It’s a quiet morning, except for the unmistakable sound of squealing hogs.
You smell them before you see them: It’s just a matter of following the scent of fresh manure. Dozens of hogs have been shepherded into pens at the rear of a facility. They’re a pile of stout, spotted bodies, snouts and floppy ears.
“It’s a gorgeous morning,” Louis Fantasma says, smiling as he observes the hogs. He points out the misting fan positioned in the ceiling above them – on hot days, the equipment will keep the temperature 15°F cooler, making for happier, calmer animals.
This is a core ideal at Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Missouri, where the Fantasma family – Louis; his parents, Mario and Teresa; and his brother Nick – have devoted their lives to the humane slaughtering of animals. A stressed animal will make for a difficult slaughter, which can toughen the meat. The goal at Paradise is for hogs to be comfortable from holding pad to killing floor. An inscription on the front of the pad reads “A Piggy’s Paradise.”
“When we built the pad, it was with that in mind,” Louis says. “I like to think we help these animals meet their destiny – and they are destined to be on our plates.”
BACK TO BASICS
Mario has worked in the meat industry for 39 years. Before he took over Paradise Locker Meats, he worked as a butcher for 17 years. Owning a shop of his own, he says, was always in the back of his mind. But Paradise Locker Meats looked very different when he took over in 1995.
“The building was pretty run-down,” Mario says, remembering the original, 2,300-square-foot facility located in the neighboring town of Paradise, Missouri. “When I purchased it, the health department came a few days later and told me they were getting ready to shut the place down. I told them I was the new owner, and I asked them to give me a couple weeks and then come back. When they did, they were pretty impressed with what we had done.”
Getting a green light from the health department was the least of Mario’s troubles. The trust of the surrounding community had to be slowly earned, and there were equipment failures and repairs – including, at one point, a caved ceiling in the freezer – that needed to be addressed.
“It could be an around-the-clock job sometimes,” he says, especially during deer season. “When I first bought the shop, it was a one-man operation, and that first deer season we did around 500 deer. It was 17-hour days for me – I had to put a sign on the front door that just said ‘around back’ so customers would know to find me on the floor.”
Deer season meant that the slaughter of other animals came to a halt. Each year the deer numbers climbed, and Mario would hire part-time workers to help – mostly young hunters looking for a discount on their own haul. Mario’s father, Claudio, would occasionally moonlight as a shop hand, and Louis and Nick would clean the shop after school, so occasionally, customers would find three generations of Fantasmas working together.
“At that time, deer was a pretty big part of our income, and that revenue helped us throughout the year,” Mario says. “My wife had a full-time job and was working in Kansas City, and, poor thing, she’d have to do the bookkeeping when she got home. It was a pretty hard start, but we worked through it, and I was really happy to have [the] support of my family.”
By 2002, Paradise Locker Meats seemed to be hitting its stride. The business was established, and regular beef and hog slaughtering was sustaining the shop throughout the year. Progress came to a screeching halt when a smokehouse fire became a propane fire and caused irreparable damage to the facility.
“It shut us down completely,” Maria says. “It was pretty devastating for us, to see all the work and all the time that was put into that building go up in flames. A lot of history went down with that fire. That place was built in 1946 – a lot of years went by providing services for the local community, and for that to be gone was just sad.”
The tragedy of that fire is still a painful memory for Mario. A little more than a year after the loss of the original Paradise, a new home was established a few miles down the road in Trimble. “I expected to do 10 hogs and 10 [cows] a week, along with deer season,” Mario says. But growth came quickly.
In late 2004, Heritage Foods USA ordered 20 hogs to be processed and shipped to individual customers through its national mail-order service. The pork was popular, and some big-name chefs – including Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali – started ordering for their restaurants. The number of hogs per week at Paradise kept doubling, and the business has expanded every year since. Today, the facility keeps 35 full-time employees year-round to process the 250 to 300 hogs sold weekly.
“This is a tough business, and there’s a lot of moving parts and liability,” Louis says. “But even though the journey hasn’t always been easy, the road has been great. One of the things that makes it awesome is that there’s always a problem to figure out. We get a lot of joy in passing on our knowledge to new staff members, too.”
The Fantasmas share their amazement not only at the demand for their products but also at the rise of the market overall. Consumers are more aware of what they want, Mario says, and there’s a resurgence of customers who are seeking to buy meat from their local butcher again. Even the milkman is getting another moment in the spotlight: In February 2016, Shatto Milk Co. in Osborn, Missouri, launched a home-delivery service in the Kansas City area – and through a partnership with the Fantasmas, drivers are dropping off orders of Paradise Locker Meats products, too.
“You’re seeing this yearning for people wanting to know where their product is coming from,” Mario says. “I believe this idea of going back to the basics and wanting better products is going to be around for years to come.”
There’s something wholesome and heartening about the way Louis proudly tours the pigpen at Paradise and looks over the animals – it’s clearly one of his favorite places on the property. This scene is the antithesis of many modern meat-processing facilities, where animals aren’t always treated with such reverence. For the Fantasmas, butchery is an art that respects the connection between humans and the animals they eat.
Since that initial order in 2004, Heritage Foods has been distributing Paradise pork to some of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, including Momofuku and Del Posto in New York City. Some of our region’s most celebrated chefs – Justus Drugstore’s Jonathan Justus, The Rieger’s Howard Hanna, Novel’s Ryan Brazeal, Corvino Supper Club’s Michael Corvino, among others – prefer Paradise cuts for their menus. The meat that comes out of Paradise is widely regarded as some of the best in the country, and that’s largely thanks to the close partnerships the Fantasmas have with their farmers.
“We build long-term relationships with farmers so that they can plan their breeding and their facility production,” Louis says. “We want to work together over a long period of time, so we need to be able to trust someone when they tell us their hogs are raised outdoors, without antibiotics or hormones.”
Pork at Paradise comes from farms within a range of 5 to 300 miles of the facility. The pork that Heritage Foods buys is packaged under its own label, and the source farm is listed on each product. There are around 15 farms that provide pork for Heritage, and the Fantasmas use about 10 farms for their Fantasma’s Finest label.
“We look for very high quality in all our pork. There are a lot of [processing centers] where it doesn’t matter how good the meat is, as long as they meet the GAP requirements,” Louis says, referencing the Global Animal Partnership, a five-level animal-welfare program used by Whole Foods and other retailers. Louis emphasizes, however, that GAP is not a bad thing, but Paradise’s focus on quality sets it apart. “For us, it’s a lot different – we need the farmers to raise awesome pork. We’re true believers that the better the animals are taken care of, the better the meat is.”
That dedication to quality allows the Fantasmas to commit to the farmers they work with: Paradise agrees to purchase a certain number of pigs over a period of time, which enables the Fantasmas to have a steady supply of product and gives the farmers financial stability. Together, Louis and his father will visit farms and book hog purchases as much as six months in advance.
“We just went to Atchison, Kansas, and met a young couple starting their farm, and they wanted to raise hogs for a market like ours,” he continues. “It was neat for us to know that they were going to be starting their business and investing in their farm because we’re investing in them. It was also humbling for us to know that they had faith in our ability to get their product sold.”
Louis pauses. “We’re an integral part of their business and their livelihood, and that hits home for us on a regular basis.”
It’s a Monday morning, one of the facility’s three hog-only slaughter days; lamb and hogs are processed on Thursdays and cattle on Fridays. Paradise processes between 250 and 300 hogs every week, and a dozen each of cows and lamb.
This volume of production wouldn’t be possible without the large, 20,000-square-foot facility that Paradise boasts (half of that footprint was just added in 2015). Louis says the expansion has allowed Paradise to keep the slaughter floor operational five days a week. The company processes more than 10,000 hogs a year for Heritage Foods alone – that amounts to around 1.5 million pounds of pork product distributed to restaurants across the country.
An operation this size requires keen attention to detail, and the Fantasmas run a tight ship. There are three main departments – the killing floor, processing and cooked meats – and each has its own dedicated staff (although the Fantasmas expect all of their employees to be cross-trained). A full-time U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector, who keeps an on-site office, observes and approves operations.
After hogs step off the delivery trailer and enter the “piggy’s paradise,” they’re taken to a holding pad before they’re led to the killing floor. After the slaughter, cleaned carcasses enter a chilled cooler. Decapitated hogs are split down the center, their skinless bodies hanging on hooks from the ceiling. In another corner, internal organs are strung up on hooks, a collage of purple livers and maroon hearts.
After 14 hours in the chill cooler, the carcasses are rolled out to the temperature-controlled processing room, where employees butcher the meat, breaking down the animals into familiar cuts. Some of the cuts end up on racks in the dry-aging room, which holds between 1,000 to 5,000 pounds at any given time. On this morning, the selection is largely rib eyes and short loins.
“We do a two-week dry age on a lot of pork, too,” Louis says, “and it brings a great flavor to it. We’ll dry age anywhere from two weeks to 75 days [for beef products], which happens more around Christmas.”
Dry-aging pork is a relatively rare practice, and Louis says a customer request initially led Paradise to look into it. “Bottom line is, it was great, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” he says. Louis jokingly introduces the smoked and cooked meat section of the facility as “heaven,” but he’s not too far off. Walking into this area of the processing facility is like being on the receiving end of a warm, bacon-scented embrace. This is where Paradise produces items for its Fantasma’s Finest label, which includes more than 20 varieties of sausage, smoked chops and ribs, hamburger patties, ground turkey, ham, jerky, lunch meats and, of course, cured bacon.
“With the expansion [of our facility], we have entire rooms dedicated to smoked meats and sausages,” Louis says. There are vacuum tumblers, which cure pork bellies in brine; there’s a cure room, where the brined pork bellies are left for a minimum of 72 hours, mingling with hams. There’s a spice room that beckons you with dozens of pleasing fragrances – cloves, Calabrian wild fennel and garlic – and a tub of dried mangoes for the habanero-mango bratwurst.
The best room, though, is the smokehouse. A curemaster-in-training, clad in a long and heavy white coat, pushes a hefty rack of hanging cured pork bellies into a smoker, where they’ll cook at 135°F. Afterward, the slabs are chilled and sliced – et voilà, bacon!
There are currently just two small smokers in this most hallowed of rooms, but the Fantasmas have plans for up to three more.
MEET THE MEAT
Trimble is about 35 minutes north of Kansas City, and the Fantasmas freely acknowledge that the location is not ideal for a retail shop. Yet that has not stopped them from stocking the destination storefront attached to the facility with every sort of fantasy meat product you can think of. Plenty of these have blue ribbons hanging below the racks, denoting the top honors they’ve been awarded by the American Association of Meat Processors Convention, the Missouri Association of Meat Processors, the Missouri State Fair and the Wurstfest Sausage Competition – altogether, Paradise Locker Meats has collected more than 100 since 2007.
The sausage selection is almost overwhelming, and all the recipes are original; some are traditional, old-world recipes that have been in the family for generations, like the kielbasa, and some, like the Asiago and chive or the spinach and Feta, are new. Just about every cut of pork imaginable is stocked here, plus a handful of exotic offerings – buffalo rib eye, quail, elk loin. One cooler is devoted almost entirely to bacon: shoulder bacon, sugar-cured jowl bacon and various other flavored varieties. The different flavors have been so popular that in May, the Fantasmas introduced a flavored bacon of the month.
“If someone is going to drive out of their way to Trimble, Missouri, we want to wow them,” Louis says. “And we have a lot of fun coming up with those recipes. There are certain times of the year when we put our heads together on product development. We’re Italian – feeding people is in our roots. It’s a joyful thing for us.”
Some products, like jowl bacon and Braunschweiger, which is made by grinding together the end pieces of trimmed bacon slab with pork liver, were added to their retail offerings because the Fantasmas are committed to using as much of the animal as possible.
“Everything that we don’t use gets picked up by Darling Ingredients and rendered,” Mario says, referring to the Texas-based company that converts inedible bionutrients into sustainable feed and fuel ingredients, among other products. “Things like the bones, fat and offal are converted into animal proteins for pet food. And we try to find uses for as much of the other parts as we can – pigs’ feet, ears, tails, livers, heart, tongue. There are more and more chefs buying back fat and whole pig heads to make headcheese and other [products].”
The Fantasmas are always looking for innovative and delicious ways to decrease waste. A new partnership with Michael Beard, the former owner of 715 Restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas, has led the Fantasmas to produce a Tuscan-style soppressata from pork jowls and tongue under Beard’s Left Hand Butcher label.
“We do feel that just like producing safe food is our responsibility, doing as much as we can with the animal is also our responsibility,” Louis says. “What’s nice is that it can also be really fun.”
Paradise Locker Meats, 405 W. Birch St., Trimble, Missouri, paradisemeats.com