BOWLING GREEN — Ed Woods likes to think of the potential rather than the improbable.
The unfaltering confidence, as well as a fierce competitive spirit, are working well as the Bowling Green businessman celebrates 40 years in a trade that increasingly is becoming a part of history.
As little as a generation ago, most small towns boasted a locker, a butcher or, at the very least, a supermarket where meat was cut to order.
For the most part, those images are just memories now.
Woods understands the reasons, but he's determined to beat the trend.
And he's doing it by giving customers the incomparable service they've always expected while throwing in a little something they could never have anticipated.
"The meat business is the only thing I've really ever done," said Woods, 63, who owns Woods Smoked Meats with his wife, Regina. "It really gets in your blood."
Woods first picked up a meat knife at age 12.
His father, Goodrich Woods, operated a grocery on the Bowling Green square from 1947 to 1952 and then owned a locker there for 10 years.
"I started out and I guess I kind of liked it," Woods said. "To me, it came easy."
Woods graduated from Bowling Green High School in 1965 and got a degree in food science and nutrition in 1969 from the University of Missouri.
He worked at a Kansas City packing house for two years and was promoted to a supervisory position.
The job was mentally as well as physically demanding, and provided Woods with the tools he would use to one day be his own boss.
"There were no computers then, so it all had to be done long-hand," he said. "I often wonder what would have happened if I'd stayed there."
A conversation about sausage brought Woods' attention back to Bowling Green.
His father couldn't make the popular ground meat product, so Woods promised he'd return to Pike County if the family invested in smokehouse.
The original concrete block structure, the foundation of which can still be seen in one of the coolers at Woods' extensive facility along Business Highway 54 at the west edge of town, proved to be popular.
"We were kind of just going by feel," Woods said.
A few years later, another conversation led to another experiment.
"Some friends of mine talked me into making deer sausage," Woods recalled with a slight smile. "If we made something like that (first batch) today, we'd probably throw it out, but we were flying by the seat of our pants."
Woods began talking with other producers and getting tips from people who were more familiar with smoking techniques. It wasn't long before the advice paid off.
Woods Smoked Meats won its first state award in 1974 and its first national award three years later. The business also has been recognized for its products as far away as Germany.
"When you think of Woods Smoked products, you think of quality products, and that's what we strive for," Woods said.
Woods estimates he has won more than 500 awards over the years.
Customers know he's telling the truth, because many of them hang on the walls of the retail shop, dubbed Sweet Betsy's Cabin.
But it takes a lot of work to produce more than 100 smoked meat products that Woods sells or ships around the nation.
"When you first start out, you're really concentrating on the flavor," Woods said. "Once you get your formula down, you work on the beauty characteristics of it — the color, the trim, how fat it is, how lean it is. Some guys could take it or leave it. I'm a competitive guy."
Woods estimates that in contests, judges base 35 to 40 percent of their scores on flavor, but adds that the taste "separates the winners from the almost-winners."
Wholesale meat sales remain the biggest part of Woods' business, but it also does a lot of retail pre-cooked orders and features a deli that serves lunch on weekdays.
Some sales come from private label orders. November and December are the busiest months.
The facility has its own slaughterhouse as well as the most up-to-date equipment. Many of the machines, including the three stainless steel smokers, are controlled by computer.
Bacon is one of the easier meats to smoke.
Woods picks out the leanest pork belly. He then cures it with a mix of sugar and spices for three to four days.
After that, it goes in the smokehouse for 10 hours, with the heat gradually being raised. After the smokehouse, the meat is cooled, sliced and packaged.
Woods uses hickory shavings, but also blends in apple and cherry to boost flavor. A ham takes about a week and a country ham can take up to six months because all the water is drained from it.
Woods must be careful that he has the right products on hand.
"I have to stay a week ahead of when it's made to make sure everything is lined up," he said.
And timing is what separates the products that Woods produces from those that are sold by large companies.
"Mother Nature's got to take its course," Woods said.
Some people do get a bit impatient, however.
"It's a good problem to have," Woods admits.
Lifestyles changes and government intervention have not been good to butchers.
The Bowling Green locker is inspected by the USDA and the deli is reviewed by the Pike County Health Department.
"The paperwork we have to keep track of is mind-boggling," Woods said.
By Woods' count, there once were more than 70 small meat producers between Quincy and St. Louis. Now, he estimates there are fewer than 20.
Even though many people are thinking more about where their food comes from, there are fewer farmers to produce it than a quarter-century ago.
The culinary demands of customers also have changed. Woods said meat producers themselves have, in some cases, taken different paths.
"The eating habits and the buying habits have changed so much over the years that some guys couldn't or wouldn't change to meet the customers' needs," he said.
Woods is an admitted experimentalist. His wife and their 15 employees often serve as willing subjects. He'll try odd spices and different mixtures of meat, all in an effort to keep things from getting boring.
"You let your imagination run wild," said Woods, whose quiet demeanor seems 180 degrees from that of a provocateur. "Some work and some don't."
For the first time in its history, the retail shop is selling a house-made venison bacon. It's a combination of deer and pork by which Woods swears.
"It's pretty good," he said.
So, what does a connoisseur who is one of only 30 people voted into the American Association of Meat Processors' Cured Meats Hall of Fame like to see on his plate?
Well, here's a hint. It ain't a veggie burger.
Give this aficionado a slab of bacon or a ribeye steak.
You won't go wrong with sausage, either.
"Any kind," Woods says. "It just tastes good."