PLANT CITY — The heavy aroma of hickory smoke hits the senses first. It seems to permeate every corner of the place.
Then rows of gleaming white display cases offering an odd assortment — from chicken wings and pork chops to alligator sausages and frog legs — come into view.
At the new Hungry Gator Meat Market at 206 S Evers St., owner Shane Smith hopes to tempt customers from traditional supermarket fare with an unusual array of meat choices.
In addition to the standard roasts, chops and burgers, the market sells fresh alligator meat. Smith and his team of meat cutters carve gators into filets, steaks and bite-sized nuggets that are best served battered and fried, he says.
He also makes gator sausages and sometimes adds cheddar and jalapeno peppers for extra bite.
"For someone who hasn't had (alligator), I always say if you could combine fish and chicken that's how it would taste," he said.
Greg Kitler, 56, doesn't mind driving an hour or more to get there. Kitler, who lives in Hudson, comes each week to comb through piles of vacuum-sealed gator nuggets, filets and sausages, along with fresh frog legs.
What Kitler doesn't eat he sells to tourists at flea markets in Orlando and Pinellas Park.
"The gator meat and sausages are always good sellers," he says.
Fresh gator meat may have put Smith's place on the map, but the retailer also stands out for another reason. His store is among a handful locally that butchers wild game, such as hogs and deer, for hunters. Rick's Custom Meats in Lithia also processes wild game.
Now that it's deer season, half of Smith's business is butchering deer.
Smith, 35, teamed up with friend and fellow hunter Glen Grizzaffe to open the Hungry Gator in early September.
The two figured the market for exotic meats and wild game was expanding and thought they could cater both to locals and folks up North trying to impress — or shock — friends with a plate of gator sausages.
Gator can sell for $11 a pound locally but fetch up to $23 a pound in New York, he said.
"The idea was to find a place to process the meat, but also to refrigerate it and sell it from," Smith said.
The two discovered Clem's Meat Market in downtown Plant City. The store had been vacant a few months and already came with refrigerated display cases and freezers. Smith and his team of six meat cutters have settled in nicely, he said.
Smith speaks with a drawl native to his hometown of Yazoo City, Miss., which sits in the middle of the state about 45 minutes north of the capital, Jackson. He's dressed in a camo-style T-shirt, cowboy boots and a ball cap.
Before opening the Hungry Gator, Smith worked at a meat processing plant for four years and then spent about 11 years as a videographer for outdoor TV shows, including Primos Truth About Hunting.
He met fellow hunter and licensed alligator trapper Grizzaffe while working on the show. The two became friends and figured they might someday open a business together.
Smith's sausage recipes, collected over the years, came from family members and friends, he said.
"It's sometimes funny," Smith said. "People will tell me their wife doesn't like deer meat, but I know how to make it so she will like it."
Rick Silkworth, 41, of Lutz is a believer. He recently brought in a 100-pound deer for butchering.
After the meat is processed and, in Silkworth's case, made into summer sausage, it's vacuum-sealed in plastic and stowed in brown paper bags in a bank of refrigerators.
"It's not hard to find somebody who can do this, but it's hard to find somebody to do this with the same quality as Shane," said Silkworth, a charter boat captain. "My favorite is the summer sausage with jalapeno and cheese. It's above and beyond."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.