Fergus Falls, Minn. – Dennis Tuel, Sr., has started nine successful companies in the last 40 years, including ShoreMaster, a $22-million maker of waterfront equipment. Now in his “retirement,” Tuel, 67, has turned a bison hobby into a leading business.

Tuel and his daughter and son-in-law, Tricia and Mike Vetrone, operate Buffalo Pass Ranch, with 550 bison north of Fergus Falls. The family’s wholesale marketing company, Buffalo Meat, Inc., distributes frozen bison to retail stores in the Upper Midwest. And this summer, the company launched its own branded meats.

AURI’s meat lab in Marshall helped Tuel develop and test nearly two dozen buffalo products for the new label, including bratwurst, franks, Polish sausage, breakfast patties, summer sausage and five varieties of jerky. AURI also helped Tuel develop buffalo ham and bacon plus two cooked offerings: buffalo chili and stew. The Buffalo Pass Ranch line also includes steaks, roasts and ground burger – the top seller.

Set up the freezers yourself

Tuel’s company operates two delivery trucks, distributing frozen products directly to nearly 200 supermarkets in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Illinois, including Cub Foods, Coborn’s and Cashwise stores. The bison meat is displayed in free-standing, 12-cubic-foot freezers supplied by Buffalo Pass Ranch.

The freezers, which provide prime shelf space and high visibility, have been effective in getting the new products into stores and in generating sales, Tuel says. “The buffalo doesn’t get lost with the beef and pork and other meats.” Buffalo Pass Ranch, which employs three salesmen, is promoting its brand through in-store demos and free meat counter samples: “In the past we’ve done three demos a year in each store – very expensive,” Tuel says. The company also runs coupons and special promotions. “And, of course, anybody in the meat department gets the full court press on buffalo meat.”

A kind of hobbyhorse

Tuel grew up on a dairy farm in Douglas County and says, “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” After earning degrees in biology and chemistry, he sold pharmaceuticals and worked as a commercial pilot. He owned an airplane dealership in Florida for several years, then returned to Minnesota to found ShoreMaster in 1972, manufacturing the first all-aluminum boat lifts, as well as docks and floating marinas.

In 1994, Tuel retired from day-to-day management of ShoreMaster; he sold the company in 2002. A longtime wildlife enthusiast, Tuel had purchased three buffalo cows and a bull in 1990 – just for fun, he says. Feeling bored with retirement, “I went out and bought some more registered animals,” investing thousands of dollars in top bulls. By the end of the decade, Tuel and his daughter and son-in-law had built a breeding herd of 550. They grow 400 acres of hay for feed and have produced many award-winning bulls and heifers. Buffalo Pass Ranch was named Minnesota Buffalo Association Producer of the Year in 2001 and 2002.

Moving to meat

As the Midwest bison industry matured in the late 1990s, Buffalo Pass Ranch’s marketing focus gradually shifted from genetics to meat. The ranch had been selling some meat all along, mainly to another Tuel-family enterprise, the Big Chief Truck Stop in Fergus Falls. The busy restaurant offers a variety of buffalo dishes and the convenience store sells frozen meat. Little by little, Tuel began supplying other meat outlets, too.

“We started small, with 10 or 12, and kept expanding until finally I said, ‘Let’s go for it.’ ” He established Buffalo Meat, Inc. in 2002. Initially, the wholesale company distributed Buffalo Nickel brand meats, produced by a North Dakota-based bison co-op.

Last fall, Tuel began working with AURI scientists Darrell Bartholomew, Brian Reuter and Charan Wadhawan on his own private label. “We helped him standardize the recipes and scale up for commercial batches,” Wadhawan says. “We also did nutritional analysis and labeling.” All the Buffalo Pass Ranch products were taste tested at the Big Chief restaurant and are processed at USDA-inspected plants.

Bright bison future

Tuel, a past president of the Minnesota Buffalo Association, says the outlook for the bison industry is bright. There are now more than 10,000 bison on Minnesota farms; two-thirds of the state’s producers are direct-marketing meat. “That’s good,” Tuel says. These entrepreneurs are helping to build demand for the alternative red meat, which is low in fat and calories. Minnesota bison farmers raise a high quality, consistent product, Tuel says. Buffalo Pass Ranch meats are produced by growers following a standardized feeding regimen, “so if you buy a pound of burger in Morris and a pound of burger in the Twin Cities, they will be uniform,” Tuel says.

Consumer prices for buffalo meat are also dropping, making bison more competitive with beef, says Bartholomew, who oversees the AURI animal products program. The bison industry is also doing a better job of marketing the whole carcass, “not just premium cuts,” he says. “Price and selling the whole carcass are two of the industry’s biggest hurdles.” Meanwhile, Tuel expects his former hobby to post strong sales this year, though he doesn’t disclose numbers. And what about retirement? He shrugs: “Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur.” Besides, he says, looking out the window of his home at the herd of bison dotting the hillside, “I kind of like these buffalo.”

For more information about Buffalo Pass Ranch, visit www.buffalopassranch.com