Thin-sliced ham, thinner profit margins: Edwards Ham clings on after fire

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Sam Edwards III, right, and his son Sammy stand on the ground where their smokehouse once stood. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Grass now grows where Edwards Virginia Ham’s smokehouse once stood for three generations– and then suddenly burned to the ground one cold morning.

While the charred wreckage of the Edwards family business has long been cleared from the scene of the devastating Jan. 2016 fire, the family now has to clear legal hurdles before they can begin to rebuild their smokehouse.

The company released a statement Monday, informing their customers that the company is locked in a lawsuit with their insurance company and brokers over claims stemming from the blaze. 

As the family awaits an appeal ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court, the Virginia ham-makers have partnered with five smokehouses around the country to keep Edwards ham on shelves and in home refrigerators.

“The business model we have now is working,” said Sam Edwards III, president of the company.  “At first it was really just to survive — we thought — for a year. Since we now know it’s going to take longer than a year to come to a conclusion, I think the business model will be able to survive. I don’t want to say thrive, because with this business model we’re a long way from where we were prior to the fire as far as sales and profits.”

Edwards said his company’s production in 2016 was 46 percent of what it was before the blaze, and less than half of their individual products are still on the market. Additionally, the loss of his smokehouse has limited his ability to develop new products.

Two medals hang in Sam Edwards III's office- one of which was charred in the smokehouse blaze. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Two medals hang in Sam Edwards III’s office- one of which was charred in the smokehouse blaze. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

“The margins are so thin it’s harder to make a living,” Edwards said.

Another setback struck in January, when Edwards’ business partner Harper’s Country Ham in Kentucky burned to the ground. Harper’s was carrying roughly 6,000 of Edwards’ hams.

“We’ve had some long conversations about his process and it’s like living it all over again,” Edwards said.  “I feel for them.”

However, as a self-proclaimed “control freak,” Edwards said his biggest struggle has been taking a hands-off approach, and providing family secrets to other businesses, even partners.

“We spend a lot of time teaching others the family recipe. That’s a little disheartening– You got to do what you got to do,” Edwards said.  “Fortunately the guys we’ve connected with are reasonable about doing little tiny things we used to focus on ourselves that a lot of people don’t think are worth it. You have to constantly keep reminding them about those details.”

Other producers are not willing to age hams as long as Edwards cures his, due to price or space limits, but Edwards said taste tests have been positive.

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The preliminary blueprints for Edwards Virginia Ham’s next smokehouse. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Edwards Virginia Smokehouse ran out of ham on Dec. 10, during the peak of holiday ham sales. That’s a problem Edwards said they never would have encountered had their smokehouse been in operation.

“It’s different when we’re making the product,” Edwards said. “Literally all I had to do was pick up the phone on the two-way radio and say, ‘Hey we need another blah-blah-blah-blah,’ and they would make it…If we had our plant we could’ve cooked more right away and shipped them two days later.”

While Edwards Virginia Ham has developed preliminary blueprints for a new-and-improved smokehouse, their plans hinge on the outcome of their lawsuit.

“The goal is to rebuild,” said Edwards. “The lawsuit is simmering all the time and we have to stay focused on producing product. Unfortunately it’s harder to do that. It’s harder to make a profit. It’s hard to survive. My concern is that it’s going to still be simmering, and we hope that we’ll be able to survive long enough for it to be cooked.”