Salumist Elias Cairo is awash in hot dogs. It's the week before the Fourth of July, and at Olympic Provisions' production facility in Portland, Oregon, Cairo and his team are producing three times more hot dogs than usual to prepare for the holiday rush. Cairo, who co-founded OP and has seen the brand grow to offer 40 different meat preps, rifles through the wood placed in the chip burner, stocked with applewood and hickory chips. The timer's just a few minutes away from going off — each 700-pound batch of hot dogs is smoked for four hours, starting at 100 degrees and increasing by 20 each hour — and when the dogs are ready, their giant racks are removed and spun into a room that also happens to contain four men furiously tying sausages a few feet away.
When OP became the first USDA-approved curing facility in Oregon back in 2009, it set up shop in a 800-square-foot space, churning out 100 pounds of meat per day. Its 2011 expansion to a larger facility in NW Portland, considered a major upgrade, upped the square footage to about 4,000 square feet. But in 2013, Olympic Provisions signed the lease for its new, expansive home — at one time, the factory for Tazo Tea — totaling 30,000 square feet dedicated to salami-making, meat smoking, and distributing OP's products across the country. Here's a look inside the place where all that uber-porky charcuterie comes from:
In the facility's main room sits OP's "salami line," where Cairo and his four-person salami staff stuff and hang 4,500 pounds of salami in one shift. Each 4,500-pound batch (usually on a production schedule of three days in a row) represents all 12 of OP's salami flavors (from chorizo Navarre to sopressata), each made in 150-pound batches. Breaking down the salamis to daily-made portions of 150 pounds "works well in the machines and is a way for us to control quality," Cairo says as the team ties and hangs salami at impressive speed.
The large central room is also home to the aforementioned hot dog smoker and the cooking apparatus where 150 pounds of pork shoulder, designated for rillettes, are cooked in one sitting. (The chopped shoulder is rendered with lard and simmered with ginger, thyme, shallot, and slow-cooked for two hours.) Off the main room sits OP's "Spice Kitchen " — where spice blends "are formulated every morning" based on the production calendar — and the official office of the USDA inspector, who stops by the facility daily.
But OP's biggest toys are for its salami. From the salami line, the hanging racks are taken into a 25-by-25-foot incubator (nearly as large as OP's first facility), where they'll sit and ferment in the humidity for three days. From there, they move to the drying room, a carefully designed chamber where humidity is controlled for optimal "bloom" — a.k.a. the white mold the grows during the aging process. A series of white tubes on the ceiling ensure even air distribution throughout the room, where racks are carefully labeled and rotated, depending on their drying status. According to Cairo, every salami variety gets the same 72-hour fermentation, but the drying room, which can hold up to 10,000 pounds of drying salami, is different: "The larger the diameter of the salami the longer it takes to dry." (It's shown here, Cairo notes, at about half-capacity.)
A maze of back rooms and finish coolers — largely quiet at 11a.m., as meat processing starts at 6a.m. each day — are where OP's finished meats are stored, packaged, placed on pallets, and shipped out. Farther back, a full-on metal workshop is where fixtures for OP's family of restaurants, plus storage shelving for the factory, are fabricated on-site. According to Cairo, the new space makes the production schedule much easier, even when factoring in the ramped-up production numbers. "Before, we had no inventory," Cairo says. "Our original finish cooler was 10 by 10 [feet], and now it's 50 by 50 feet, with four pallet racks. Before, in the other place, we didn't even have a place to build a pallet. So, if a truck came in to get a pallet of meat — which is all we ship in — we'd give him a ham sandwich, he'd go sit in his truck, and we'd go build the pallet. It would take, like 45 minutes extra."