The hunt is on for Hickory Hills: Van Wyck big game processing plant on target and growing

Owner strives to be the largest game processing business in the country

Special to The HeraldDecember 12, 2012 

— At Hickory Hills, the meats were smoked, the trucks were muddy and the color was camo. Thanksgiving was a day for venison.

The 17-year-old Lancaster County processing plant is having a record year with hunters bringing deer and other big game from across the Southeast to get cut, seasoned and vacuum packed. It also has expanded its line of pork and beef products that it sells to the public.

“The business just keeps growing,” said Kyle Starnes, 44, the owner. “The taste – from old family recipes – is what people just keep coming back for. It’s like your favorite barbecue place.”

Volume doubled in the beginning and now grows from 10 percent to 15 percent every year, he said. That is despite a decrease in the deer population in South Carolina due to habitat change, coyotes and other factors, calculated by the state Department of Natural Resources.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving was Hickory Hills’ biggest day of the year.

“It’s the peak of the peak,” Starnes said. “Everybody is off for the holiday, everything is in season everywhere.”

The goal for Starnes is to be the largest game processing business in the country and for its pork and beef products, presence in malls and stores such as Hickory Farms.

Starnes is not far off. This season, Hickory Hills is on target to process several thousand deer, which is considered by those in the industry as the largest operation in South Carolina and among the leaders in the Southeast, though numbers are not recorded by any regulating agencies.

It has become the norm for Hickory Hills to bring in over 100 deer during peak days. The business ships to every state. Through online orders at and on-site sales, the smoked products are difficult to keep stocked.

“We have the cleanest facility, the best packaging and the best taste than any other place in the states,” Starnes said. “I enjoy seeing people happy. I like seeing people come in and get what they can’t get anywhere else.”

November is the busiest time, though orders are steady from August through March. South Carolina has the longest deer hunting season in the nation. Most deer are killed around sunrise and sunset.

With high-volume and long days, consistency is the challenge for Starnes and the team of seasonal workers.

“It’s a cooking operation,” Starnes said. “To maintain the flow of work and get it out efficiently and keep the quality you have to take your time, not get in a hurry and focus on consistency.”

Shean Coates who hunts in southern Lancaster County passes two other processing plants to bring his deer to Hickory Hills.

A game warden, Coates calls the business efficient, clean and friendly. He enjoys venison summer sausage with cheese and jalapenos.

“He’s got a large operation and he does a great job,” said Coates, who picked up his son’s 80-pound doe last week. “He’s very popular with the deer hunters. They will go out of their way to take their deer to him. They are the most popular place to take your meat.”

Hickory Hills sits along Steele Hill Road in the rural community of Van Wyck, across the railroad tracks from the site of the former Boral Brick plant.

With a stack of old family recipes and experience from the family farm’s smokehouse, Starnes and his father, Keith, a Clemson master’s degree holder and retired Springs Industries executive, started the business in 1995 in one room of the building that once housed a small grocery store, coin laundry and post office. The room had been the community’s butcher shop.

In its first season, Hickory Hills processed 300 deer. Mostly family and friends brought in their kills.

Starnes graduated from Winthrop University and started a full-time job with the IRS, but word spread quickly about Hickory Hills. He bought the building in 2001 and made Hickory Hills his full-time job in 2005.

The basic venison package includes whole loins, cube loins, butterfly steaks, cube steaks, stew meat, hind quarter steaks, boneless roast and hamburger. Pricing depends on the weight of the deer, from $28 for under 60 pounds to $47 for 140 pounds and over. Skinning and gutting is a $20 fee.

Customers can add breakfast sausage, jerky, snack sticks, bacon and other items for an extra charge. There are 10 varieties of flavored burgers, from bacon cheeseburger to charred habanero. Garlic, brown sugar bourbon and Italian are among the 10 steak marinates offered.

Since 2001, Hickory Hills has sold beef and pork products, which include jerky, snack sticks and sausage with cheddar, jalapenos and a new this year, habaneros.

Longtime customer Chris Joyce, 42, manages a 4,500-acre game preserve in Lancaster County. He has been coming to Hickory Hills for a decade with his personal deer and the deer the preserve hunters bring down.

“They are the best cooked meats I’ve ever had processed before,” Joyce said. “He’s got the right spices. It’s clean – he has it like a ... hospital back there.”

Joyce prefers the pickled venison snack sticks in a jar, an extra charge of $8, especially when paired with beer and a South Carolina Gamecocks football game.

“Oh my God, they are wonderful,” he said. “They have a good taste – not too hot, not too spicy. They are just right.”

Hickory Hills does not add chemicals or fats to its products. Venison, a growing favorite of the health conscious, is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than other red meats.

“It’s hormone-free,” Starnes said. “Everybody is on a health kick. What is better than what your grandparents ate?”

Hickory Hills also processes turkeys, elk, mule deer, caribou, black bear and alligators. This year, Starnes processed a 650-pound, 12-foot-long alligator from the Santee Cooper River.

Even dogs get a taste with a new line of bones that Starnes created using deer bones. They are $2.50 for the femur and $1.50 for a shank. No chemicals are added.

“Instead of having waste, I’ve always fed my dogs the deer bones,” Starnes said. “Then I started marinating them in our honey ham recipe and smoked them. My dogs loved them.”

Starnes was born into a hunting family. He brought down his first deer before he was a teenager. His biggest was an 11-point, 210-pound buck that hangs on the wall in the Hickory Hills office.

“Killing a deer is probably the most exciting feeling that you can have,” he said. “It’s an exhilarating feeling when you compile all the years of work into one or two seconds.”

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