It was quail poop that first put Manchester Farms on the map. The story starts in the early '70s, when Bill Odom turned down an offer from his employer, Campbell Soup Company, to relocate from Sumter, S.C. to New Jersey to open a new chicken farm. A country boy all his life, Odom instead set out on his own, adapting the Pharaoh quail he'd been raising for hunting purposes into a full-time business on two acres east of Columbia.
A friend and coworker of his, Frank O. Hill, thought it would be funny to preserve particularly "impressive" quail droppings into epoxy casts and turn them into rings and necklaces. Soon enough, the Manure Man of South Carolina found himself showing off the creations to Johnny Carson on national TV, an engagement that landed him a role in the Burt Reynold's NASCAR movie, Stroker Ace. That led to a friendship with Dale Earnhardt, and soon enough, Dale Junior was hunting his first deer on Manchester Farms family land.
"It's all been pretty neat," says Steve Odom, who with his sister, Brittney Miller, now runs the farm. Incidentally, Odom's wife is also Hill's granddaughter. "The bird guy married the bird poop girl. We hit both ends of the quail, you might say."
Forty years after its inception, despite its growth into the country's highest grossing quail producer, Manchester Farms maintains the Southern family feel of a company that was literally begun in a backyard coop with a picnic table processing line and a customer base of friends and family. Many of the same employees have been working the front desk or packaging line for two decades or more, and when the economy dropped, Miller and Odom took pay cuts to avoid laying off a single employee.
Today, Manchester hatches, raises, and harvests around four million quail a year — roughly 320,000 per month or 80,000 each week. That may sound like a lot, but it's not when compared to the largest poultry farms in South Carolina, which may slaughter a quarter-million chickens every day.
Although Manchester utilizes a processing line one might equate with a factory farm, their ownership and control of the birds throughout their entire lives enables them to raise happy birds (evidenced by their body size and the lack of cacophonous noise when one enters a 10,000-square-foot room full of birds) that have become the go-to quail for top tier chefs from New York to Las Vegas to Charleston.
"Our birds today are the biggest we've ever had," says Miller, emphasizing that Manchester doesn't use any antibiotics or genetic modifications. "I attribute it to the genuine care that we give them. We respect the animal as it was created by God and give it the best life that we're able, and we've been rewarded."
Although Bobwhite quail are the species native to South Carolina, Manchester raises Pharaoh quail, a breed that originated in Asia. Pharaohs are less susceptible to disease, and they adapt more efficiently to a farm environment, growing from chick to full-sized adult in just five weeks.
Manchester has perfected the science of this process. In a hatchery building outside their processing plant, an unassuming facility covering a few acres off a back road 10 minutes from Columbia, they incubate as many as 100,000 eggs at once. For perspective, when cooked, five quail eggs produce the same amount of food as one chicken egg.
Trays of a thousand-or-so eggs are stacked on a rolling platform that allows their angle to tilt and change every 30 minutes.
"There's an air sack in the egg, so in the wild, the hen moves the eggs around the nest, because if it gets stuck, they won't hatch," Miller explains.
After two weeks in incubation, the eggs are moved into tightly-sealed rooms called setters, with precisely controlled temperature and humidity. Because quail eggs are speckled, they can't be candled to check for fertility, so despite harvesting eggs only in the hens' bell curve of peak fertility, there's still only about a 90 percent hatch rate.
Upon hatching, the chicks are given reverse osmosis-treated water to drink and handled with the utmost care.
"The first three days are the most important of a chick's life," says Miller. "If the temperature changes by one degree, there's an alarm that sounds. We are hypersensitive, because in the live animal business you need to be."
Once stabilized, the chicks are transported via truck (outfitted with two generators and tight air control) to the farm, about 15 minutes away. Those selected as egg layers will spend the next 40 weeks in the egg room, a series of rows of interconnected cages forming quail condominiums that allow the birds to socialize between three different cages, all the while laying an egg every 36 hours. Most of the quail here are females, identified by their white chest, but a few brown-chested males roam through each complex. Water dispensers emulate the wild, with a tap of a beak offering a drop of hydration, much as a leaf would after a rain.
The meat birds are raised in an immense open room where they can move about at will, with constant access to water and corn and soy feed that's bolstered with vitamins and probiotics ("Goodness in, goodness out," says Miller). Although these are cage-free, they are not free-range because they're restricted from roaming outside (where they'd be easy prey for hawks and other predators).
When the quail are fully grown, they are transported back to the processing facility, where a dunk in an electrolyzed bath numbs them to the quick, fatal cut to their neck. The birds are defeathered via a machine that resembles the rapidly rotating brushes of a carwash, before moving down an assembly line where they are gutted and rinsed. A conveyor belt with a built-in scale weighs the bodies to the closest gram, before a series of pinball-type levers sorts them into one of five different buckets at lightning speed.
Birds headed to top tier restaurants are then deboned and fitted with a stainless-steel V-pin that splays their legs and maintains their shape. Others are processed into private-label products like bacon-wrapped quail breasts, and most are treated in a vacuum tumbler that adds moisture and a light brine to the meat, making the birds more forgiving to chefs and less prone to overcooking. They are then packaged according to purpose and put on trucks headed across the country, or just down the road to Charleston.
When Miller met her husband Matt in Colorado, the conversation's icebreaker was her family's business. Matt worked at a restaurant that served Manchester Farms quail, and the birds literally brought the two together (and Matt to South Carolina, where he now helps manage the company).
Likewise, Anson Restaurant Executive Chef Jeremy Holst regularly served Manchester quail during his fine dining tenure in Las Vegas, before returning home three years ago to take the helm at Anson. When he was asked to cook at the James Beard House in New York, it was quail he immediately decided upon, preparing a dish that often graces the chalkboard specials in his dining room in Charleston today.
"Not only are their birds consistent, Manchester Farms is run by real people who form a real connection with their customers," says Holst, whose favorite way to prepare quail differs from most. Although Holst serves the bird in its entirety, the finished product is hardly recognizable as a whole animal. After a full deboning, he rolls the quail with salt, pepper and transglutaminase, an enzyme that binds the meat into a sausage shape, before wrapping it in house-made pancetta and vacuum sealing it shut.
The quail is then cooked under pressure, rendering it medium and consistent throughout, with a crispy pancetta skin. Holst slices the final product into several sections, serving it with foie gras and an assortment of microgreens, pickled golden beets (from Ambrose Farms), and blueberries cured in moonshine. The result is unbelievably decadent, with a rich sweetness balanced by the fresh greens and accoutrements.
"Quail are pretty lean birds, so the nice fat of the pancetta and foie gras really complement their meat," says Holst. "With this style, you can slice it up and do whatever you want with it."
Other chefs are more prone to presenting the animal in its natural state. At McCrady's, chef Sean Brock buys quail from Manchester with the feet still on and then hangs them in the cooler to age for five to seven days.
"This really intensifies the flavor," says Brock, who served quail mopped in sorghum lemonade and grilled over hardwood for the James Beard dinner held at Fort Moultrie in March. "We love serving them with the feet on. It reminds you that you are eating a bird that once was alive."
At Cypress, Chef Craig Deihl has been known to render quail into pâté or pastrami, while the Grocery's Kevin Johnson has pickled the birds' eggs.
But of course, quail can also be a simple dish that doesn't require a formal culinary education. Manchester Farms quail are available at most grocery stores in the Charleston area. Miller recommends tossing a whole bird in salt, pepper, diced garlic, olive oil, lemon zest, and rosemary, before roasting them on a grill for four minutes on each side. She's also fond of "quail and grits," and stresses that you can never go wrong when you wrap a quail in bacon or dip them in flour and buttermilk before frying.
However they're prepared, quail are enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to their low-fat healthy protein that falls comfortably between white and dark meat. Once thought of as game meat, the mid-sized birds are gaining more acceptance as a staple dish. And that's thanks in part to the American dream story of Manchester Farms, where 200 people now find employment at a business begun on a backyard picnic table with a friend who sculpted poop into jewelry.
"Southerners are always going to eat quail, but fine dining restaurants all over are getting back in on the trend," says Miller. "People always say, 'I remember eating quail with my grandfather,' but across the country, the tradition of hunting quail is going away. We don't want quail to just be a nostalgic ingredient."