RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now a story of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. We bring you the story of the meat straw. Yes, you heard that right. NPR's Tamara Keith normally covers politics, but today, she takes us on culinary excursion.
BEN HIRKO: It is a straw made out of pork.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Ben Hirko of Coralville, Iowa is the man behind Benny's Original Meat Straws.
HIRKO: It's a half-inch in diameter, seven-and-three-quarters inches long, which is the exact same length as a standard plastic straw, and it has a quarter-inch diameter hole running through the length of it for consuming Bloody Mary beverages.
KEITH: Like many good stories, this one involves a snowstorm and maybe one beer too many. Hirko was tending bar and there was only one couple there to drink, so he joined them. The bar didn't serve food, but the couple brought a bunch of meat sticks to snack on.
HIRKO: After a few beers, I reached over and grabbed one of the snack sticks and I'm like, you know, this would make an amazing Bloody Mary garnish. It just had great flavor.
KEITH: But there was a problem - only the bottom of the meat stick was soaking up the spicy tomato juice and vodka.
HIRKO: And so I grabbed a plastic straw out of one of the dispensers and I grabbed a new stick from them, and I literally started digging a hole in it. And (laughter) I dug all the way through.
KEITH: And right there, Hirko had created his first prototype.
HIRKO: I held it up to the guy that was there and I looked him in the eye right through the hole and I said, that's awesome. And he looked at me and said, yes, it is.
KEITH: Now if you're thinking, does America really need meat straws? You aren't alone. Even Hirko's father had doubts.
HIRKO: He didn't really say it, but he looked at me like, you know you have a family to support now, don't you?
KEITH: But it turns out Bloody Mary meat straws actually can support a family. For Hirko, the big break came when he got a call from the Detroit Lions football team, which serves a Hail Mary Bloody Mary. Joe Nader is the team's executive chef.
JOE NADER: We serve it in a plastic mason jar. So it's a pretty good-sized portion and it's got a bunch of other, you know, fancy garnish with it. The meat straw is kind of the piece de resistance.
KEITH: Last year, the Lions sold 30,000 Bloody Marys with meat straw garnishes. At a recent Washington Nationals baseball game, the meat straws were prominently displayed at a make-your-own-Bloody-Mary bar in one of the luxury lounges.
JONATHAN STAHL: I'm going to get just our homemade tomato Bloody Mary mix.
KEITH: Jonathan Stahl, executive director of ballpark operations for the Nationals, demonstrates a meat straw in action.
STAHL: So as you can see, it comes right through the meat straw. There you go.
KEITH: The straw infuses a hint of meaty flavor into each sip. And at the end, the meat straw is soaked in Bloody Mary and ready for snacking. Stahl says they've been a hit.
STAHL: We couldn't get them one time, and so people were asking where the meat straws were. So we always made sure that we never have a Bloody Mary bar unless we have the meat straws available now.
KEITH: I found Nat's fan Bill Foster testing one out. He wasn't convinced this product is really answering a great need.
BILL FOSTER: Sometimes, as Steve Jobs pointed out, we don't know we needed until he put it together. So maybe enough people will think we need this. I don't know. I doubt if I'll be in that crew, but maybe others will.
KEITH: The Steve Jobs of meat straws, Ben Hirko, recently sold his company to a larger firm with better distribution channels, but he stayed on. So now he can spend all his time convincing people meat straws are the answer to a problem they didn't know they had. Tamara Keith, NPR News.
MARTIN: Oh, man. And if you want to see a picture of a meat straw, go to NPR.org - looks delicious.
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