Published May 7th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Missouri, may not be a household name. Even so, the family owned meat processing plant had carved out an enviable niche in the chef-driven restaurant supply chain with their custom heritage-breed pork and high-end steaks.
But as restaurants across the country shuttered and New York City-based partner Heritage Foods cut its usual order of 200 Missouri- and Kansas-raised hogs a week to a mere handful, the mood flipped from wary to grim.
Louis Fantasma, whose father Mario founded the business in 1995, worried he would have to lay off most of the 40 employees at the 20,000-square-foot facility. He also began to contemplate closing the adjacent retail space.
“Obviously, we couldn’t cut beef carcasses or be making sausage from home,” says Fantasma, as he ticks off a myriad of safety procedures implemented within days of the region’s stay-at-home order.
Steps to flatten the COVID-19 disease curve have included the use of sanitizer, gloves, masks and a Biomist machine to wipe down keyboards and other equipment that can’t get wet. The business has staggered employee lunch breaks, eliminated plant tours, limited the number of customers allowed in the retail shop and socially distanced wherever possible.
“It’s been a real challenge,” Fantasma says. “There’s no book, and I’m not an infectious disease doctor.”
While crowded conditions appear to be the root cause of illness at larger meatpacking plants across the region, leading to shortages of meat at grocery stores and fast food franchises, workers at Paradise continue to be healthy.
After heightening personal protection equipment protocols, Fantasma got to work finding new channels of distribution for himself and his farmers, creating ties with online sales outlets and home delivery partners like Shatto Home Delivery.
Shatto Milk Co. is a household name across Kansas City, but the Shatto family is no stranger to adversity. In 2003, the struggling Osborn, Missouri, dairy almost went bankrupt before reintroducing the quaint tradition of farm-fresh, hormone- and antibiotic-free milk in a glass bottle.
Five years ago, Matt Shatto, son of the founder and vice president of the 500-cow family venture, started a delivery arm offering 50-plus local food products that include other farm/artisan brands, such as Thou Mayest coffee, Ibis Bakery bread, Campo Lindo Farms eggs and meat. Right on trend with the growing number of curbside family meals offered at restaurants, Shatto has moved into prepared meals, offering items from the Shatto Kitchen.
Milk and more are now dropped off to 4,000 customers between Kearney, Missouri, and 129th Street, Shawnee to Blue Springs. Meanwhile, the waiting list has ballooned to 1,000.
In March, Shatto’s route was serviced by five trucks. By June, the fleet of trucks will have doubled. Shatto also hired 10 employees, many from ailing economic sectors, including a restaurant worker, a high school math teacher, a student, actor, musician, a gym employee and a sales executive.
Matt Shatto is grateful for the trust customers have put in the company, but the exponential growth has made him nervous about what the new normal will look like in a few months.
“I’m not foolish enough to think there won’t be contraction, but I’m not smart enough to know what that contraction will be,” he says. “I’m hoping that the vast majority of the customers we serve during this difficult time will be able to see the value that we provide from a product quality standpoint, as well as through the customer service we offer, and just the convenience, and that they’ll choose to stay on.”
KC Cattle Company started selling premium Wagyu beef products in 2016. The veteran-owned company in Weston, Missouri, was settling in for the “slow months” when the three-person company began fielding a flood of orders from New York to California.
“It’s been hectic,” says owner Patrick Montgomery, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan. “Like most businesses that are either negatively or positively impacted, it’s been crazy either way.”
While social media has become a virtual billboard to keep customers updated on changing hours, menus and delivery options, KC Cattle has resisted posting information about how its business has changed during the pandemic.
“We don’t want to take advantage of this one way or another as a marketing opportunity because it’s not right. This is a terrible thing for the country,” Montgomery says. But, he adds, “I really hope farmers take advantage of the opportunity to move away from commodity prices that have been unreliable for 50 years.”
Right now, Montgomery could use a few extra hands to handle orders, but he doesn’t want to make any new hires because he lacks the space to keep them safe. The company’s biggest hiccup in the last six weeks stems from a move to an out-of-state processor. When the meatpacking plant could no longer handle KC Cattle’s order, Montgomery got in touch with Fantasma at Paradise.
KC Cattle has started selling Fantasma’s Finest brand private label pork, which is currently sold out. “Their pork is fantastic,” says Montgomery, who was initially reluctant to sell “bacon at $13.50 a pop, but it’s some of the best bacon I’ve ever had.”
Paradise Locker worries about keeping up with new customer demand when former customers return. Fantasma has been receiving 10 phone calls a day from customers inquiring about buying a side of beef, up from a couple a week pre-pandemic.
KC Cattle’s Wagyu hotdogs and roasts are selling out, but ground beef remains the cut of choice.
Meanwhile, inexperienced home cooks contemplating how to cook beef tongue for the first time are asking for help, spurring the addition of a recipe section to the website that includes plenty of ground beef, including Beer Cheese Wagyu Burger, Keto Friendly Wagyu Meatloaf and Wagyu Chili.
The KC Food Hub, a 19-member farm cooperative, was selling wholesale vegetables and sundry items to middle-tier school lunchrooms, corporate cafeterias and chain restaurants before stay-at-home orders were invoked.
In a scramble to locate a new customers base for highly perishable products, Alicia Ellingsworth let technology be a guide. A farmer and director of sales and production for the group, she posted a query on social media and soon realized there was enough interest to sell directly to consumers.
Farmer drop-off sites are now dotting Volker, Brookside, Longfellow, Waldo and Rock Hill neighborhoods. To set up a drop-off, a minimum of 10 people must sign up for prepaid, low-contact deliveries of a farm share of fresh produce. Each weekly box includes six to eight items for 10 weeks at a cost of $250 plus tax.
As more farmers and artisan food producers heard of The KC Food Hub’s success, the Community Supported Agriculture program has grown to include more than produce with add-ons, such as a cheese option by Skyview Farms and Creamery, a bread share from WheatFields in Lawrence plus a gluten-free or keto share from Flavor Market.
Kara Werner volunteered to be the distribution point for the box of vegetables that arrives each Monday for 19 households in the Volker neighborhood located northwest of Westport. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and just haven’t. This pandemic has lit a fire under me to support local farmers,” Werner says.
Werner’s boxes have included farmers’ choice — whatever is currently in season — including a spring bounty of lettuce, spinach, asparagus, sugar snap peas and bok choy. She’s had fun figuring out what to do with her items, such as radishes, which she pickled for the first time.
Ellingsworth says there is usually a 30% drop-off rate with new customers. But she is optimistic that if The KC Food Hub can provide the story of local food and its farmers “we will have really gone a long way in shifting mindset.
“There is a lot of sadness around what is happening to people — loss of income, loss of jobs, illness, loss of loved ones,” she says. “But I’m feeling — and I think farmers are feeling — a lot of gratefulness in that we are able to step up, and the timing has been good, too.”
The Overland Park Farmers’ Market opened two weeks ago as a drive-thru at the Overland Park Convention Center. The first week 700 cars drove the aisles that have been reconfigured by category to more closely resemble a supermarket.
“Pivot describes farmers beautifully,” says market manager Kristina Stanley. “Whether it’s Mother Nature, business-related or family-related, they are used to lots of curveballs and used to making changes to survive.”
Stanley considers drive-thru farmers markets “a bold new concept” – some have been a success while others have failed. Two weeks into the season, she counts the market a success.
On Wednesday, vendor lists are published on the website and social media. Shoppers are encouraged to use online pre-ordering and purchase tokens to redeem with farmers on Saturday. Farmers are required to wear masks and gloves. Consumers are encouraged to wear masks and share photos of what they are buying on social media using the hashtag #myopfmhaul.
The drive-thru market has been most difficult to navigate for those who tend to browse for what looks best. Browsers can weave their way through the market or skip rows.
Anecdotally, market goers have increased spending and they’re buying more items because they don’t need to carry items back to their car. They’re also spending nearly the same amount of time shopping as a regular walk-up market.
Change in procedures will continue to be the name of the game as the city goes through four more phases to reopening over the coming months. Stanley says staffers are taking notes on the successful aspects of drive-thru operations for when the downtown market undergoes a slated redesign in a few years.
Meanwhile, Paradise’s pivot appears to be paying off with sales ringing in at levels previously only seen during the November-December holiday rush.
“I think this will forever change buying habits,” Fantasma says. “Right now, people are getting more of our product in their bellies than ever before, and I think they will continue to buy from us after this is over, even if it’s over the internet. I feel like the retail store will also be busier because we were here when people needed us.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. Among her many food-related pursuits, she is the co-host of the Chew Diligence podcast and works with Harvesters – The Community Food Network. You can follow her at @jillsilvafood.