The business model of half a hog | Writing | Food Newsie

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The business model of half a hog

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The business model of half a hog

Let’s examine a fictional restaurant that dives into serving half a hog nightly for one week as a special, once-a-night five-course dinner. Each course centers around ingredients from just one half of a hog. The challenge for this haute restaurant that’s chosen such a specialized menu is to balance the cost of all the ingredients as well as Chef’s time in preparing the meat against the revenue the dinner generates. Night to night, the number of guests can vary – so the cost to attend is a gamble.

Part I: Farm to Kitchen

First things first, our restaurant needs three hogs halved to serve six dinners in the week Monday thru Saturday. Most consumers think of food as immediate but meat that’s been harvested or slaughtered has to rest. Chef has limited time and has limited space in the freezer. When the order goes in for three 300-pound hogs, they’re processed on a Thursday but can’t be picked up until Tuesday the next week.

Kristen from Stoney Point Meats in Littlestown, PA leads a small group on a “walk through.” Everyone is wearing hair nets and white coats that button down neck to thigh and have tight elastic cuffs on the sleeves. It’s a USDA mandate. The path an animal takes is brief. It’s just into the “final pen” in the evisceration room and it’s remarkably clean; the “walk through” then moves along the path a carcass takes. A steel monorail system fifteen-feet overhead guides the unloader pulleys with their chains and hooks from room to room with switching mechanisms to park scalded and split product in separate spaces. The organization of it is perfected for efficiency and clarity after cleanliness.

The doors the group open and close between rooms are massive and towering. Once in the cold room, Kristen explains that their processing facility can hold a product for 21 days below 50-degrees. While she answers more questions, she begins to wrap her hands around each other; the fashion of 28-day aged beef is possible with enough space. In that month, other orders have to be processed and held. 500-pound halves of beef dwarf our three little pigs in the corner and Kristen isn’t afraid to stick her hands right into each half presenting a kidney, displaying the Leaf Lard and patting the pork butt.

Our three little pigs are fictional as is the restaurant setting to the task of a week of special dinners. Stoney Point Meats, Kristen and our walk through the processing facility in hair nets and white coats are not works of fiction.

The business model of half a hog

The meat inside half a hog is considerable in terms of weight. Butchers can process the popular cuts for you. Doing it on your own demands a large work space even for the smaller hogs where a half, cut nose to tail, can still weigh 150 pounds.

Some real life elements of getting these pigs from the farm to the kitchen are fascinating and go unseen by 99% of the people who eat pork. The single kidney that Kristen dove right in and shows remains attached to each half. The kidney is butterfly-split to show the inside. A clean kidney is a sign that the pig was healthy; it’s an old tyme inspection method that’s still honored by good farmers and processors. Leaf Lard is a mass of fat weighing several pounds per hog that surrounds the kidneys and it’s ideal for pie crusts because it lends little flavor while providing a flaky crust; common cooking these days calls for butter instead. The change to butter has made Leaf Lard almost obsolete and driven the price downward as butchers scrap it. The butt is hardly the rear end! It’s in the shoulder section; the rear end is called the Ham and it’s, …well, it’s ham. Pork butt is affordable enough and ideal for making sausage.

It’s sad to waste. Chef is even making use of the unused parts. The spine and surrounding meat the knife didn’t reach will go to stock. Simmering the bones and meat will produce a stock. Once drained, that stock can lend a magnificent meat flavor to dishes and meals either in the special dinner or not. So the return on the half hog has gone up with this prevention of waste.

The cuts we’re accustomed to seeing in posters with animal profiles sectioned into familiar names are called Primal Cuts. Chef has asked that the hogs be only scalded and split. Scalding opens the follicles and helps get hair and bristle off the skin. The “Split” is halving the hog. When butchering the hog, Chef can perform any number of little changes to these Primal Cuts that the processor wouldn’t normally do without special instructions. Processors don’t really come across as people who like special instructions. They’re awfully good at what they’ve been doing for years and in Pennsylvania at least, the USDA mandates working hours be 7:30AM to 3PM which leaves little time for artsy butchering.

All told, Chef’s little pigs, all Berkshire-Tamworth crosses by the way, have been “product” for five days. Their low weight of 300-pounds whole means their meat is tender by way of physical age but there’s lots of fat. Once in the kitchen’s prep room, Chef has precious little time to complete the miracle of executing primal cuts for the dinner. Chef has a menu in mind while he works which directs the knife.

Chef’s Vision of the Menu

  • Pork Liver Pâté
    Pâté with jasmine picked vegetables and spent grain crisps
  • Sandwich and Salad
    Roasted, marinated pork with a mixed salad and amber mustard vinaigrette, pork croutons, bacon infused hard boiled egg and grapes
  • South of the Border Stew
    Orange brined, lightly smoked stewed Pork Tinga (Traditional Mexican braised shredded pork)
  • Light Flavor BOMB!
    Spice rubbed pork loin with a raw fennel and grilled grapefruit salad and apricot gastrique
  • Flambée
    Pear Foster (skillet-warmed pear slices in butter – Spanish Brandy in this case) over grilled Challah Bread with bacon caramel

It’s a ridiculous set of demands on each half hog! Processing the first half hog, with a small audience of curious waiters and a food blogger with a camera slowing him down, takes exactly 58-minutes. What is Chef paid? Six hours of this expense will go toward the cost of producing the dinner. At least for the next four days, Chef can mull over his choices further while monitoring the progress of cures and smoking and simmering stock. It’s a small reprieve until the breakneck final day.

The business model of half a hog

Chef has reduced a 150-pound half a hog down to Primal Cuts that are easier to work and cook with. Choices have been made where to cut thin and where to cut thick. This is the advantage of processing on your own but the space it requires is vast. Half a hog could take up a love seat; not that you'd welcome that sight.

For its part, the restaurant has taken the initial brunt of the financial impact. The farmer paid the processor and rolled that expense into the wholesale cost the restaurant paid. The three hogs at 300-pounds apiece were billed at $4.00 a pound carcass weight; a near-steal for the rush. Three-thousand, six-hundred dollars already in. What should this fictional restaurant charge? Next time, the math of covers (reserved seats at the dinners) and some recipes for pork.

1 Responses to "The business model of half a hog"

Kent says:

This is enlightening and enlightened reportage. Efficiency with food resources is a boon, and actions such as this approach to pork are commendable.

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