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‘Slow food’ artisanal meats gain new converts

In the United States, more consumers are seeking out quality, artisanal foods over mass-produced items.

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    A charcuterie and cheese tasting in Cambridge, Mass.
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Shortly after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Adam Goodison was surfing online one night and googled “best charcuterie in DC.” His search turned up feature stories on Stick, Straw & Brick, a charcuterie shop in Washington, D.C.

“They were making all their stuff in house,” Mr. Goodison says. With only limited experience in charcuterie from culinary school, he e-mailed the owner, Jason Story, and got a response within two hours. After Mr. Story offered him a six-month internship, Goodison packed his bags and headed to Washington.

He's now Straw, Stick and Brick’s "chef de cuisine" and oversees a small staff that makes close to 40 different types of specialty meats such as pancettas, Spanish chorizo, salamis, duck prosciutto, pates, and a dozen other sausages – some cured, some fresh. The shop reflects a change in the United States, where more consumers are seeking out quality, artisanal foods over mass-produced items.

“You pay about twice the amount for our meats [than supermarket variety], but you’re getting probably three to four times the quality,” Goodison says.

To be clear, only a small percentage of the meats sold in this country comes from small shops that take the time to locally source, prepare meats in-house, and provide personal customer service, says Marissa Guggiana, cofounder of The Butcher’s Guild, a fraternity of meat professionals who strive to use only whole animals from local farms. “This is part of the trend towards slow food, and people are willing to spend more money on food,” Ms. Guggiana says. “It’s a lifestyle indicator and a sign of a type of wealth and self care. But also it’s a sign that the local food systems are healthier.” She estimates there are around 300 small butcher shops in the US, many of which have been in operation for decades.

But Guggiana notes that small butcher and specialty meat shops cannot thrive by simply opening in Zip codes with residents who are predominantly white and wealthy. When a string of small butcher stores began opening recently in California, the most successful stores were located neighborhoods with large immigrant populations.

People like buying from local farmers, Guggian explains, and immigrants sometimes feel more comfortable purchasing from stores where they can interact directly with the person who has both purchased and carved up the meat.

Butchering and curing meat can be very time consuming. For instance, creating sausage can take several days. On Mondays, Goodison dices the pork, adding spices. On Tuesdays, he add the fat and grinds the sausage. And on Wednesdays, he feeds the ground sausage into casings, by hand. The method is laborious, because he has to make sure that the fats stay cold and do not melt, keeping the sausage consistent. If the sausage is cured, he hangs the links for two days in a smoker to ferment. He then takes the sausage and hangs it in the aging room, attaching a label with the date and weight. When the sausage has lost around 30 percent of its weight, it is then ready to sell.

“I like the meat to dictate when it’s ready, “ Goodison says.

Of course, customers are not always willing to spend money on some items. Goodison tried to sell a specialty type of pork rind, but it was expensive – taking four days to make – and did not sell well. Despite its delicious taste, at $16 a bag he simply could not compete with cheap, commercial pork rinds that sell for 99 cents at gas stations.

And in some cases, he says, Americans have not embraced strange-sounding cured meats, such as head cheese. (Head cheese involves splitting a pig head in half, length-wise, removing the eyes and brain. The head is then brined for two days in aromatics, and then boiled for six to eight hours in pork stock. After removing the bones, the meat is rolled into cylinders, much like pancetta.)

“Head cheese is the most delicious thing in the world, but people just don’t seem to understand it,” Goodison says.

Creating a customer base has been time consuming but key to the shop’s success, says Stick, Straw & Brick co-owner Carolina Story. “I would guess that 80 percent of our customers are regulars,” she says. To be competitive with the offerings at chain supermarkets, she has had to be creative. About half of her revenue comes from the store, with the other half coming from sales at local farmer’s markets, catering, and classes she offers in butchery and charcuterie.

The key to making her shop successful has been creating superior foods and better customer service, but she adds that a keen business sense is critical.

“It’s way more than just meat. I read every book I can on retail so that I can understand business,” she says. She notes that the last two years of her degree at the Culinary Institute of America focused on the business side of the restaurant industry.

Guggiana says that local butcher and specialty stores continue to spring up and that the skills to run them are being taught by those who have been successful, like Ms. Story. The guild runs monthly webinars where experienced experts teach both business and how to make a great product.  

“That’s why we started the guild," says Guggiana. "We wanted to pass these ideas along so that shops around the country could be successful and still around in 10 years.”

In many ways, she says that America is now becoming epicenter of butchery and cured meats. Meanwhile, Europe’s food system is becoming more commercial and "American." Guggiana says a famous Italian chef recently remarked that he used to be disappointed with America’s food system.

“Now he feels that he comes to America to learn,” she says. “In Italy they are losing their food culture. And we are bringing it back.”

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