Chomp on This
For some tourists, alligators are an attraction on their own, and Alligator Bob wants you to take some alligator home with you.
Story by Lindsay Peter
He walked into the living room and saw it.
There, lying under a glass coffee table, was a 7-foot alligator.
Sitting in his home office, Alligator Bob tells the stories of his days as a volunteer alligator trapper in a calm, quiet cadence. A smile forms behind his neatly trimmed white beard as he laughs to himself between sentences.
He explains how life as an alligator trapper sparked the idea for his business today – selling alligator jerky. His solid, stocky frame relaxes back in his wooden chair. He smoothes his pale denim collared shirt with “Alligator Bob” embroidered on the left pocket and continues with his stories.
“The alligator was my payment,” he says. “If I got the gator, I got to keep it.”
A state-contracted volunteer alligator trapper for Hillsborough and Manatee counties from 1986 to 1993, Alligator Bob says, “I told the owner of the house, ‘I can’t get him. He’s going to smash that coffee table. He’ll eventually go back the way he came.’”
To have the alligator return “the way he came” — to a creek behind the house — was not quick enough for the owner.
So, Robert Young – who prefers to be called Alligator Bob – put a rope around the alligator’s head and inched toward a sliding glass door.
“I jerked the gator out, and he smashed the table and the sliding glass door on the way,” he says.
With the alligator out of the living room, Alligator Bob had his payment.
Like he did with every alligator he trapped, he brought the alligator home to his wife, Ellen, a petite, energetic blonde, who “did all the processing.”
In between trapping alligators, Alligator Bob tried to make people aware of alligator meat as a delicacy by teaching recipes at conventions and writing a cookbook.
He also had what he calls his “Aha! moment”: He would design a meat stick that wouldn’t spoil on a store shelf, similar to a Slim Jim brand meat stick, that tourists could take with them, because even frozen alligator meat would not stay fresh on a two- to three-day trip.
After retiring from alligator trapping, Alligator Bob began his quest to expose Florida’s tourists to alligator meat, a delight he had been experiencing since he was “in diapers under his mother’s arms.”
Alligator Bob, 63, a fourth-generation Floridian, began running his meat stick company, Robert N. Young and Assoc., from his quaint teal home off of a country road in Hillsborough County. He decided it was time for tourists to take home this Florida delicacy as a souvenir.
“Everyone comes [to Florida] see an alligator with Mickey Mouse,” Alligator Bob says. “But, they go [home] with an orange. Forty million tourists with an orange. Wouldn’t it be neat if they could go home with a gator stick?”
In 1994, Alligator Bob sought help from two friends, University of Florida researchers, Fred Leak and Fred Johnson, to perform taste tests on the alligator meat.
Before the stick could be sent to the manufacturing plant in Missouri, though, Alligator Bob faced his biggest hurdle.
Few preservatives were available that could prevent alligator meat from going rancid and, without funding, a new type of preservative could not be made. Also, there were no regulations on alligator meat from the United States Department of Agriculture, so the stick could not pass inspection.
The solution to this problem came in the form of a pig.
Adding pork into the mixture allowed the stick to meet USDA inspections. At the manufacturing plant, the alligator meat is broken down into “mush” and is mixed with pork, which serves as a “binder,” Alligator Bob explains. The meat is then placed under high pressure to create a solid stick of meat.
Packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic with a picture of an alligator on the front, the meat sticks hit shelves. Originally, they came in only one flavor, but Alligator Bob quickly developed other flavors of sticks and jerky as more than 200 gift shops, seafood stores and tourist attractions began asking, “What else you got?”
Now, Alligator Bob offers two flavors of meat sticks: original, and hot and spicy. He also offers two flavors of gator jerky in original and Cajun spice.
Unable to trap enough alligators for the meat sticks and jerky, Alligator Bob now purchases the meat from local farms.
With over 400,000 sticks sold each year, Alligator Bob no longer drags alligators from living rooms. But he still has goals.
“I’d like to see every tourist take with them a gator stick,” he says.