H: Grace Hood, of member station KUNC, reports.
GRACE HOOD: So far, consumers don't mind paying extra for the meat. It's averaging $7 per pound - up $2 from a year ago.
U: Bison burgers, table 31.
HOOD: Accountants Cory Vann and Reid Schellhous are having bison burgers for lunch at Ted's Montana Grill in Denver.
HOOD: So how does it taste?
: It's a little bit sweeter and a slightly different texture, I'd say - a little bit smoother.
HOOD: For these number crunchers, $12 per burger isn't a deterrent.
: I mean, if it was twice as much as beef, I think I would probably stick with beef. But only a couple dollars' difference - and so it's not that big of a deal.
HOOD: A recent supply shortage forced the restaurant to raise its prices on bison. But General Manager Scott Procop says so far, customer demand is holding steady.
: We started prepping more of the beef, but it stayed in line still with the prices. You know, they're willing to pay the extra price for the product.
HOOD: Bison is a niche market - 92,000 head were processed in North America last year. That's less than one day's beef production in the United States. As prices continue to rise, many in the industry expect customers to push back. That's led the bison trade association to launch a massive recruiting effort to bring more ranchers into the business.
: Watch out for the barbed wire.
HOOD: People like Chandler Morton. He's stringing electrical fence wire, preparing grazing land for his 15 recently purchased bison.
: OK, let me stop here and take a break.
HOOD: Morton's in his mid-30s, and has a master's degree in accounting. His disdain for sitting behind a desk led him to start an animal hide tanning store, which he's now using to fund an up-start bison business.
: I think there's several years to go before we can even come close to matching the demand. So that's what exciting about it. Because there's not too many industries you can look at in 2011 and say that's what's happening.
HOOD: But it will take time for Morton to grow his herd. A female bison can't have her first calf until she's 3. That's compared to age 2 for beef cows. It may sound like a shortcoming, but this can actually be an asset according to Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association.
: The good thing is with the higher prices, that is all going right back to the ranchers right now. And that's a great signal for ranchers to build their herds.
HOOD: While ranchers may be benefiting, processors like Rocky Mountain Natural Meats are not. President Bob Dineen started this business out of his Nissan station wagon decades ago. Today, his factory supplies meat to Whole Foods and Ted's Montana Grill.
: We've increased sales in the 10 to 20 percent range pretty much every year - this year being on the lower end of that because of supply issues.
HOOD: Last year, the industry saw some growing pains. Rocky Mountain Natural Meats initiated its largest recall ever due to possible contamination of E. coli bacteria. Dineen says the plant tests daily for it, and maintains that growing the business means preserving the quality customers expect.
(SOUNDBITE OF DINERS)
HOOD: Back at Ted's Montana Grill, diner Cory Vann says he probably couldn't taste the difference between beef and bison if he were blindfolded. And right now, that's part of the appeal for consumers like Vann, who also cooks the lower- fat meat at home.
: Yeah, we've made like a Bolognese with bison instead of ground beef before. You know, we'll make burgers at home, but even taco meat you can make with bison instead.
HOOD: For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood.
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