooler with the proceeds. Hunters Gold continued to expand.
“As I made money, I put it back into the business,” he said.
Later Thursday morning another customer arrives, Tim Thompson of Vernon. He and the Van Zyls hug. They talk about playing music together.
“This is a family business,” Adrian says. “People are happy to be here.”
Later as he was walking through the warren of buildings that comprises Hunters Gold, Adrian Van Zyl paused and looked around.
“Never in my life would I have believed this,” he said.
Birney Imes (email@example.com) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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