"I never thought we'd be selling chefs fat," Mario Fantasma says. In the off-white trailer that serves as his office, he glances at a framed photo of Mario Batali in which the celebrity chef is embracing Fantasma. "Hams, sausages, rib racks, Boston butts, sure. But fat, lardo, they just can't get enough of the stuff."
Fat — more specifically, fatty pigs — fuels Paradise Locker Meats, the butcher shop and meat-processing plant that Fantasma runs in Trimble, Missouri, with his wife, Teresa, and their sons, Nick and Louis. The business has become an integral part of the movement to restore heritage pigs — older breeds such as Red Wattle and Duroc — to prominence in the United States.
For most of the past decade, Fantasma, 56, has been processing pigs for Heritage Foods USA, the mail-order business that began as the marketing arm of Slow Food USA. Pork from his plant fills plates at Momofuku and Del Posto and Carnevino and Lidia's.
"Paradise Locker Meats is at the epicenter of the heritage-meats movement," says Patrick Martins, founder of Slow Food USA and Heritage Foods USA. "It's the best-tasting meat in the country."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service estimates that U.S. slaughterhouses will process 23.3 billion pounds of pork in 2013 (a statistic that doesn't account for potential furloughs of USDA inspectors resulting from the sequester), which makes the United States the world's third-largest producer and consumer of pork. All those pig tattoos on chefs' forearms and all those bacon desserts, however, are what make America No. 1 among pork fetishists. Only here could a word like baconalia have entered the lexicon. (The regrettable coinage belongs to Denny's.)
In 2012, U.S. hogs were slaughtered at 604 federally inspected plants. The 12 largest plants accounted for 58 percent of the approximately 113 million pigs that became meat. The Triumph Foods plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, for example, processes 1,000 pigs an hour — more than six times as many hogs as Paradise processes in a week. Bigger plants need to be fed more pigs that are roughly the same size and shape.
It's a system that has squeezed smaller producers out of business. Over the past 15 years, the USDA's ERS estimates that the number of hog farms has declined by 70 percent. This well-lamented decline comes with a less-heralded loss: that of the small-town butcher.
"We're all intertwined," Teresa Fantasma says. "We can't survive without the farmers."
Paradise Locker isn't just surviving, though. Over the past decade, the operation has grown from five to 25 employees, and it's set to put Kansas City at the center of a comeback story: that of the neighborhood butcher. Local Pig and the Broadway Butcher Shop have both opened in Kansas City in the past year, and the online livestock-commerce hub Ag Local, a KC-based startup, launched earlier this month. All three are benefiting from a slaughterhouse that is not only aiding supply but also increasing demand for heritage pigs from area farms.
Louis Fantasma is leading a plant tour on a mid-March Thursday morning, showing the business to chefs who have flown in from both coasts. He gestures to a painting of Paradise's original location that's mounted above the retail shop's front door.
"My uncle had gone back to see a bull that was in the holding pen," he tells his nine guests. "But when he got there, the bull was hanging half out. By the time my dad got back there, the bull had busted through the pen and escaped."
He pauses, waiting for the group to spot the cow in the painting. "My dad had to hop in a truck and corral the bull. That was a heck of a first day."