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Local businesses are one of our largest sources of pride. These shops, companies, and organizations help make Monroe County unique. 

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An interview with Allan Benton,

June 11, 2024

Could you start by introducing yourself and your business?

I'm Allan Benton and I own Benton's Country Hams here in Madisonville. We produce dry cured hams and hickory smoked bacon and ship it all over the world, as well as having a retail store here. We've been in business since 1947 and I've run the business since 1973​.

How did you become the owner?

The fellow who started our business was named Albert Hicks. He was a local dairy farmer here in this county, and he had a little country ham business that he got into, literally by accident, behind his house. It wasn't government inspected. He had built up a pretty good business over the years and he decided when he got older, he'd had enough, and he retired and quit. That was in the spring of 1973, and in the fall of 73, I heard that he had quit the business, and I had just resigned my job as a high school guidance counsellor. I was thinking maybe about going to law school or doing something. I knew I couldn't make a living as a teacher, and I talked him into leasing me the little building behind his house. I was just planning on running it for a while and maybe going on to law school, but after about three or four months, I realised that I was enjoying what I was doing, and I figured it wasn't going to last long, but I planned on doing it just as long as I enjoyed and wanted to do it, and that's the way I got into it.

What is your daily work like?

I'll be 77 this month, and I still pretty much work six days a week. I'm always out here on Sundays, checking coolers and tidying up loose ends. Being in this business is a lot like running a dairy farm. You're married to it. You're there every day. Although I don't put in the 65-70 hour weeks that I once did. I'm still here, probably 45-50 hours a week at this point in my life. I still enjoy what I do. I like making ham and bacon. The best part of it is the incredible people I've been able to meet because of what I do.

 

What do you think of your business being a tourist attraction?​

I know we get travellers from all over the United States here now and and I like the eclectic slice of humanity that comes through that door. I get those local country folks like myself. I get the business folks. I get the yuppies, as I call them, from the cities across the country. I think I've outlived a lot of my competition. There used to be lots of producers of country hams in this country, but it's not an easy way to make a living. And most of the people that I've known in the business either retired or sold out or quit, they just didn't stick with it. And now there's not that many of us that do what I do, and we're grateful for the folks that walk through our door. We've gotten a lot of attention the last 25 years or so. The first 25 years I was in business, I barely kept the doors open, but I finally had a few lucky breaks, and now 80 plus percent of everything we make leaves on a UPS truck or a US mail truck or a tractor trailer going somewhere, and we're very fortunate that we're able to sell it to these high end restaurants that we're dealing with.

 

Why do you think visitors should come to your business?

We've outlived the competition, and the business that I'm in, you don't see one on every street corner, almost a dinosaur. There's only a handful of producers that do what I do in this country. And we get a lot of media attention, and lots of folks are interested in seeing what we do now. And I know we get people who literally drive hundreds of miles out of their way to come by here. It's a dying art form.

 

How do you see this business within the culture of the county?

The business was started in this county by the late Albert Hicks, and at that time, he was mostly selling it to local folks. And the first five years that I ran it in his backyard, and it was mostly just the local folks from this area that found their way in here. And I don't think there's a better place in America to find good employees than right here in East Tennessee. You can't beat these local folks that live here. Most of my employees, virtually all of them are what I call local. Grew up here, got roots here. They have a good work ethic. They understand the mission for our business. Our goal is to make a world class product. And these are folks that take pride in what they do. And I feel blessed to be in business in Monroe County,

 

Where do you see your business in the next few years?

I have a son that I sent to medical school. He's a radiologist. Did his residency at UT, worked several years as a radiologist, but he gave up his practice, and came into my business last August. He's essentially calling the shots around here now, but I just hang around and try to stay in his way as much as I can. He is certainly in good hands. He's very passionate about what he does. I have a plant manager who's also about the business, and I suspect, if I have good health, I'll probably be here another 10 or 15 years. Don't have any desire to retire, but my son, Darryl, he will certainly, I'm sure, be in it for a long time. I see as far into the future as you can see in business. I think this one is on solid ground.

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