For seven years, "Alligator Bob" Young ducked under cars, jumped into retention ponds and stopped traffic on busy roads to wrestle 900-pound monsters.
He'd jump on their backs, tape them up and bring them back to his wife in Thonotosassa, where the beasts met their demise — all so that Young could sell the meat and hides.
It was a side job for Young, who worked for decades during the day as an independent insurance agent. But his passion was trapping alligators.
"I've been catching gators since I was in diapers," said Young, now 69.
In 1992, Young believed gator meat had a lucrative future. It was lean, plentiful and exotic. Tourists came to the Sunshine State to see Mickey Mouse and alligators but they usually left with a bag of oranges. Young, a fourth-generation Floridian, thought they should go home with a fistful of smoked alligator sticks or jerky, too.
He began researching the idea with the help of the University of Florida meat sciences department and worked on a product for two years before he rolled out Alligator Bob's smoked alligator sticks and jerky.
"People looked at me like I was nuts. Alligator sticks?" he said. "What's that? Who'd eat it."
These days, lots of people are all across the nation. More and more meat lovers are discovering the gator sticks and jerky at retail shops and their own mailboxes. Through an odd, but ideal, pairing between Young and the MacDonald Training Center, the snacks are now shipped by disabled workers from Hillsborough County.
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Young's business started out slow but eventually gift shops, truck stops, and tourist destinations carried his products. He expanded his line to include buffalo and venison sticks and jerky. He outsourced everything. A broker bought meat from various gator farms across the United States and a processing plant smoked, packaged and labeled the jerky before it was sent back to Young's home in Thonotosassa.
He then fulfilled the orders that came in from his website, retail stores and wholesalers.
Young survived rough times such as the string of hurricanes that battered Florida in 2005 and 2006 that kept tourists away and resulted in a 78 percent loss in sales. His wife, Ellen, was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, as well, a battle that lasted five years until her death in 2010.
Afterward, Young poured himself into his business and it boomed. But as a one-man company, he didn't have enough hands to fulfill all the orders coming in and sell his product, too.
One day, Young sat at a Plant City Chamber of Commerce meeting and listened to Jim Freyvogel, president and CEO of the MacDonald Training Center, give a short presentation. Since 1953, the MacDonald Training Center has trained the developmentally disabled to work in the community, helping 4,000 people land jobs, some who have been employed for as long as 20 years. With locations in Tampa's West Shore District and Plant City, the organization serves about 500 clients annually, giving them various training through real contracts the center has with businesses and governments. Besides job skills, the workers earn a small paycheck for their efforts.
Young heard, for instance, how the center's trainees have packaged 4 million Sunpass prepaid toll transponders for the state with less than a 1 percent error rate. With contracts to pack and ship merchandise for the parent company of both Sea World and Busch Gardens, the center operates as a modern, up-to-date business. Automating soon will reduce the number of MacDonald trainees packaging Sunpasses from 80 to 14. The center also has reduced plastic use by 83 percent by redesigning the packaging for new transponders, saving taxpayers 27 percent, Freyvogel said last week.
"We have the space, we have quality team members, we can do it," he said. "The idea isn't to see what you can do for the MacDonald Training Center. It's what we can do for you to solve your business problems."
Young heard the pitch and decided the MacDonald Training Center might be just what Alligator Bob's Premium Meat Snacks needed. Since January, it's been an ideal partnership with the center handling the shipping of about 1,000 boxes of snacks a month with few miscounts or wrong orders. (Each box contains about 30 beef snacks inside.)
In a small side room in the West Shore office last week, two MacDonald Training Center clients filled cardboard shipping boxes with gator sticks and jerky before stacking them on the shelves in prepackaged and presorted amounts for online orders.
"A lot of boxes," Melissa McClendon, 36, one of the workers, said.
The system works so well, the training center ships out orders that come in before noon on the same day while afternoon or evening orders ship out the next morning.
"When I saw it and heard about it, I said I'd love to get involved in that because I would be giving back to the community," Young said. "The cost is relatively the same, but it relieves you with a lot of time commitment. Because I don't have to do any supervisory duties."
While Young has stopped catching gators years ago, the partnership has allowed him to catch something else for the first time.
"The business had grown to the point where it's more than I can handle, and I needed somebody to do the pick, pack and ship so I can concentrate on the selling," he said. "They do a very fine job."
Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.