Protein Paradoxes at Heritage Foods USA

Saving rare breeds from extinction by encouraging Americans to eat them.

When the shelves in his refrigerator buckled under the cumulative strain of smoked hams, Bourbon Red turkeys, Piedmontese flank steaks and Berkshire Boston butt, Patrick Martins didn’t call the super.

Freed of its shelves, the fridge was fulfilling a higher purpose.

It became a meat locker, a sort of showroom of Heritage Foods USA, the company Martins founded four years ago to reverse decades of industrialization in America’s meat supply.

When I visit Martins’s 10th floor apartment in the East 50s, the refrigerator is ajar and he struggles to keep a mountain of pork ribs from avalanching as he removes a ham. Martins often looks like he’s on the back end of a bender: a couple days of stubble, heavy eyes, tousled hair. (A friend and longtime colleague told me, “Patrick’s hair is so disheveled, it’s almost stylized.”) Such controlled chaos, on his head or in his fridge, seems to stem from an unwavering faith that there are no obstacles—only opportunities.

With the ham under one arm, he disgorges the fridge of an endless range of meat sauces—the other major item in his refrigerator besides meat—including sambal oelek, an intensely hot jerk sauce called Father Esau’s Double Explosion, and homemade mayo from his cofounder, Sarah O’Braitis.

“This is from our friend Sam Edwards in Surry, Virginia,” Martins says as he shaves thick pink slices for me and layer them onto Balthazar bread. “Sam’s smokehouses are close to the spot where Indians first taught the English colonists the secret of bringing out the full flavor in meats. He was invited to cure ham at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It is beyond good.” His Scotty dogs, West and Red, whimper successfully. “See how shiny their coats are,” he says. “It’s ham fat.”

If Martins is two things, he’s a New Yorker and a salesman. Born in Mount Sinai Hospital in 1972 to an art-world mother who speaks six languages and a conductor who still performs Bach at Carnegie Hall, Martins eventually received a master’s degree in performance studies from NYU. “My desire to change the world came from there,” said Martins. “I looked at everyday life as a performance. People want a story—a consistent, reliable outlet for doing good.”

His mother knew Francesco Antonucci, then chef-owner at Remi Restaurant on 57th Street, and in 1998 Antonucci arranged for Martins to meet Carlo Petrini, the Italian who founded Slow Food, the international movement in defense of taste. Petrini was impressed and whisked Martins back to Italy for two years, where he would meet his wife, Serena, and be groomed to add an American arm of the international group (out of this same apartment). Four years in, Slow Food USA counted over 12,500 members and 140 chapters, from coast to coast. (Somewhere in between, he created the New York City Trivia Game.)

Those were heady times for food consciousness in America. Eaters were craving something with more heart, more meaning, food with a face behind it. Martins was the darling of the Times Dining Section, and visitors to the heady, cramped office he would later establish in a corner of the French Culinary Institute were likely to be offered slugs of artisanal whiskey, nibbles of illegal raw-milk cheeses, and bites of single-origin chocolates—all before 10 a.m.

No business like slow business

But while Slow Food took America by storm, the New World was still the stepchild in the international movement. Chapters in Italy, Germany and Holland boasted home cooks, restaurant chefs and even supermarkets devoted to reviving centuries-old food traditions. So Martins set out to document America’s own food traditions—from New England clam bakes to Southwestern prickly pear jelly.

It was at that time that Martins read about heritage turkeys. What better poster child for an American food tradition in need of revival than the endangered breeds of the “wily, energetic bird that struck our ancestors as the perfect centerpiece for an American holiday,” wrote Martins in a 2003 Times op-ed. Shortly after, at a dinner party thrown by Murray’s Cheese owner Rob Kaufelt during the Fancy Food show, Martins met Todd Wickstrom, leader of the Ann Arbor Slow Food chapter and managing partner of Zingermann’s. “I was immediately intrigued by him,” recalls Wickstrom. “He’s like a pied piper.” Wickstrom would help Slow Food USA launch its “turkey project,” a campaign to convince Slow Food members and other interested Americans to set their Thanksgiving table with heritage turkeys from the few remaining farmers raising them.

Which is the first paradox in this story. While we’re altogether too accustomed to hearing of extinction when wild species—from the passenger pigeon to Atlantic bluefin tuna—are overharvested, domesticated species (which make up most of our food supply) go extinct when humans don’t eat enough of them. Twentieth-century agribusiness abandoned the heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds that family farms had treasured for generations, forgoing these biodiverse flavors for a precious few varieties bred to withstand machine harvest and transport, for cosmetic perfection, even on a supermarket shelf three weeks and three thousand miles from the field. Without a market to sell old varieties, farmers don’t grow them—and if no one’s raising, say, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, or Cox Orange Pippin apples, after a few years, they don’t exist anymore. Hence the surprisingly accurate mantra: Eat it to save it.

Every time we eat, goes the Slow Food argument, we patronize a certain kind of food system, and surely mainstream agribusiness does not deserve our support. Consider the timely turkey, 40 million of which will be sold in America this month, raised in flocks of 10,000 crammed into windowless buildings, lit around the clock to keep them awake and eating genetically modified corn. These birds are weak: Rapid growth strains their skeletons, while their homogeneity and impossibly close quarters make them vulnerable to the mildest pathogen. But antibiotics keep them alive, and by three months of age the bird is flabby with bland meat.

Slow Food’s Turkey Project told customers there is another option—heritage breed birds, raised on green grass under blue sky. They grow more slowly, along the way developing pink color and deep flavor, and the pleasure of eating one is enriched by the knowledge of the life it led. The campaign had a real impact—as customers across the country requested heritage turkeys, participating farmers agreed to raise more of them, and suddenly populations on the brink were marketable, and thus viable.

But slow change wasn’t fast enough, and Martins was restless. He began to feel that advocacy was well and great, but that the only way to preserve these breeds was to get them to market. Sure, Slow Food chapters could talk about the importance of patronizing the rare, interesting and funky, like that Prickly Pear Jelly and Gloucestershire Old Spot pork—but where on Earth could they buy them?

Which brings us to our second paradox. Convinced that a not-for-profit couldn’t offer the movement what it really needs, he left Slow Food to better serve its mission—by going into business. Heritage Foods USA was born.

“Patrick has been a real leader,” says Michael Pollan. “He has taken this very powerful Slow Food idea, that the way you save a breed or a foodway of any kind is you eat it, and the success of his venture is proof of the importance of that concept.”

In other words, this altruistic, not-for-profit mission is powered by the machinery of a nimble for-profit company.

Admittedly it took a while to get the machinery moving. Martins and Wickstrom both describe Heritage’s first year as “a total fucking disaster,” with Martins driving a meat-filled U-Haul around Manhattan once a week, “probably violating every HAACP plan in the world.” But as they built up their infrastructure, they doubled the populations of four breeds of turkeys, and the number of farms raising them jumped from 8 to 80.

If it could work for turkeys, why not for other animals and all-but-forgotten foods? Martins quickly expanded his scope (and product line) far beyond gobblers, adding heritage breeds of pig—the company’s biggest seller—as well as of lamb, cattle, ducks and geese, plus pole-and-line-caught albacore tuna, Route 11 potato chips that have never been sold west of the Mississippi, native foods like tepary beans and wild rice, wild guajillo bush honey, pawpaws and an array of products unified by their unique history and their direct connection to the farmer who grew them.

Martins found holdout farmers raising old-fashioned breeds the old-fashioned way. He drew a line from the Midwest to Manhattan, determined to fill what he saw as a gaping hole in the nation’s food supply—that space between the small farmer in the heartland and customers everywhere who would like to buy from him. Heritage Foods USA is the salesperson, the accountant, the matchmaker. “It’s one big, happy circle of in and out,” says Heather Hyman, a recent NYU food studies graduate, now Heritage’s minister of mail order.

An apartment on the East Side might have been the perfect podium. “All the high-quality meat in the country comes to New York,” says Pat La Frieda, the fourth generation wholesale meat purveyor on Washington Street who cuts and fulfills Heritage Foods pork orders to dozens of top restaurants in Manhattan, not to mention Las Vegas, San Francisco and Miami. “When I first met him, Patrick didn’t know what was what. He didn’t know a front leg from a back leg. But he had the sight and the vision to get these great animals to Manhattan. He hit a home run.”

Now Berkshire and Red Wattle pigs show up as aristae at Lupa, pâté grand-mere and -pere at Bar Bouloud, lardo pizza at Otto, the mixed grill plate at Del Posto, and pig cheek for staff meal at WD 50. Americans will give thanks with around 8,000 heritage turkeys this year. With a list of 300 wholesale customers and tens of thousands of mail-order buyers, the company moves 40,000 pounds of meat each week, generating business for a network of 50 farmers and food makers. Martins is putting the finishing touches on a book about his for-profit-with-a-mission business model. There is talk of a Food Network deal. And it has also come out of an apartment overlooking the United Nations.

“We don’t own anything,” Martins says. “Not the slaughterhouse. Not the farms. Not the office. Not the trucks. It’s the relationships that matter and the quality of the product that matters. Some people are like, ‘I want to start a business to help farmers.’ All you have to do is get on the phone.”

Your Pork Farmer

“Hey, it’s Patrick from Heritage. Yes, your pork farmer,” says Martins into the phone, fingering his laptop with one hand while he pops a mint with the other. Although he raises no crops or animals himself, he considers himself a proxy for one.

“Good, my friend, how are you? Ten rib racks? OK. Ten rib racks it is. OK, wow. We could always overnight you some more racks last minute if you need. Awesome dude. Beef? We have great Piedmontese steak. It’s considered one of the best breeds. No, it’s from Montana. It’s grassfed, grain finished.” Martins went on to list—twice—the assorted beef cuts and prices: rib eye, skirt, bone in, marrow, tongue, chuck, brisket, hanger. “OK, we’ll get you some beef next time. Good luck on the Bruni review. And next week I want to talk turkey with you,” he says, flashing a smirk for a joke he’s told a thousand times.

Martins could be called the great enunciator, punctuating multisyllabic words like Pied-mon-tese and A-nish-i-naa-beg (the Native American tribe in Minnesota who sell wild rice through Heritage), a theatrical cadence that is slightly unnatural, like an adult leading a child through a new word. (It’s used to great effect when he discusses traceability, a bit of supply chain jargon that brands Heritage products with the peace of mind that eaters know exactly who raised their food, where and how, and what its genetic lineage was.)

On Tuesdays, Martins calls more than 100 restaurants around the country, working from “The Gospel,” a spreadsheet filled with accounts and prices, and assorted notes scribbled on cardboard, note cards and scrap paper. These are his regular customers with standing orders and they don’t need much selling. Like John McCain (though clearly with better cause) he refers to nearly all the people he speaks with as “friend.” Between these calls, Martins is on the horn to the slaughterhouse in Missouri and to farmers around the country, checking their inventory against what the chefs want—or what he can convince them to want.

His 500-square-foot one-bedroom apartment-cum-office contains five computer-equipped workstations, including one in the kitchen, four phone lines, a printer, a sleep-disturbing fax machine in the bedroom and a few ashtrays shared among the two to three staff. Reference materials include the Encyclopedia of Heritage and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Birds, A16 Food and Wine Cookbook, meatingplace.com magazine.

Martins had just returned from one of his many whirlwind visits to poultry preservationist patriarch Frank Reese in Kansas, the first farmer to sell through Heritage. The flocks on Reese’s 160-acre Good Shepherd Ranch includes six breeds of turkeys, eight breeds of chickens, three breeds of ducks and two breeds of geese—none of which you would ever find in a supermarket, all of which are dangerously close to extinction, and would be a lot closer were it not for Reese, Martins and the customers they serve together.

Reese credits Martins with helping even the most talented chefs understand the nuances of heritage meats, whether it’s the fact that these old breeds of poultry have less fat than modern birds or that their size is not as uniform. “People have totally forgotten that poultry has a season,” he says. “Patrick has been willing to explain that to his customers. He has been willing to bring anything to market. He says, ‘just tell me the story.’”

And it’s not just rare breeds Martins has created critical markets for, but underloved cuts too. When pork surpassed poultry as Heritage’s big seller, Martins realized that the ribs, ham and bellies were nearly half of the animal, and they piled up in freezers as home cooks and restaurants alike ordered tenderloin and chops. So he reached out to artisanal ham curers and charcuterie makers, like Sam Edwards; the Fatted Calf in Napa; Salumi in Seattle; or barbecue temples like T-Rex in Berkeley (“How’s the ribs capital of the world?,” is how Martins endears himself to the chef. “Thirty-two spare rib packs. Sixteen spare rib packs split. Sixteen bellies. Wow. You are not fucking around.”)

While mere mortals can place orders, restaurants are Heritage’s biggest market, and the company has built up an inner circle of particularly good customers willing to entertain odd bits and ends for everything from staff meals to highly sought specials. This list runs the gamut from Batali restaurants like Del Posto and Otto to Brooklyn eateries like Bonito and Diner. “They enjoy the benefit of getting the leftovers,” Martins says. “Hundreds of pounds of random crap. And they pay double commodity. That’s hardcore. When a chef is like ‘I’ll pay 80 bucks a week to feed my staff. To feed my Mexican guys foreshanks or trotter sirloin,’ that’s hardcore. To pay double commodity, that’s so much love.”

If the products Heritage sells offer an alternative to commodity, as Martins refers to the anonymous mainstream meat supply, Heritage’s sales strategy stands in contrast to the standard corporate food distributor. “I like that the guy running the company will actually show up every once in a while with a lamb,” says Jacques Gautier, chef and owner of the rustic pan-Latin Palo Santo in Park Slope, who now gets most of his meat from Heritage. He says their prices are often competitive with “nonsustainably raised stuff,” particularly for whole animals, strange cuts and organ meats. Gautier simmers pig heads overnight, picking meat from ears, tongues, cheeks and brains for tacos surtidos. He makes anticuchos, a traditional Peruvian street food from odd cuts, skewered and grilled, and tops them with spicy mayo. “It’s not just a product that he’s selling. It’s a way of living and an ideology. That’s something much deeper than a slab of pork.”

Martins and his team are champions of rare breeds and unindustrialized practices, but local food is decidedly not their beat. Sure, many of Heritage’s customers have strong relationships with area farmers. But Martins plugs them into a network far beyond their foodshed.

“He brought us face to face with the farmers, to the slaughterhouse,” says Jason Denton, restaurateur with Lupa, Eno, Enoteca and Bar Milano, who once accompanied Martins and Wickstrom on a field trip to Kansas to visit some of Heritage’s farms. The trip also included Zach Allen, the director of operations for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Las Vegas restaurants, as well as Bar Milano chef Steve Connaughton and Del Posto chef Mark Ladner. “We felt the immediate impact, like we were part of the family.” (Denton’s restaurants have tried nearly all of Heritage’s products at one time or another, but depend mostly on its pork: “The biggest thing we’ve noticed is the fat cap on heritage animals. When you close your eyes, it’s almost simultaneously flavored with the meat.”)

And Martins seeks an even wider influence. “We’ve learned to be content with much smaller successes than we should be,” he says. “Everything we eat is commodity—98 percent of the meat we eat. It’s obnoxious for successful restaurants to still be serving all commodity.” Heritage sells chickens to a rotisserie truck in San Francisco, trims for sausage to Esposito’s on the West Side, and turkeys to Google’s corporate cafeteria. But he’d like to sell to large supermarket chains, to hospital and school cafeterias, to the U.S. government. And supplying these markets would mean drawing from larger farms and from farther away than many locavores would suggest.

“[Farmers] markets and community-supported agriculture programs, wonderful as they are, can’t by themselves save American agriculture,” Martins wrote several years ago in another Times op-ed. “To do that, we have to look beyond the ‘eat local’ slogans and think of how to give American consumers across the country access to regional products that might disappear unless they are raised in much larger numbers. In some cases the answer is to think locally—but to ship nationally.”

In other words, Heritage embraces some of the same tools—national marketing, long-distance distribution, elaborate packaging—that helped speed up food in the first place, until food artisans in every corner of the country have gotten their footing. “The true breadbasket of the U.S. is still the Midwest,” he says. “Five hundred farms just went belly up while debating food miles. Joel Salatin is raising 50 chickens for his local market, but Purdue is the real battleground. The Kansas City farm that can raise 10,000 chickens a year. Our battle is to create our own renegade system.” And it’s working. Balthazar and Freeman’s have both just placed their first orders.

Biodiverse commerce

Although it has grown into a $5 million company, Martins says Heritage Foods has never been about making money. “I want to promote the sale, but it doesn’t all have to happen through us,” says Martins with an attitude that might make his investors wince.

Instead, he sees Heritage as part of a new breed of “hybrid businesses,” akin to Newman’s Own, Ethos Water and other for-profit companies that have a do-good mission and even some not-for-profit functions.

“Everything we do and everything Patrick has done with us is based on preservation,” says poultry farmer Reese. This doesn’t just mean protecting breeds with more interesting flavor and texture than the standard option. As Heritage noted in a recent pre-Thanksgiving e-blast, “Relying solely on a single strain of the Broad-Breasted White, entire flocks and even the species itself are one mere pathogen away from being wiped off the American dinner table.”

Around 20 percent of the world’s breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry are at risk of extinction, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, as farmers and ranchers forsake diverse breeds for Holstein dairy cows, Yorkshire Landrace Cross pigs and Cornish Cross chickens. In fact, with recent concern over avian flu and other animal pathogens, Virginia Tech has exposed a range of poultry, including breeds that Heritage sells, to certain disease. “The heritage birds got sick, but they didn’t die like the factory farm breeds,” says Reese.

“Governments haven’t been very effective at preventing the loss of livestock breeds,” says Danielle Nierenberg, a livestock specialist with the Humane Society of the United States. “Heritage Foods created a market for saving them.”

The eat-it-to-save-it approach is working. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has upgraded the Bourbon Red turkey from “rare” to “watch” status. Reese’s Goodshepherd Farm now raises 12,000 birds each year, up from just 1,000 a few years ago. Paradise Meat Locker in Trimble, Missouri, which went from slaughtering 10 hogs a week to 150 or more each week, has tripled its employees from 5 to 15. “It’s possible that we could be nationwide right now, even international, without Heritage, but I seriously doubt it,” says owner Nick Fantasma. Riding on such prosperity, a young chef has opened the Justice Drugstore Restaurant nearby, which attracted a visit from the same Frank Bruni who reviews the New York restaurants that buy most of the meat coming out of Paradise. (Martins often compares this economic spillover to how Slow Food International’s headquarters once jumpstarted the shrinking town of Bra, Italy, creating a need for dozens of restaurants, B&Bs, food businesses and even a university.)

And Reese now supplies his breeding stock to nine farmers, including three who used to raise birds for national agribusiness firms. “They enjoy the animals again. They like watching turkeys who can run, walk, breathe.” Before he met Martins, Reese didn’t know if anyone would inherit his birds. “We were struggling and if it weren’t for Patrick, we wouldn’t know Robert Kennedy and Willie Nelson and Mario Batali and Alice Waters. I would never have gotten my turkeys on Iron Chef. Slow Food has done a lot to help us, but it is a nonprofit. Patrick is running a for-profit.” And so are all the farmers he works with.

“Patrick is not just attentive to genetics,” says Pollan. “He has elevated animal welfare, fair wages for farmers. He’s building a market for sustainably raised, very carefully grown meat.”

Now Martins is thinking even bigger: Heritage Radio, an online station that will be broadcast 20 hours a week out of a just-completed studio on the roof of Roberta’s Pizza in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Let’s say there is a farmer near Kansas City or a fisher near Portland or a canner near Brooklyn who has a product to move, we blast out to a few thousand potential customers, and the farmer delivers to your door. That is by far the most frickin’ direct there is.”

(Wickstrom, Martin’s cofounder, who is similarly enamored of the activist corporation, is now putting the finishing touches on a coffee shop in a burnt-out part of Detroit that he hopes will be the first step in creating 1,000 “healthy foods” jobs in the next 20 years.)

As an “on-air pork distributor,” Martins hopes to cut guerrilla deals using Michael Moore-esque tactics of calling, for instance, large food distributors like Sysco and pressuring them to start buying their meat from more small farmers. Or “to find some millionaire with the balls to invest a few mill in slaughterhouses 100 miles from New York. It would be the biggest meat market in the world.” As crazy as this sort of grassroots capitalism sounds, both Slow Food and Heritage Foods had their naysayers.

“There are endless possibilities to do good in the food world,” says Martins. “But it must start with the purchase.”

Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell and Heritage Foods USA

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Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.