"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."
Following Louis, the plant manager, are a radio crew from Heritage Foods USA, as well as that company's Martins, and Sam Edwards III and IV from Edwards & Sons in Surry, Virginia. Chefs Jason Neve and Matt Harubin from B&B Ristorante in Las Vegas, Community Food & Juice chef Zach Kell, and chef Stephen Barber of the Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch (in California's Napa Valley) are here as part of a four-day trip to learn more about the butchers who ship to them.
"We make our own wine, raise cattle, grow our fruits and vegetables, and make our own olive oil," Barber says as people introduce themselves.
"I'm from Vegas," deadpans Harubin. "We have strip clubs and gambling."
Walking past the refrigerated coolers that line the west and north walls of the shop, these are men in a pig candy store. Louis passes out white plastic suits and hairnets and beard nets, and the men wrestle into the gear.
In the butcher shop, a bookshelf by the door holds a copy of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, which has been turned open. Deer heads gaze out from one corner as Martins offers a little history. "They had to give up deer season in the hopes that the restaurant community would support this," he says. "It was a big risk. You know community-supported agriculture. This is chef-supported agriculture."
The chefs troop up a concrete ramp, their feet passing over the phrase "Piggy's Paradise," which has been etched into the concrete. Beyond is a chute attached to concrete pens, where farmers from as far away as Iowa unload 150 pigs a week. Their water trough is heated in winter to keep it from freezing, and a misting fan keeps the animals' temperature down in summer.
"I remember the misting fan arrived, and I was putting it together," Louis says. "Our slaughter guys asked if we got a misting fan for the kill floor. I laughed and told them, 'No, it's for the hog pen.' "
The Fantasmas practice and promote humane killing, for ethical reasons as well as for practical concerns. A stressed animal, they believe, is more difficult to maneuver and yields tougher meat. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the plant's hog-slaughter days, the pigs are led up a small wooden gangplank into a pair of interior pens. At the end of the pens is a small door that leads onto the killing floor.
Louis guides this white-coated pack through a different door, into a storage area that leads into a chilly, odorless room where an employee is busy forming hams. The meat is slid through a conical metal tube into a fine mesh netting, like a Christmas tree being bagged. The worker bangs each ham on the table to push out any air — a gesture that produces a wet plopping sound — before clipping the end of the netting.
"I have a surprise for you," Louis says. "I didn't take you here to see the hams. This is actually the killing floor."
Each room in the plant, he explains, has multiple uses. The walk-in coolers hold the animals that are slaughtered on Mondays and Tuesdays. After being chilled — the temperature of the carcasses is lowered from 110 to 40 degrees over 14 hours — the pigs leave the coolers on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The hogs are then broken down in a separate room and returned to what was the killing floor to be made into bacon, bratwursts, ham, and dozens of other products. It is a ballet as neat as turning a room for a wedding.
The dance is the only way this 6,000-square-foot plant can handle the volume that Heritage needs. It also allows plant workers to escape the typical monotony of a slaughterhouse. They're not stuck on the line or cutting the same chops day in, day out. (This is one way to address a basic meat-industry problem: how to attract the next generation of workers to a job that requires extensive training and is, in most companies, dangerous and exhausting.)
The processing scheduled today centers on a "cut sheet" based on Heritage's weekly orders from restaurants around the country. "The stuff is sold prior to cutting, as opposed to cutting and then shipping it to a warehouse and being sold," Martins explains.
The hog carcasses roll out of the cooler on hooks hanging from the ceiling, which run on rails that resemble skyscraper beams. A 230-pound Duroc pig is set aside for 715's Michael Beard. The Lawrence chef uses at least a whole pig each week; the headcheese is part of his best-selling item, a sopressata pizza with chili peppers.
The hog's headless body is laid down on the first of a set of tables arranged in two lines. The moment after the pig touches a white cutting board, an employee begins to slice it in half with an electric saw. The chefs lean in closer, snapping pictures with their smartphones.
"This is a really cool operation," Barber says.
As the pig passes down the line, fat and skin are trimmed off. Between tasks, the meat cutters, in white coats and hard hats, sharpen their knives, which hang on their belts. A whole pig takes less than four minutes to break down. Mario Fantasma calls the chefs over to see the only machine in the room. It's a belly skinner — a small conveyor belt that carries the bellies under a row of metallic teeth to peel off the skin immediately.
"We have to hand-skin," Neve says. He estimates that his kitchen staff spends the better part of three hours breaking down a pig.
"Everyone should have one of these," Harubin says.
Fantasma grew up in a hardworking family in KC's old Northeast. His mother, Vita, ran Vita's Café on St. John and Wheeling for more than 20 years. Laborers from the nearby Montgomery Ward came by the little luncheonette for her cabbage rolls, tenderloins and Friday lasagna specials. His father built commercial ovens for 30 years at the Reed Oven Co. in the West Bottoms. Fantasma spent his first years out of high school at the same factory, working a drill press and coming home covered in rust from the steel and metal shavings.
His introduction to the meat business was at S&S Meat Co., where he worked as a runner, pulling cuts and chops for the sales team. He did this for a year, until he had the opportunity to become a butcher's apprentice. He spent two and a half years learning to cut.
"I was standing all day in one spot cutting steaks," Fantasma says. "I wanted to learn more. I had it in my mind to have my own business."
During his decade-plus as a butcher at S&S, he decided to move away from the city and commute to work. He and Teresa bought a house in Trimble in 1993. "You talk about fate — there was an ad in the local paper that Paradise Locker was up for sale," he says. "It was exactly what I wanted."
They're the fourth family to own Paradise Locker Meats since it opened in 1946. It was a concrete-and-oak box back then, tucked behind Clyde's General Store. Deer hunters brought their kills to be dressed and butchered, and local farmers and ranchers hauled their livestock here. It doubled as the voting site for rural Paradise, Missouri.
Fantasma took over the business in 1995, and the slaughterhouse became a one-man show. The retail part of the business was a freezer in a room separated from the kill floor by an old wooden door. After school, Louis and Nick helped their dad clean up, the way he once mopped the floors at Vita's Café. "I wanted to make sure the boys understood what work meant," Fantasma says.
For him, work was 17 hours a day of skinning and cleaning deer carcasses, as many as 1,400 in a single season. That changed in 2002, when the smokehouse caught fire. The flames spread to the main building, claiming half the original structure.
Fantasma chose to rebuild in a new location, in the neighboring town of Trimble, on what was then five acres of cornfields. He kept the name, a gesture to let the community know that he would continue to work with area ranchers and farmers. A crumbling concrete block from the original slaughterhouse in Paradise is embedded in the concrete walk immediately before the front door of the new, siding-clad building, which sits just off U.S. Highway 169.
One of the first calls that Fantasma took at the new facility was from Doug Metzger, a hog farmer near Seneca, Kansas, who was working with a new mail-order company called Heritage Foods USA. The business was specializing in heritage breeds and was looking for a processing plant that was USDA-inspected.
Paradise Locker had begun as a custom-exempt shop, meaning that it broke down animals for an owner, not for resale. But in fall 2004, Fantasma switched the business from a state-inspected facility to one that's federally inspected. The change allowed Paradise to ship across state lines and process out-of-state animals.
For its first Heritage order, Paradise Locker packed 10 hogs, split in half, into crates with ice. Over the next two years, this standing order for 10 hogs grew to 60 hogs a week. Paradise stopped breaking down whole deer — though the company still processes meat for hunters and Share the Harvest (a program that gives deer meat to shelters and food pantries) — to focus on the hog business with Heritage.
Fantasma is mulling over an expansion that could increase the slaughterhouse's capacity to 200 hogs a week. The demand for heritage pork, echoing the nation's oversized appetite for all things pig, continues to outstrip his supply.
"I wish we could get more," says Sam Edwards III, the third-generation cure master from Virginia. "I'm always looking for better-quality pork and operations that are as clean and efficient as this [Paradise]."
Alex Pope hears the same thing from customers at his East Bottoms butcher shop, Local Pig. He's familiar with Paradise from his days as the chef at R Bar. "I see a ton of potential," he says. "People have been waiting for an easy way to find sustainable meat. It has to be simple enough that it's an extra five or 10 minutes, as opposed to driving to a farm and picking up a side of beef."
Connecting consumers with sustainable meat — livestock raised humanely, by farmers attempting to keep a small ecological footprint — was the original idea behind Ag Local. The startup, which raised $1.5 million in seed capital last summer, has since shifted its focus to attracting name-brand chefs to its software, which connects them with farmers. The system debuted with 20 high-profile chefs in New York City this month; another 20 in San Francisco are coming in April.
"I can't believe that one of the oldest industries in our country is the last to have software fully integrated," says Robert Roderick, Ag Local's head of product and marketing.
Roderick says Ag Local's inventory-management system can help eliminate some of the uncertainty that stifles growth in the sustainable-meat market. Niche operations such as Paradise Locker can attract buyers willing to pay for a higher level of quality. "The way of the future is jumping into sustainable pay now," Roderick says. "That's how we change the way meat is bought and sold."
It's an old idea wrapped in new butcher paper‚ a fair price for a carefully raised piece of meat. It's how your grandparents' corner butcher operated.
"Butchering is a lost art," says the Farmhouse's Michael Foust, who stopped by Paradise on a recent morning to pick up some caul fat and shoulder bacon. "But I see what these guys are doing and I get excited. We need to build a community where each piece is strong by itself."
Paradise Locker has become a place where chefs and farmers learn about each other's needs and look to a shared future. "We started out as a butcher," Teresa says. "And now we've grown into a lifelong process and food movement."
"Nobody in the meat business is going to get super-wealthy," Edwards III says after the Paradise Locker tour. "But we all have to work together to find the solution."
Martins says the solution looks a lot like Paradise. "If this was on either coast, they'd be the most celebrated shop in the country, with lifetime achievement awards," he says. "Instead, they just go to work, and people have no idea what they have in their backyards. One day, we'll look at Trimble the way we looked at Berkeley, California, for organic produce."