Of Bagpipes and Biking (The Bagpipe Magazine)

The following article appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of The Bagpipe, the official journal of the American Highland Cattle Association. Last week’s post tells our story in the words of another, and this week’s post is a re-telling in our own.

One summer, maybe four years ago now, I had taken up mountain biking, finding in the sport the same allure as others find in fly fishing or hunting: a connection with the outdoors. After a month or two of this invigorating activity, the biking trails within ten miles of home were becoming too familiar, too worn, and I began to seek more exotic terrain. Turning to a guidebook of Michigan bike trails, I began to read their descriptions. One in particular stood out amongst all the others, beckoning to be discovered: that of the trails at the Ionia State Recreation Area.

Mounting a Diamondback on my red 1998 Honda Civic, I set out for the park whose namesake is an isle off the western coast of Scotland. It took more than a little effort to find the trail system but—once found—the open country unfolded into fields and prairies, brooks and woodlands, sunshine and the summer breeze. Brushing against the tall grasses as my bike whisked by, I remember thinking that though a $5 entry fee had been paid upon entering the park I would gladly have given a hundred for the experience. And then something completely unexpected happened. Cresting a high hill, I was greeted by the sound of bagpipes. Here, on one edge of the trail system bordered by a lonely country road, a pipe player had come to be away from it all, and I was treated to a most exquisite gift.

I’d love to say that the story of our heritage meat company (Duba & Company) was born that day in Ionia. It wasn’t. But it does help tell the story. For two generations, dating back to the late 1940s or early 1950s, my family ran a fine dining restaurant that became something of an institution in western Michigan. Duba’s Restaurant was renowned for its prime rib and gracious hospitality. A fortuitous offer in 2005 by a Michigan-based bank allowed the four Dubas who owned the restaurant—my father included—to sell the property on which the restaurant sat and, for the time being, exit the restaurant business. It was my father, Michael Duba and head chef of Duba’s Restaurant, who suggested that the Family start selling its signature steak online to the West Michigan clientele that had come to regard the steak as without peer. We would procure the steaks from the same butcher with whom the Family worked for so many years and—the thinking was—become a sort of West Michigan “Omaha Steaks”.

In December of 2011, word came that the butcher who sourced and cut our beef was ceasing business operations; we’d be losing our supplier. The search for the next Duba steaks commenced. In the Spring of 2012, while preparing for a presentation to the staff at a local microbrewery on the topic of heirloom vegetables, I stumbled onto something completely un-looked for: the meat equivalent of heirloom vegetables. “Heritage meats” by name, the discovery was like unearthing a buried treasure. Here were meats that came from neolithic-looking beasts that reminded me of the cattle I had seen in one of my favorite films, Braveheart. Besides the Highland breed, there were the cattle that ventured with the Spanish explorers to the “New World” as well as another breed of livestock that journeyed with the Choctaw Native Americans on the Trail of Tears. Immediately, I was seized by the mythic potency of heritage meats, by their power to convey so much of what stirs the imagination: story, far-away lands, and the ethos of our ancestors. In other words, I saw in heritage meats an embodiment of the mystique of the Old World, the West, and—as J.R.R. Tolkien fans will appreciate—the Shire.

Now, I have long believed great businesses are those that communicate an intangible experience through the medium of a tangible product. Exemplars of such companies are the New Belgian Brewing Company in Fort Collins, CO, The Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, MI, and Buffalo Jackson Trading Company in Charlotte, NC. To visit them, whether in person or online, is to enter another realm. Following their example, I wanted to provide the market with more than meats of unparalleled quality and flavor; I wanted to bring to bear all the romance of heritage meats, an experience we’ve tried to create through our website, weekly blog posts, and packaging. In other words, I wanted to give customers what that bike ride through the Ionia State Recreation Area gave me: pure Romance. And so, for us, our heritage meat company is both about the flavor and romance of heritage meats.

With plans to open a brick-and-mortar old world butcher shoppe, Duba & Company currently sells online to the home consumer, shipping heritage meats to both the east and west coasts of the United States, as far north as Minnesota and as far south as Texas. It is proud to showcase and honor on its website those farms and ranches with whom it partners. The Company, furthermore, invites farms and ranches raising exceptional heritage beef—beef raised primarily on pasture and without growth hormones and prophylactic antibiotics—to contact its owner, Jeff Duba, if they have interest in having the Company carry their product. And, while Duba & Company will continue to carry all types of heritage beef, I freely admit that Highland beef has a pride of place in our product line. After all, I spent a semester abroad, studying in Great Britain and traveling to Scotland—to Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow, and the Isle of Arran—only to fall in love with its people, culture, land, and Scotch whisky.

The discovery of heritage meats, like everything that is good, came to me like the playing of bagpipes in the Ionia countryside (namely, as a gift). And what a gladness it is to share that gift as merchants of heritage meats.

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