STEVENSVILLE, Mont. - Jason Erickson was serving up beef burritos when he decided he would rather be delivering buffalo - and not as a meal.
"I didn't know it, but I absolutely love tanning, love it to death," said Erickson, owner of The Tannery, a hair-on-hide tanning company in the Bitterroot Valley. Now, he processes animal hides for businesses and individuals across the United States and Canada.
He's quickly earning a reputation as a premier buffalo robe tanner.
"The quality is second to none," said Nella McCaskill, a catalog retailer for CNF Marketing in Winnipeg, Manitoba, who described the robes as "absolutely beautiful."
Erickson never expected to tan hides for a living. He has paid his bills as an antique dealer and more recently as a caterer. But all was not going well in the food business.
"My catering business was falling apart, not by any means of my own," said Erickson. "It was just one thing after the other. The Lord was shutting that down."
One day, while delivering burritos to a tannery in Stevensville, the then-owner told Erickson his business was for sale. He suggested the caterer buy it.
"I said, 'You teach me how to tan and I will do it,'" said Erickson. "I worked for one week and fell in love with it. I said, 'I want to do this.'"
The Tannery, located in the Creamery Building in Stevensville, has been growing ever since. The production floor space has nearly tripled in the last four years. Erickson sells hides wholesale and retail, charging customers who come into the business $650 for a buffalo hide. The typical retail price is closer to $850, or higher.
Erickson doesn't do any significant advertising. He doesn't even have a sign outside the business. Most of his orders come by word of mouth. And customers keep spreading the word about Erickson's skill with hides, including deer, elk and exotic animals. His specialty is buffalo, which can be difficult to tan because of the thick fur, weight and size of the hide.
It's not easy finding a good buffalo tanner, said Dan Fournier, owner of Wild West Trading Co. in Fraser, Colo., who has purchased robes from up to six different tanneries. He said some businesses have sold him hides "stiff as plywood."
Fournier buys many robes from Erickson for hide paintings.
"I'm not there to pick them out, so I have to trust the guy who is doing the tanning," he said. "I have to trust they are going to send me a nice hide. He tries hard. Some of these guys do their thing and they go home. If there is something not quite right, he'll figure it out.
"He probably has the best prices, too," said Fournier. "That's not what drives me to buy through him. I don't care what the price is. If I can't sell it, it doesn't do me any good. I've bought hides for one-quarter of what he's selling and couldn't get rid of them. I ended up throwing them all away."
The Tannery avoids selling hides that have bare spots. Erickson hires someone to hand-select each animal.
"Rough spots are pretty common among buffalo because the bulls fight a lot and they are constantly scratching up against posts and trees," said Fournier. "That scratches off some of the hide."
Erickson started out tanning about 10 buffalo a year. Now he ships more than 400 robes annually to customers.
Mistake pays off
His foray into buffalo began when he shipped a robe to the wrong person.
"I ended up making a contact who pretty much supplies me with an unlimited source of buffalo," Erickson said. "And they are all good. They are all winter kill."
McCaskill purchases about 50 hides a year from The Tannery, selling the robes to homeowners and interior designers. She has worked with several buffalo robe suppliers and appreciates Erickson's extra steps - like tumbling, drying and triple brushing - to soften a robe.
"It's an added plus," she said.
And the service is fast.
"I can place an order today and I know tomorrow it's gone," she said. "We'll definitely continue our relationship."
Erickson considers his job a blessing.
"If I had tried, I couldn't have made this come together like it has," he said.
He relied on prayer to find his niche. "I got down on my knees. I said, 'I don't know what I can do, but you know all my talents. You know all my abilities. Please show me what I can do.'"
God answered his prayers, he said.
"He put me right here," said Erickson. "It's been a kick ever since."
The tanner is now thinking about how to let others share in his success. He would like to grow organic foods to help employ the mentally ill, providing them with steady jobs, exercise and nutritional food. He thinks it's a better option than a prescription for drugs.
Meanwhile, he's committed to the 14-day process of soaking, shaving, tumbling, oiling, drying and brushing the commercially tanned buffalo robes, a grueling job by most standards.
"Buffalo hides are hard," said Bill O'Connell, a robe customer. "It gives you a whole new respect for Native American women," who traditionally tanned the hides by hand. O'Connell sends Erickson cured hides from Ted Turner's Flying D buffalo ranch in Bozeman. He said finished furs-on-hide are "exceptional."
While Native people historically used every part of the buffalo in their daily lives, from food to clothing, most people today use the robes in home decor or as bed covers - an average-size hide is 6-by-6 feet and easily fits on a king-size bed.
Lee Standing Bear, secretary of the Manataka American Indian Council in Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, said he doesn't encourage people to use robes as rugs. The council sells many of Erickson's robes online to Native customers who use them for ceremonies or for warmth on a cool night.
"It really does keep them nice and toasty," said Standing Bear. "And they are soft, very soft."
The council has been purchasing robes from The Tannery for the last two years.
"If he doesn't have something, he will try to find it," Standing Bear said. "Our people have specific requests for things for ceremony."
The center sends its customers surveys: How do you like it? How did it arrive? Was it in good shape? Standing Bear recently reviewed some customer responses on Erickson's robes.
"Wow," he said. "We must like him."
He read some of the survey comments.
"Excellent." "Wonderful." "Beautiful."
And there were many "thank you" notes.
"He's always been fair and honest," said Standing Bear. "What more can you ask?"
(Reach reporter Jodi Rave at 800-366-7186 or jodi.rave@;lee.net.)