PORTLAND — A meat distribution company, a catering service that operates corporate and institutional cafes, and a Washington pork producer are tweaking the food system in a way that saves money and reduces waste.
Whether the model can be applied across the broader market is unclear, but observers say it’s an important change that can benefit small to mid-size producers while providing urban consumers with high-quality, food.
Here’s what happened: Corfini Gourmet, a Seattle-based company with a distribution center in Portland, struck a deal a year ago with chefs from Bon Appetit, which operates cafes at business campuses and universities, to buy minimally processed hogs from Pure Country Pork, of Ephrata, Wash.
Instead of trimming fat, removing bone and spending time and labor to package only the prime cuts, Pure Country cuts the hogs into pieces, boxes them up and ships them out. Corfini Gourmet distributes them to Bon Appetit, where individual chefs decide how to use the whole hog.
The butchering and packaging savings are significant. Zack Agopian, Corfini’s Portland sales manager, said he buys whole hogs for about $2 a pound.
While meat producers can get much higher prices for certain cuts, they often must scramble to move the rest of the animal, and sell it cheap. The price received for the most desirable cuts often has to support the rest of the operation.
“The whole pig gets sold all together,” said Paul Klingeman, who with other family members owns and operates Pure Country Pork. “I think it’s working out; it’s good for everybody, I hope.”
Andre Uribe, a former executive chef with Bon Appetit and now director of the company’s service at Willamette University in Salem, was involved in the early discussions with Agopian to make the program work. Uribe said he had the purchasing power, including a corporate customer that bought eight hogs a week, and Agopian had the connections to Pure Country Pork, which Uribe said is the “gold standard” for pork production.
The farm doesn’t use gestation crates and its pigs are free ranging and not treated with growth hormones or antibiotics.
Adopting the program required some adjustment. Uribe said chefs usually decide menus, then place food orders.
“This flipped it on its head,” he said. “You’re getting a whole hog and, based on that, you write the menu.”
Uribe said Agopian, of Corfini Gourmet, provided absolute transparency about the price he was paying for whole hogs and his markup. Bon Appetit was able to buy hogs for about $2.70 a pound as opposed to $5 to $10 a pound for select pieces that had been trimmed and de-boned, Uribe said.
“You make one price for everything and it lowers the cost,” he said. “It’s proven to be very effective as long as there is communication and transparency.”
Lauren Gwin, associate director of the Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems at Oregon State University Extension, said the arrangement is significant.
“It is huge,” said Gwin, who also co-coordinates a national niche meat processing network. “When a food distribution company like Corfini is willing to work with farmers and ranchers like Pure Country Pork to use the whole animal, it has a huge effect.”
The deal allows Pure Country Pork to avoid having to “scramble all over the place” to sell the rest of the carcass, and eliminates the storage, shipment and processing labor and logistics that come with that, Gwin said.
It’s one thing for a fancy restaurant to buy a whole hog, but Corfini is a high-volume distributor that serves as a gateway to buyers such as Bon Appetit, Gwin said.
To producers such as Pure Country Pork, Corfini is saying, “We will take the whole pig and we will figure out all the ways we can merchandise this,” she said. The company also helps buyers understand their role in supporting local producers who raise meat in a sustainable fashion, Gwin said.
“That’s always been one of the struggles,” she said. “We can produce this amazing meat, but we’re asking them to do all these other jobs.”