Biagio Artisan Meats
By Rick Mitchell
Chefs like to feed the romantic myth that they personally pluck their eggs fresh from the nest and shake the morning dew from their produce, but in reality busy urban chefs have little opportunity to get out to the market, let alone to the farm. Instead, the market comes to them with daily deliveries of produce, meats, dairy, dry goods, and everything else from the food chain’s middlemen-the distributors.
The great bulk of all the food consumed in America is delivered by regional and national distributors (such as food services behemoth SYSCO), who in turn source their products from the nation’s largest farms and ranches. The system ensures consistency in both quality and quantity, but small farmers competing to sell their bounty of heirloom produce and heritage-breed animals have little access to these distribution channels. For them, getting the product to market requires the help of a local distributor willing to work with what may be limited quantities or uneven supply in order to bring superior products to the chefs that require them. While her job may not have the romance of the chef ‘s or the farmer’s, without the local distributor, urban dwellers wouldn’t have access to the diverse array of local products that they currently enjoy, and family farmers would have to scratch out whatever living they could from farm-direct sales.
Michael and Suzanne Panza know all about the inner workings of the distribution system. For 20 years Michael worked as a hotel chef for Marriott, Hyatt, and other corporations before setting down his knives and moving into the world of meat and fish distribution. He learned the ropes while working for some of the state’s largest distributors, including Facciola (now a subsidiary of SYSCO), and Oregon-based Pacific Seafood.
Now, with 30 years of experience under his belt, Michael is building his own distribution company, Biagio Artisan Meats, named after his grandfather, a prohibition-era vintner and bootlegger. Unlike the large companies Michael once worked for, Biagio sources its products from ranches located within 100 miles of its office/ warehouse in Oakland’s industrial Jingletown district, and only from farmers who meet Michael’s criteria for sustainability, humane treatment, and quality.
“I came back from a two-year sabbatical in Salt Lake City, and here in the Bay Area, a lot of my old chef friends were asking if I knew where they could buy local meats and heritage breeds,” Michael explains. “I had never considered starting my own business, but I already had great chefs looking for a product that was available [though they] did not have the means of purchasing it. All I had to do was find the right farmers and figure out the distribution and processing of the animals.”
Working through his old network, Michael sought out small farmers around the Bay Area. Usually the folks he found were getting along by processing their animals outside of the USDA- or state-inspected system and selling to friends and neighbors.
Scott Long of Long Ranch was an early Biagio supplier. A thirdgeneration pig farmer, Scott raises Duroc pigs and Boer goats on his ranch in Manteca. Duroc is a much sought after “heritage” breed of pig that is more difficult to raise than modern commercial breeds and produces a highly marbled meat valued by Bay Area chefs. Scott raises his hogs in open-hoop barns, a more open and comfortable alternative to commercial confinement barns. He beds them on straw, never concrete, feeds them a strict vegetarian diet, and provides misters and fans for the hot summer days in Manteca.
When Scott and Michael first met, Scott was making ends meet by selling to his Samoan immigrant neighbors, who often purchased whole suckling pigs 30 to 40 at a time for community pig roasts. Michael convinced Scott to work with a nearby USDA-inspected processor so he would be able to sell into the Bay Area restaurant market. Two years later, Scott was sending over $2,000 worth of pork per day to Bay Area restaurants.
Helping small, family ranchers negotiate the USDA or California inspection process is a key element in getting local meats into the hands of Bay Area chefs. And when an appropriate processor isn’t available, Michael can help bring the inspectors to the ranch. Willis and Priscilla Jones of Jones Rabbit Farm started processing their own rabbits out of necessity in 1981 after the only local plant abruptly went out of business. When Michael first met them, they were selling only about 25 rabbits per week direct to local customers. With Michael’s guidance the Joneses were able to turn their Sonoma operation into one of a few licensed rabbit-processing facilities in all of Northern California, and they now turn out more than three times the original numbers.
Long Ranch and Jones Rabbit Farm offered a measure of early success for Michael, but the search for a reliable local source of beef proved more difficult. Local feedlot cattle were available, but humanely raised animals that meet Biagio’s standards of ethical husbandry require the kind of open pastures that are hard to find within the 100-mile range. Finally, in late 2009, Michael connected with Lucky Dog Ranch in Dixon. At Lucky Dog, cattle are finished in open pasture that is strewn with grains, including spent barley malt from the Sudwerk brewery in Davis. The result is a hybrid grass and grain diet that avoids the confinement and malnutrition associated with feedlots, while requiring fewer acres of grass pasture than traditional free-range cattle.
In its third year of business, Biagio has a client list that reads like a roster of premium East Bay restaurants. Prima, Commis, A Cote, Dopo, Bocanova, and the Claremont (as well as this writer’s restaurants, Luka’s and Franklin Square, of course). Chefs at these restaurants all work with Biagio as a source for products that meet their own and their customers’ standards for quality and sustainability. Soon, Biagio products will be available for the home chef as well. Michael and Suzanne have inked a lease in Jack London Square’s Harvest Hall Market and hope to open “Biagio, an artisan Butcher Shop,” by the middle of 2010. •
Richard Mitchell is the owner and general manager of Luka’s Taproom & Lounge and Franklin Square Wine Bar, both in Oakland. Before opening Luka’s Taproom he was a fancy tax consultant working for the Man in San Francisco.