IOWA CITY, Iowa — Alvin Chew and Jamie Gabriel live in Singapore and spent two weeks in Iowa for global sales meetings at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids.
The men wanted the full Iowa experience so they took in an Iowa-Minnesota football game at Kinnick Stadium. As they walked along famed Melrose Avenue checking out the tailgates and food tents, one caught their eye. And how could it not.
Screaming out to potential patrons in capital letters was BIG ASS TURKEY LEGS. The gentlemen, who were accompanied by Cedar Rapids native and Rockwell Collins co-worker Shawn Wiebel, stopped and paused in front of the sign.
“Here’s some people who never had a leg,” owner Craig Ireland said.
“I’ve had them before, I’m from Iowa,” Wiebel said. “I just brought these guys with me today because they were in town and they thought this might be a fun experience.”
For $27, the trio picked up big ass turkey legs. Most of them weigh between 1.5 and 1.75 pounds. They’re big and wide and …
“When they say big ass, they mean it,” Ireland said. “They’re huge.”
“This is super great,” Chew said.
Tents and tailgates line Melrose Avenue for Iowa football games. Pork producers from rural Iowa counties sell their wares as do more traditional businesses. But nothing has the reputation of Big Ass Turkey Legs, and perhaps nothing will.
Former owner Chuck Ford started the business 17 years ago. With his unmistakable charisma, he was the iconic face and voice of Big Ass Turkey Legs. He sat near the sidewalk with a microphone headset and dished out conversations and compliments to nearly everyone who walked by on game day.
Ireland, 60, bought the business from Ford six years ago. Ireland’s approach is completely the opposite. He doesn’t holler at customers or seek the publicity of his predecessor.
“We sell just as many legs not squawking, but a lot of people enjoyed him yelling at them and saying things to them,” Ireland said.
Ireland worked at a Hy-Vee grocery store in Iowa City and sold Ford the turkey legs for several years. When Iowa City officials demanded the Melrose Avenue businesses buy permits, Ford’s primary cook opted to leave. Ireland then joined Ford cooking turkey legs. When Ford decided to retire, Ireland bought the business.
Hy-Vee provides the turkey legs and stores them before each home game. Ireland picks them up and puts them in coolers, each of which fits about 60 legs. He won’t disclose how many he sells for home games but said it varies by the opponent.
“If it’s a Big Ten game, I can double my sales,” Ireland said. “Iowa State is huge. That blows everything off the top. There would be 70,000 inside the stadium and 30,000 outside.”
The turkey legs are lathered in a patented seasoning that consists mostly of Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce and garlic powder. They are wrapped in foil and are bought in droves when it’s within two hours of kickoff. It’s like Thanksgiving with a kick.
For an 11 a.m. kickoff, Ireland sets up his operation around 7 a.m. For the Minnesota game, which kicked off at 5:30 p.m., he opened for business around 11 a.m. He sells a few legs to stragglers after the Star-Spangled Banner and packs everything away within 30 minutes after kickoff. For the home finale against Purdue, set for Saturday at 3:30 p.m., he’ll set up mid-to-late morning.
Ireland doesn’t cook for other events or cater weddings. Occasionally he’ll cook in the backyard, but mostly he prefers to sell his big ass turkey legs to fans on game day. Then he’ll say hello to them again the next week, next month or next year.
“I get seven days of this during the football season. That’s enough for me,” Ireland said. “We play Minnesota today, next year we travel. In two years they’ll come back to this stand and they’ll say, ‘We had your turkey legs two years ago. We’re back for some more.’ “
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