Dakota Farmer

Ever wonder how chicken became king of the plate? It was partly because even though Don Tyson became a billionaire, he never ate like one.

March 6, 2014

4 Min Read

I just can’t seem to get the book about Tyson Foods out of my head.

“The Meat Racket – the Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business,” is an anecdote-filled book by agribusiness reporter Christopher Leonard about the evils of contract chicken and hog farming.

I’m not really buying the premise. There are plenty of local examples of younger farmers enjoying success with the newer, more fair methods of contract growing today.

But I’m captivated with how Tyson Foods grew from a one guy in the 1930s hauling live chickens to the city in his pickup to one of America’s four major meat processors.

I’ve got one more story from the book for you – how chicken became the most-consumed meat in America.

According the author, Don Tyson is responsible.

“Don Tyson became a billionaire in part because he never ate like one,” Leonard writes. “Even after he got rich, Don Tyson preferred to Neal’s Café, the Springdale, Ark., greasy spoon where he used to have lunch with his father. Don would show up at the airport for a business trip with his breakfast in a paper bag from McDonald’s He joined the growing herd of Americans who grabbed their lunch from a drive-through window. And Don took note of what he saw there. He noticed how restaurant patrons were in a hurry. When they bought lunch they wanted something they could eat in a car, something they could get fast and something they could get cheap.

“Don went to fast food restaurants like Wendy’s, Burger King and McDonald’s and watch the patrons who stared up at the backlit menu board to order their dinner, and he saw the future….

“Don Tyson had an obsession with McDonald’s that seemed entirely outside of rational proportion. He had made a personal fortune by specializing in chicken production and nothing else, and yet he spent several years of his life hounding a hamburger company that had never sold so much as a drumstick.”

In the 1970’s “Don Tyson called on McDonald’s with all the grace and restraint of a magazine salesman going door to door in the rain. He set up meeting with buyers and executives, telling them they were missing the boat on chicken. Chicken could be put into sandwiches or served in boneless patties. When the McDonald’s executives and buyers politely thanked him for this time and sent him home, he called back to set up another meeting. He took his jet to trade shows and industry meetings. He became an evangelist for chicken and its potential as a cornerstone of the fast food menu.

“He also made it clear that Tyson and only Tyson could deliver millions of pounds of meat to a national food chain with an around-the-clock distribution system. His pitch was simple – ‘Look, we’ll dedicate a whole plant to your production. We’ll cost it out, where you give us a reasonable margin. And we’ll just run your product. We can do this cheaper for you. And because it’s a dedicated plant, you can look over our shoulder on quality control all the time.’

“Don planned to piggyback on McDonald’s franchise system to bring processed chicken to every street corner. In his estimation, McDonald’s had the best distribution system of any fast-food franchise in the country, and that’s what drew him to the company. Rather than deliver Tyson’s product to several depots of refrigerated warehouses, Tyson could deliver to just one location: the McDonald’s distribution center. Then the restaurant chain would use its own trucks to ship the product out to its network of stores.

“It took 14 years for McDonald’s to come around. But eventually, the company called Tyson and said it had a product deal in which he might be interested. McDonald’s had developed a chicken product that would fit in with its menu of sandwiches and French fries that was easy to eat on the run. It wasn’t just a children burger, but a whole new kind of product. McDonald’s food scientists had figured out to mince chicken breast meat, mix it with stabilizers and other ingredients, then partially fry it in a special breading that enveloped the meat. Customers could hold a piece in their hand and eat it out of box. It was dubbed, the “McNugget.”

“As Don Tyson promised, his company retrofitted a plant in Nashville, Tenn., to make nothing but the McNugget. By 1983 Tyson was supplying the McNugget to McDonald’s stores around the country. Don Tyson had finally found a chicken product whose price didn’t fluctuate with the wholesale market for fresh chicken. It freed Tyson, at least in part, from the vicious commodity price cycle that tortured the industry.

“As Don Tyson envisioned, chicken products slowly began to creep onto menus across the country. Eventually, chicken would overtake beef and pork as the most-consumed meat in America.”

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