FREDERICKTOWN, Ohio — He started out in the meat and butchering business the way most people do — learning it from the previous generation.
But Mike Jessee, 53, and his wife, Jenny, have spent the past 20-plus years making their Knox County butcher shop truly their own.
The Jessees own and operate Dee-Jays Custom Butchering and Processing along state Route 95, on the north end of Fredericktown.
They handle the usual mix of custom processing orders for local farmers and consumers, butchering and selling meat to order. But they’ve also developed some award-winning smoked meat recipes, and become suppliers to nearly a dozen restaurants in the Cleveland area.
Some of the restaurants, like The Greenhouse Tavern and Lucky’s Cafe, have even been featured on TV food programs and by food bloggers, all of which helps the image at Dee-Jays, and the restaurants they serve.
Jenny delivers products to Cleveland every week, and chefs from the restaurants often visit the butcher shop, to see what goes on before the meat reaches the plate.
It’s all part of the local foods, know-your-farmer trend that is sweeping the nation, and Mike believes it’s for real.
“The people want to know where it came from,” he said. “They want a face with it. They want to know how the animal was handled, what it was fed, and that’s what we try to provide.”
Brian Goodman, chef at The Greenhouse Tavern, gets all of his pork and most of his beef from Dee-Jays, and also his lamb patties. The Jessee family raises its own lamb on a 53-acre farm.
“He (Mike Jessee) really has a good mentality of how he raises the animals,” Goodman said. “He raises his animals properly and he kills them properly. It’s in demand because it’s proper way to do business, in our eyes.”
The Jessees keep about 75 head of breeding ewes, from which they source their lamb. They slaughter about six to eight lambs a week, as well as eight to 12 head of cattle, and 20-25 hogs.
More than half of their business is custom processing, but the meat sold to Cleveland is a significant part of the company.
The Jessees got involved with Cleveland restaurants in 2001, with help from local foods gurus like Cleveland chef and local food advocate Parker Bosley.
Mike Jessee said business has grown significantly since they started in Cleveland, mostly through word of mouth and through good publicity — like printing the company’s name on the menu.
Jessee said it gives him a lot of pride “knowing your product is up there, and they (Clevelanders) enjoy it.”
Heather Haviland, chef at Lucky’s Cafe in the southern part of Cleveland, said she’s bought and cooked Dee-Jays meats for 10 years, at first driving down to the farm herself to pack her car full of meat.
“It was worth it to me … the quality difference,” she said. Her restaurant continues to buy pork, beef and lamb from Dee-Jays, including new recipes and cuts that Mike designs himself.
“The more times I go down to his facility and see what he’s created or is working on — we end up finding a way to incorporate it into our menu,” she said.
Haviland said she’s been impressed with her visits to the processing plant, and Mike’s willingness to give chefs a tour.
“They’re so respectful of the creature,” she said, noting the animals are penned separately and killed on a different day than when the meat is shipped. “To me as a chef who uses a lot of protein, that means a lot to me.”
The workers at Dee-Jays are mostly family, including Mike’s daughter, Dorinda Kline, and her husband, Jeff.
Mike said is difficult to find good butcher shop help, because of the work involved and the skills. He called it “a dying art.”
Mike and Jenny took over the business in 1994, from Dick and Judy Ebersole. Since then, they’ve spent each year making it their own, developing new cuts and recipes along the way.
“I’ve just always liked it,” he said. “It just intrigued me, the different cuts and how to fabricate everything up. I like experimenting making things.”
In high school, Mike was on the Fredericktown FFA meat judging team. Today, it’s his full-time profession.