A new group of butchers open shop just as the County closes down.
Lying on a marble table at the front of the room, a body is draped with a clean white cloth, a slim hacksaw placed nearby. An aproned man with a thick metal chain around his waist approaches the body and removes the cloth with a flourish. The audience gasps in pleasure at the sight. The body is split in half lengthwise, clean and hairless. With a grin, the man removes a knife from the collection of them chained to his thigh and begins to cut.
Welcome to butchery as performance art. On this particular night, the man, Rian Rinn, is performing an increasingly popular form of entertainment: Cutting up half a hog for a group of wine-drinking foodies while chefs wait in an adjacent kitchen, ready to turn the freshly trimmed meat into dinner.
Rinn banters as he cuts, making school-yard jokes about boning knives and answering questions from the audience about how the pig was raised, what breed it is, and how it was slaughtered. He could probably break this 150-or-so pound half-hog down in 10 minutes if no one was watching, but with an audience and all of the banter—particularly as the wine takes effect and the questions become sillier—this is a 90-minute effort.
His partner, Jenine Alexander, stands ready to assist. A petite woman with big earrings in a pristine apron, she takes the meat from Rinn and ferries it back to the kitchen. She packages other cuts in white paper to sell to audience members who might also want a T-shirt advertising their new project, the Sonoma County Meat Company.
Because, while the couple’s Wyeth Acres farm is in Healdsburg, their passion is currently being renovated in Santa Rosa as a former Roseland tire store is swiftly being turned into one of the county’s fastest-growing new trends: The local butcher shop.
Rinn and Alexander are among a group of young people who are staking a claim in cutting and purveying local meats. Lisa Modica and Molly Best are amid opening Thistle, their Petaluma butcher store. Adam Parks just opened his Victorian Farmstead outlet in the new Community Market at Sebastopol’s Barlow marketplace. And Pete Seghesio, the wine scion, is building the Healdsburg Meat Co. to serve downtown with charcuterie and butcher store items on the corner where the old post office once stood.
Meat, you might say, is smokin’. All it needs is someone to slaughter it.
On a different day, Rian Rinn is found staring somewhat mournfully at a hole in the ground. A man stands next to Rinn rapidly explaining that this is a plumbing problem and of course it’s going to be expensive. Everything’s expensive when renovating an old building, but preparing to open a butcher shop contains an entirely different set of pricey problems, most of them posed by the good folks at the USDA.
It’s Alexander’s job to handle the federal agency as the couple prepares to open shop, a chore necessary, difficult, and sometimes funny. She’s begun keeping USDA’s most obfuscating directives listed on a blog. “Breakfasts (Containing Meat),” reads one, “The product must contain at least 15 percent cooked meat or poultry or meat or poultry food product based on the total net weight of breakfast.”
But the chuckles are few when it comes to recent USDA action.
In January, the agency shut down Petaluma’s Rancho Feeding Corp. after the processor allegedly released some 40,000 pounds of uninspected meat. In February, it closed Rancho again, this time recalling 8.7 million pounds of meat processed at the facility, some of it over a year ago. USDA officials this time claimed that the recalled meat was “diseased and unsound.” USDA did not return calls from this publication.
Why this much meat had gone “uninspected” when the USDA maintains an office onsite at Rancho remains a mystery. How 8.7 million pounds of “diseased and unsound” product could have just slipped past inspectors’ eyes over the course of a year makes no sense.
The last meat plant built in Sonoma County was built 60 years ago. There's a huge lack of food processing in this county. Rian Rinn
Rinn and Alexander used to have a mobile chicken-slaughtering rig. By law, they couldn’t touch the rig or the animal themselves when they brought it out to a property. But they could stand alongside the customer and coach him or her through using it to process homegrown poultry. That became unsatisfying pretty quickly.
This is an increasing conundrum for Sonoma County: We have some of the best ranchland in California, an abundance of producers, and no place closer than Stockton to slaughter chickens per USDA regulation, just Rancho to process larger animals certifiably, and one extremely busy mobile butcher, John Taylor, to service the rest. The former poultry slaughterhouse in Fulton is now an artist’s collective; the old abbatoir at Duchamp Winery is now a gallery. With Rancho closed for an indeterminate period of time, the closest certified facility is in Modesto.
It’s one of those awful ironies that as we resolve to eat better meat, and eat local meat, and as a raft of new folks rush in to produce and provide it, processors have never been scarcer.
Naturally, this is where things get pricey. Adam Parks of the Victorian Farmstead used to slaughter his own chickens for sale until the county caught up with him. He was able to strike a deal with them to allow him to continue until his space at the Barlow became available. His pastured chickens now retail for $7 a pound, making a relatively small bird ring up at a hefty $25 per.
Speaking rapid-fire, Parks lists off the costs, making it clear why local meat can be damnably expensive: distance.
“It costs me $3.50 a pound to raise them,” Parks says of his chickens, “and right now we’re harvesting 200 birds a week, on average. We go to Stockton [for processing], so I’ve got five hours of my time invested driving there and back, and let’s call that $10 an hour, which is ridiculous, and $100 in gas. We have 75 cents a bird just on fuel and transportation. Then the processor is charging $2 a bird to slaughter and more to package.” All in all, Parks estimates he makes about $1 a pound on his chickens, so that $25 bird you just purchased nets him and his family about $3.
Rinn concurs. “The last meat plant built in Sonoma County was built 60 years ago. There’s a study says there’s a huge lack of food processing in this county,” he says. “One of the reasons why meat costs so much is that it’s got to be driven halfway across the state. Farmers are taking on a big old expense. Come on. There’s no reason for that. We can do it all here.”
So why do Parks and Rinn and Modica and Best and Seghesio want to be in this business? Love, necessity, and idealism, of course.
Rinn, 34, is a trained chef who worked at Spain’s El Bulli, the famed temple of foam and essence and palette. He’s also cooked at San Francisco’s Nopa and the Fifth Floor, but says that he always wanted to be “that guy,” the one with the knife in the corner. So he gave up restaurant work and went to cut at Willowside Meats where he started their very successful CSA program and eventually became head butcher. He tried to buy the place, but the deal fell apart. He moved to Golden Gate Meats, which supplies most of the “boxed” meat we buy from grocery stores but also is USDA-certified and can do custom butchery from local sources. And then, he could no longer resist the lure of his own place.
“The butcher shop is kind of a gossip place, traditionally,” he says. “It’s a good life, man! You get up early in the morning, you work with your body, you have the afternoon to yourself, you talk to people. If you like food and you like meat, it’s the way to go.”
Parks, who is in his 40s, came to it from a different route. Raised on an 800-acre ranch in Tomales, he duly went to Cal Poly to study ag and then did nothing with it, eventually running the Canadian PGA Tour (“it’s like running the Jamaican Bobsled Team” he now jokes). And then in came the recession and out went everything that he and his wife had achieved, house and cars included.
Fortunately, his grandfather had purchased the old five-acre Christmas tree farm in Sebastopol where Victorian Farmstead got its start. Fortunately, there was an empty house on the property where Parks and his wife could bring their children. He bought some chickens and pigs just to feed the family and began thinking about what to do next. Local butchery seemed a viable option.
“It’s my belief that when the economy tanked, people took what they had left and went into hiding and weren’t spending any money,” Parks says. “When they started to spend again, they changed what they spent their disposable income on. And it wasn’t a new car; it was, ‘let’s spend twice as much on what we’re feeding our family and make sure it’s good food.’”
So he took the gamble on local and sustainable. He chuckles: “Every couple of weeks, there’s a news story that Foster Farms has cockroaches or something, and my percentage goes up.”
Lisa Modica and Molly Best are different from Parks and Rinn in that they are not themselves professional butchers. Their Thistle Meats has three butchers on staff—one a specialist in cutting, the other in charcuterie, and a third with a chef background who can make Thistle an encompassing experience for customers who would like to just visit one shop before making dinner.
Best used to raise sheep, mostly in an effort to grow her own milk for cheese and thus avoid taking frozen shipments of the stuff from Wisconsin. That led her to butcher lambs out of necessity. “When you raise sheep, you end up with lots of boys and you end up eating the boys,” she says simply.
Young mothers with four children under the age of eight between them, Modica and Best were looking to start a business, any business. Modica was finishing an MBA and had been trained to consider that anything they hit upon had to be “a genuinely good, authentic idea that engages the community,” she says. “That moved pretty quickly into a butcher store idea and, as soon as we hit on that, we never looked back.”
Given Best’s background in ranching and cheese-making, finding area producers has not been a problem for the two. But nature is a different story.
“I think that what’s going to be challenging is dealing with the drought and how that affects our producers and cost,” Best says. “Stemple Creek and McGruder ranches are big enough and have enough infrastructure to deal with the drought. But how do we support the really small farmers? That’s a challenge but it’s really important to us, so we’re trying to figure that out.”
Modica adds, “One of the true challenges is engaging the community to realize what the true cost of the meat is. We will do everything we can not to price anything too high, but those prices reflect what the farmer has had to do—it’s the full cost that’s represented. It’s an education and it’s a deeper look into your food and where it comes from. I hope that people will embrace the educational component.”
CSA programs can reduce costs by encouraging customers to invest in the operation. But high prices caused by lack of processors remains top-of-mind.
Rinn says, “I get frustrated when people start turning up the gas on prices. Everyone needs to be involved in this, not just the people who can afford it, because they’re not the majority. The majority of people are those who can’t afford it, and they probably need it more than those who can. By putting in the infrastructure to process it here, we can keep that price down.”
Anyone want to start a slaughterhouse?