In a renovated fruit stand at the edge of a cotton field near Decatur, Ala., entrepreneurs Donnie Lane and Zane Mattox are adding a new twist to classic, hickory-smoked hams. In fact, folks who’ve sampled the partners’ overstuffed sandwiches filled with honey-glazed meat say lunchtime at Apple Lane Farms is like being in hog heaven. That’s exactly the reaction Lane hoped to get when he opened his business seven years ago. Nowadays, Apple Lane Farms sells close to 20,000 hams a year at stores in Decatur, Madison and Huntsville. But financial success and happy customers weren’t the only reasons Lane decided to step out on faith and open a spiral-sliced ham store. He also wanted a place where he could teach his children the appreciation for hard work that he learned growing up on a beef cattle farm in Morgan County.”One thing my dad did for my brother and me was he had us work on the farm,” Lane said. “He didn’t work us to death, but he taught us how to work. Knowing how to work and how to work hard has really helped me in my business.”In fact, it was Lane’s father, Vernon, who started the business that inadvertently led to his son opening Apple Lane Farms. In 1996, Donnie Lane was working in Decatur at Mid-South Testing, an environmental analysis laboratory founded by his father. He had been buying spiral-sliced hams from a local store to give to clients during the holiday season. But in January of that year, the ham store in Decatur closed, and Lane was forced to drive to Huntsville to buy his Christmas gifts.While standing in a long line at the The Honey Baked Ham Co., Lane took an informal survey of his fellow customers and discovered about half were from Decatur. The more he thought about that experience, the more convinced he became that a spiral-sliced ham store could prosper in his hometown. He also saw it as an opportunity to teach his children about responsibility, hard work and business.Lane made inquiries with The Honey Baked Ham Co. about opening a franchise, but the company required a substantial up-front investment and a large share of gross sales. Then, in July 1997, Lane traveled to Michigan to meet the owner of another honey-glazed ham company. Lane was so impressed, he paid the man to teach him the business. In November, Lane returned to Michigan and spent a day and a half learning the twists and turns involved in making and marketing spiral-sliced hams.He returned home, and on Dec. 12, 1997, Lane and his wife, Dianne, opened Apple Lane Farms in a remodeled fruit stand located a half mile west of the I-65/I-565 interchange. They sold about 600 hams that first year, and the following year, they hired Tena Threet to manage the store. But just before Thanksgiving, Threet’s husband suffered a heart attack, and the Lanes found themselves scrambling to fill orders.”The week of Thanksgiving , we worked nonstop from 4:30 Tuesday morning until 8:30 Wednesday evening,” Lane recalled. “We sold between 2,000 and 3,000 hams that holiday season, but when we went home at night, we told each other, ‘If it’s going to be like this forever, we’re going to have to sell this place.” Fortunately, the growing pains didn’t last long. By 1999, Lane was president of Enersolv Corp., an environmental engineering company that grew out of Mid-South Testing, and he began looking for a partner to help shoulder some of the load at Apple Lane Farms. As if by providence, Lane discovered that Zane Mattox, who worshiped with the Lane family at Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, was planning to open a barbecue restaurant in Madison. Mattox had managed one of the Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q restaurants, so he already had the experience Lane desired in a partner.”This business needed a full-time person, and Zane had managed a business with sales of $5 million to $6 million a year,” Lane said. “(At Apple Lane Farms), we believe in doing whatever it takes to make sure the customer is taken care of, and Zane and Tena do a phenomenal job with that.”Since joining Apple Lane Farms, Mattox has helped expand the restaurant’s menu and open new store locations.”When I came, we only had this store (Decatur), and the only things on the menu were sandwiches,” Mattox said. “Since then, we’ve added two more locations and more menu items.”Threet, who still manages the Decatur store, also made a special contribution to the business–a creamy banana-pudding that’s won the Taste of the Valley dessert competition three years in a row.”Customers started asking for desserts to go with the sandwiches, so we started playing around with banana pudding recipes until we had something we liked. Now, people just go crazy about it,” she said.In addition to banana pudding, Apple Lane Farms sells pecan, chocolate and coconut pies, which are made fresh daily. Their sandwiches are stuffed with 6 ounces of honey-glazed ham, turkey, roast beef or chicken–and all are served on fresh-baked yeast rolls. Apple Lane Farms also offers party trays, Brunswick stew and oven-stuffed potatoes.Of course, Apple Lane Farms is busiest during the holiday season. Each Thanksgiving and Christmas, Apple Lane Farms sells more than 10,000 honey-glazed, spiral sliced hams and turkey breasts. “Our ham is slow cooked for 24 hours using hickory smoke, and we glaze it with honey and a (signature) spice blend. Then we spiral slice it on a patented machine,” Lane said. “We take an ordinary product like ham and make something extraordinary out of it.”Apple Lane Farms doesn’t freeze its hams or slice them days in advance because Lane said those shortcuts hurt the taste of the meat and shorten its shelf life. In fact, just about everything Apple Lane Farms sells is made right on the premises. The stores also have small produce areas where customers can purchase locally grown produce in season.In the future, Lane said he would like to expand Apple Lane Farms throughout the Southeast.”We want to grow our business, but we don’t want to franchise,” Lane said. “What happens (with franchised stores) is the owners realize they are doing all the work and giving 5 to 7 percent of their profits to someone else. We are looking for partners who will start out as 20-percent owners and eventually work their way up to 75-percent ownership.”Meanwhile, Lane’s other goal for his business will be realized this summer when his daughter, Sara, 13, begins work at the Apple Lane Farms store in Decatur. His son Daniel, 10, and Mattox’s sons, Cole, 6, and Drew, 4, also may one day work in the business. And while it’s not the same as feeding cows, Lane is hopeful that working in a family-owned business will teach their kids the same lessons he learned growing up on an Alabama farm.Apple Lane Farms will ship spiral-sliced hams and turkeys anywhere, and they deliver lunch orders of $50 or more. For information about Apple Lane Farms, call (256) 351-7803 or visit www.applelanefarms.com.
Apple Lane Farms Puts New Twist On Classic Southern Ham