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How Wisconsin's Underground Food Collective Is Open-Sourcing Their Meat Expertise

When Jonny Hunter set out to learn butchery eight years ago, it was a little harder than expected. Not really the actual meat-hacking part of it. There just wasn't much information out there. YouTube didn't have any of the upwards of 40,000 butchery-related videos that populate the site today; YouTube barely even existed itself. Just about all that Hunter could find were some instructional videos from the British cooking show River Cottage.

Today, just about anyone can learn the basics of butchery between the glut of videos, seminars, and apprenticeships available at independent butcher shops across the country. But that's still not enough information for Hunter and his partners at the Underground Food Collective in Madison, WI. Now that they've mastered not only the craft of cutting but also the business behind it, they want to share pieces of that knowledge with literally anyone else who wants to know.

Last Fall, the Underground Food Collective — which owns the retail shop Underground Butcher and the charcuterie-focused meat processing facility Underground Meats — launched a Kickstarter project to create an open-source document that they hope will smooth the way for fellow salami producers to become USDA-certified meat processors. It's all part of the company's ethos that is changing the state of meat in Madison and beyond.

[Photos: Emily Julka and Kevin Walsh]

A Self-Taught Butcher

It was a farmer friend of Hunter's who got him into butchering. The farmer wanted to raise pigs and asked if Hunter and his brother/business partner Ben Hunter had any interest in processing them. They had never done anything like that before. In fact, Hunter says he had never even really had much experience working with processing at all. But he was game to try. And so Hunter tracked down the River Cottage video.

"Three or four hundred animals later, I feel pretty comfortable."

"As we were cutting the animals we would hit pause, make a cut, then continue to do it," Hunter says. All told, during that first year of learning, the brothers slaughtered and processed about six whole animals. "I always joke that the first few were hell," Hunter says, "and three or four hundred animals later, I feel pretty comfortable."

Though some butchers with restaurant backgrounds may have had some experience doing minimal processing in kitchens before they became professional cutters, Hunter's first experience with butchery was with these whole animals. That, he says, has shaped the way he approaches his job. At Underground Butcher, everything is whole animal, broken into primals and sub-primals. Straightforward butchery, Hunter calls it.

Bridging the Gap With Restaurants

Seven hundred pounds of beef is daunting. But since Underground Butcher opened in 2012 with Michael Signorelli at the helm, there has never been a day that they have had to throw away a rotted piece of meat. There are just too many places within the Underground Food Collective for meat to go before it can go bad. There's Underground Catering, the business that started it all; Forequarter, the restaurant that came later; and Underground Meats, the charcuterie operation whose premises also include the group's meat-processing facility.

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[Photo: Emily Julka]

Then there are the other restaurants in town. Underground works with a number of restaurants in Madison. Frustrated with the way traditional, large-scale meat processors cannot anticipate a restaurant's needs — which cuts they want and which muscles need to be removed — more restaurants are eager to experiment with whole animal butchery. But a restaurant kitchen often doesn't have the space (let alone meet the regulatory criteria) for butchering a several-hundred-pound animal. So they turn to Underground instead.

Chefs like Tory Miller have turned to Underground.

Chef Tory Miller's acclaimed L'Etoile and Graze are among those restaurants. Miller met Hunter and his brother Ben about 10 years ago at a dinner the brothers were hosting in which they were cooking out of the Bouchon cookbook. They saw each other around all the time and became good friends over the years. "They're all about local food and agriculture, same as us," Miller says.

So when Miller's beef farmers John and Dorothy Priske told him they could only raise animals and take them to slaughter for him (in the interest of permaculture), Miller called Hunter to ask if Underground could take on both transporting and cutting the meat. For a little more than a month now, Hunter and Signorelli have been taking in two whole cows per week for Miller's restaurants. The chef's in-house meat cutter helps Hunter break the carcasses down into primals or sub-primals, then brings them back to the restaurant to trim.

"We are trying to bridge a gap there and be a processor that can help restaurants do this a little bit better, and do it in a way that they want," Hunter says.

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[Photo: Emily Julka]

A $49,000 Idea

Now there's another gap that Hunter and the Underground Food Collective are trying to bridge. That would be the knowledge gap between artisan salami producers and the opaque federal regulations that keep these small businesses from expanding.

Opaque federal regulations keep small businesses from expanding.

As Food Safety News explains it, the government requires meat producers to have Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans in place to ensure food safety and sanitation. Up until now, Underground Meats, led by Jerry Traczyk, had certification from the state of Wisconsin on this front. But to sell to national retailers, they needed USDA certification, a lengthy and often costly process for businesses that hire an outside party to validate their plan.

It would cost Underground Meats as much as $40,000 to obtain that verification, according to their own estimates. That was just way too much for a small business to take on, even if it meant an opportunity to go national. And, beyond the price, the process was also just confusing. And no one was willing to help them out. Given the cost of validating a HACCP plan, a lot of meat producers who had one didn't want to share that intellectual property. Understandably, Hunter says.

That's when Hunter — who has a Masters' degree in public affairs and had worked closely with copyright organizations before his meat career took off — had the idea for the Kickstarter. Setting a goal at $40,000, Underground Food Collective promised that once they had finished the HACCP process, they would create an open-source model for other salami producers to use as a means to piggyback off the UFC's work. The Kickstarter was more than funded. "I joke sometimes that this is the best idea I've ever had because it's valued at 49,000 dollars," Hunter says.

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[Photo: Emily Julka]

Sharing Information in a Competitive Industry

Since the Kickstarter closed on October 12, 2013, Underground Meats has released the first draft of its HACCP plan. Hunter says they've also decided to use that extra money to release about seven or eight of their other HACCP plans for sous vide, bacon, cured sausages, and more. So far, there's been a good response in the salami-making community.

"There's a dialogue happening now that wasn't before."

"There's a dialogue happening now that wasn't happening before and that's exciting," Hunter says. "People have reached out to us and have been like, 'Hey, I've been actually working on a similar thing. Here's 68 pages on this mold that could be potentially helpful and useful in the salami-making process.'"

Gregg Harris of Artisan Charcuterie in Bozeman, Montana, is one of those producers who reached out to Jerry Traczyk, the director of Underground Meats who is leading the HACCP plan development. A year ago, Harris started the process for a state inspection of his facilities that will allow him to do wholesaling as the only licensed charcutier in the state. When he ran into some documentation issues, a friend suggested he check out the draft HACCP on the Underground Meats homepage.

Harris has some reservations about providing an open-source HACCP plan — noting that it could potentially allow newcomers to make and sell charcuterie without understanding the safeguards the HACCP covers — but he calls it a good jumping-off point for anyone looking to write a plan of their own. "I applaud their openness and transparency," Harris says.

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[Photo: Emily Julka]

After he read Underground Meats' plan, Harris ended up corresponding with Traczyk and he even recently toured the Madison facility. It's the first facility tour Harris has been able to do, he says, though not for a lack of trying. Just as Hunter discovered writing his HACCP plan, other charcutiers seemed to want to discourage the competition.

"Our goal is to be our community's salami maker."

With more salami producers coming into the fold, the Underground Food Collective is potentially giving up its competitive edge by sharing all they've learned with chefs, butchers, meat plants, and everybody on the damn internet. But Hunter would rather share information than worry about that. "Underground's goal is not to be this giant US company that is dominating the salami market," he says. "Our goal is to be our community's salami maker."

Underground's Influence on Meat in Madison

Tory Miller has watched the Underground Food Collective grow over the last decade into an aggressive business model that values openness and community. He's also seen the effect they've had on the local community. Miller thinks it's great when Underground Butcher takes lesser used cuts like teres major or teres minor and presents that in its cases for customers to see. "More and more people understand the relevance of whole animals," Miller says.

And he's optimistic about continuing to work with these butchers on his own restaurants' whole-animal program. Sure, it's more work for everyone. "Whole animals are huge," Miller says. "But it's the only way you should be eating."

· All Meet the Butcher [-E-]
· The Five Days of Meat on Eater [-E-]

[Photo: Emily Julka]

Underground Butcher

811 Williamson St, Madison, WI 53703
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