Friday, January 28, 2011

The Henry Kaminski Company: Old School Bridgeport Meat

The meat industry is often described in terms of factory farms and big business processing on the one hand, or the sprouting of small-scale, free-range, craft-butchered specialists on the other. Between them, there’s an unobtrusive, but vital middle ground, which happens to be well represented around 38th and Halsted Street.

Henry Kaminski set up shop near there in 1960. His son Ron and his granddaughter Dori still run the business from 3762 South Halsted, across the street from their original building, today. They sell pork butts and boners. The butt is part of the pig’s shoulder; a boner is both a butcher who debones it, and the meat that has been deboned.

Between the 2 buildings, Kaminski receives 3-4 truckloads of pork each day, about 6-8 tons of meat. After trimming and deboning it, they sell it to sausage makers across the country. They sell some cuts in Central and South America, but only through a broker, because export adds regulatory layers they don’t want to take on themselves.

But Ron says 50% of their business is in Chicago. Many of their customers are mid-sized family owned companies, much like themselves: 3rd and 4th generation sausage makers like The Original Notoli & Son, ATK Foods, the makers of Leon’s Sausage, and Crawford Sausage Company on the west side.

Crawford, for instance, opened their Lawndale plant in 1925. Third and 4th generations of the original founders make German and Polish sausage under the Daisy Brand at the same location today. “Our family has known them forever,” Dori says.

Crawford sausage is available through independent grocers like Angelo Caputo’s and Tony’s Finer Foods. In fact you can sample several varieties of Daisy Brand sausages, which may contain pork deboned and trimmed by Kaminski, from the deli counter at Halsted Foods.

Henry Kaminski started out as a peddler in 1940. He bought meat from the packing houses around the Union Stockyards, and sold it to butchers and grocers from a truck. They sometimes delivered to 3 different shops on a single block. But as the corner grocer gave way to the supermarkets, who brought their own supply chains, Kaminski went into the boning business.

In 1960, Ron recalls, meat made the whole neighborhood hum. At its peak, the Union Stockyards and its related businesses employed some 30,000 people. There was a street car that brought them down Halsted Street. The workers patronized scores of taverns – there was a block on Ashland that had more than 12 – and the Bridgeport Restaurant fed the graveyard shift all night long.

At first, the stockyards were primarily a livestock exchange, and the packers, processors and wholesalers set up on the peripheries. Everyone remembers Swift and Armour, but Ron remembers scores of independents. Bridgeport had its share. There were probably half a dozen shops that trimmed pork butts, but there were also a half dozen places where you could buy pork butts to trim, if one of your suppliers was out.

Eventually, the packing business would move westward, “they moved to the livestock,” Ron says, rather than the other way around. He says the old multi-story buildings, where live animals were loaded up top and disassembled as they made their way down, grew obsolete, and the labor unions were expensive. Labor wasn’t organized in the western states, where the big packers built state of the art plants from the ground.

But the move was gradual. The last beef packer, Lincoln Meats, closed in the early 1990s. Kaminski bought pork from American Meat Packing Corporation, who slaughtered 3,000 to 3,400 hogs a day at their Pershing Road plant, until they closed it for good in 2001. In their final year, AMPAC was plagued by rats that bred in the abandoned lots of the old stockyards, and by penalties from the USDA.

A rash of Bridgeport’s meat businesses have closed just in the last 10 years. For some, the approach of residential neighbors made their lives difficult. Fontanini’s new neighbors complained about the smell of cooking meat. Dori says they relocated to McCook County rather than install a new round of expensive equipment to mitigate the smell.

But she says some companies just made “bad decisions.” A new generation came into the family business, “they thought bigger was better,” then they struggled to support new debt. Dori jokes with her father that he’s lucky she’s not greedy. Kaminski continues to provide a good living for the Kaminski family and for their 35 union employees.

Today, there are 23 companies listed in the meat business in the 60609 area code. They include OSI, a giant that supplies McDonalds, and the Chicago Meat Authority, which just set up shop in Back of the Yards 20 years ago. Collectively they employ almost 1,800 workers, according to the directory Reference USA.

There are 6 meat companies in Bridgeport alone; they employ about 450. Allen Brothers was founded in 1893, and is owned by the 4th generation of Hatoffs, they sell premium steaks to white table cloth restaurants. Dori describes Guarino as a “jobber,” a wholesaler who trucks meat without opening the box. Barkaat Foods slaughters lamb and veal in Chiappetti’s old plant, and Chiappetti’s still shares the facility. Lincoln Provision exports frozen and prepared foods overseas. Ed Miniat began peddling meat from a horse drawn wagon in 1896. Today, the company has a cooked meat facility in South Holland, but they render cooking oil from their 38th Street Plant.

The meat world has changed around them, especially on the regulatory front. The Kaminski company , which doesn’t cook, and whose processing is relatively simple, has had to make fewer physical improvements than some of its peers. They’ve had to add stainless steel surfaces, and an air curtain at the doorway to keep the flies out.

They’ve been more alarmed by the escalation of paperwork. Each piece of meat they touch must be documented on its path from the farm to the fork. And this January, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, which steps up the requirements for proactive food safety plans. Food processors’ HACCP, or Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, plans must identify every point at which contamination or mishap might occur, and create protocols for addressing them. Dori and Ron believe new layers of bureaucracy are driving up the cost of food over the long run.

In fact, prices are the second arena of dramatic change in the meat industry today. Meat prices hit new highs last year, and pork prices in particular spiked last summer. Squeezed between the recession and record prices for corn, farmers have allowed their herds shrink. Beef and pork dealers fear that high prices only aggravate a 30 year consumer trend toward cheaper poultry. And USDA economists anticipate food prices will continue to rise in 2011, and for the foreseeable future, so long as diets in the developing world continue to improve, driving up world demand for meat.

Dori thinks rising food prices will be hard on the market for organic foods in the long term, but in the immediate term she says they’re a threat to Kaminski’s closest customer base. “We know they can’t pass those prices on at the retail end,” she says, because the customers in the store will balk. Kaminski has a solid niche as specialists. They sell wholesale but they’ll bone and trim to spec, and Dori says the big corporate companies won’t. But the industry is changing, and she can hear it on the phone.

“The meat business is very casual,” says Dori, who is quick to laugh. "You make a call, order some meat and then you spend half an hour talking about last night’s 2 and ½ Men episode.” More and more though, she finds herself talking to kids just out of business school, intent on sounding professional over the phone. They are the voice of a different kind of meat business from the one that’s sustained Kaminski and its customers for the last 50 years.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Bubbly Bicycle Works and Lloyd Cycles Recreate the Full Service Bike Shop

Bicycle frame building was a lost art in the US for half a century, but it has been resurgent in the last 10 years. Owen Lloyd, who co-owns Blue City Cycles with Clare Knipper, gave the revival a foothold in Chicago 5 years ago, when he founded Bubbly Bicycle Works, a frame builder’s co-operative in Bridgeport’s historic Central Manufacturing District. Chicago’s frame building scene is just beginning to percolate, but in other cities, it is blooming as a new industry.

Owen describes building bike frames as the logical outcome of a career he started working in other people’s bike shops. He learned mechanics of gears, brakes and bearing systems, then he learned to build wheels, a patient craft with some mystique about it. And after he’d built a few wheels he was happy with, he saw an article about frame building in a magazine, and thought “Well, that’s the next step.”

He took a 2 week course in frame building at the United Bike Institute (UBI) in Ashland, Oregon. “Two weeks gives you the fundamentals. The rest of it is self taught,” Owen says. “That’s the difficult part.” You assemble your equipment and perfect your technique by building scores of bike frames.

Out of UBI, Owen found a workshop space in a renovated warehouse at 1048 West 37th Street, a small business incubator formally known as the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, and more informally as Bubbly Dynamics, after Bubbly Creek, which flows nearby. Bubbly Dynamics was still under renovation when Owen moved in. In the early days, he built walls for rent.

Today, there are 7 members of the Bubbly Bicycle Works frame builders co-op. Each member pays $200 to share the 900 square foot workshop. The rent buys them a commercial address and a bench in a code compliant manufacturing space, with a loading dock and a freight elevator.

In the absence of apprenticeships, or even factory jobs where a young builder might build frames for a couple years before launching out on his own, access to the tools and experience of other co-op members may be one of the most important benefits the co-op has to offer.

“A lot of people hit a ceiling, working in a bike shop,” Owen says. “Then they go on to get an adult job.” That ceiling reflects the industry as it is in the US today, but not as it has always been. In 2009, there were just under 15 million bikes sold in the US, in 2008 there were 18 million, but about 96% of them were built overseas.

In the early 20th century, retail and fabrication were not so separate. Lake Street was a hub of bike manufacture, and frame repair remained an integral part of the business of many bike shops for decades. That changed after World War II, as automobiles multiplied, and manufacturers chased efficiencies overseas.

But it changed more slowly in Europe and in Britain. Owen’s family is from the UK, he slips into a Welsh accent when he’s talking to his parents. He says post-war England saw a boom in bicycles that American didn’t, partly because the post war recovery was slower there, and bicycles held their place as a means of transport, as well as a vehicle of sport.

In the 1970s, a new generation of American cyclists travelled to Britain to race and to tour. They were exposed to bike shops where building was still an active craft. Today, some of the best known US builders went to England in the 70s specifically to learn the trade. Others taught themselves.

Andy Newlands of Terra Nova Cycles taught himself, but turned to British companies for materials. “There were some big companies making bikes in the US – Schwinn, Huffy – but they weren’t of much assistance.” He bought his double butted tubing through the Reynolds company of Birmingham.

Ron Boi of RRB Cycles in Kenilworth taught himself, and by the early 1980s he was building 100 frames a year. He says at that point, roughly half his business was frame building, the other half was retail. But when titanium frames hit the market, he decided not to acquire a whole new set of equipment. Now the young racers all want carbon fiber frames. He still builds 2 or 3 steel frames a year – for new customers with a taste for traditional steel frames, and in at least one case, for an old customer who couldn’t afford a custom steel frame 30 years ago, but who came back when he could.

The United Bike Institute, founded in 1981, began teaching frame building just over 20 years ago. UBI’s frame building program grew steadily even as the English and European frame builders were dying out. Newlands says they were casualties of the mountain bike craze. Building a steel frame road bike is a craft sometimes compared with jewelry making. Steel tubing is fitted together with lugs and brazed with a flame-torch and a copper bead. Mountain bike frames can be welded together by coarser methods, in fact they can be welded robotically.

But UBI’s instruction in the more delicate methods attracts new students every year. John Baxter, UBI’s Administrator, says that at first, UBI taught 15-20 frame-building students a year; now, they teach 100-120, and the students come from all over the world -- from Canada to Korea to Britain. “As far as we know, there is no place in Europe or Asia teaching classes in frame building,” Baxter says.

He says master builders sometimes take on students, “but you learn one guy’s technique.” UBI’s course was developed jointly by some of the best builders in the United States. “We stress that we’ve developed a good process for learning to build a frame, but after that, you’ll develop your own style of working, of making the process more efficient.”

There are now frame builders trained at UBI, honing their skills and developing their style, in workshops and garages across the US. In 2005, there were enough to create a trade show. The first North American Handmade Bicycle Show was held in Houston Texas. It featured 23 exhibitors and drew 700 attendees.

Two years later, in 2007, there were 150 exhibitors and 7,200 attendees. In 2009, the NAHBS was restricting entry to builders who could prove they had staying power and insurance. Now, builders must have completed at least 50 frames, and have been in business for at least 2 years to exhibit at NAHBS.

Meanwhile, regional trade shows have been "multiplying like rabbits,” as Owen puts it. There has been talk of organizing one in the Midwest – the Twin Cities, Madison in Milwaukee all have the fledgling frame building scenes.

But the densest hub of custom frame building is still in UBI’s home state of Oregon. Andy Newlands is Secretary of the Oregon Bicycle Constructors Organization, a trade organization with a membership of 40 active frame builders. Newlands says they range in output from bigger companies, like Co-Motion and Bike Friday, which might each produce 1,000 frames a year, to smaller companies that might sell a dozen. He says he sells anywhere from 12 to 50 a year himself, depending on how much time he is able to devote to building them.

Portland alone is home to 25 of the Association’s members, and while statistics aren’t available, Newlands estimates they produce something in the neighborhood of 1,000 frames a year. That’s a lot of expensive product for a limited market to absorb. Some established builders, like Newlands, sell their frames internationally, with help from the internet. But it also sounds like the presence of frame builders helps build a local bike culture with an appetite for custom frames.

Baxter chuckles that the best frame builders are like rock stars. They are also a remarkably collaborative crowd. They often share space, tools and expertise. Newlands agrees, “That’s why the Builder’s Association works.” He attributes the collaborative spirit partly to the fact that as builders develop their own style, they tend to create a niche, so they don’t see themselves in direct competition with other builders. Meanwhile, at any given public ride in a city like Eugene, Baxter says you might spot a couple dozen custom frames.

A custom frame set from well known builders like Richard Sachs or Independent Fabrications costs between $2,000 and $9,000, without wheels or components. But custom bikes might be different from other expensive artisanal goods, like custom furniture, for instance, in that their customer base is defined more by passion than by income bracket.

Owen says the people who buy his bike frames in Chicago vary widely in how much money they make. “There are a lot of people who don't make much money who spend thousands on a car each year. If you don’t own a car, you might only make $18,000, $20,000 a year, but you can still spend a bunch on bikes.”

He says one recent customer was a doctor who already had a custom frame from Boston-based Independent Fabrications. “He was really keen to have something locally made.”

Another was Jeff Perkins of the 4 Star Courier Collective, a messenger company owned and operated by bike couriers. Like Owen, they never hit a ceiling and abandoned their bikes for adult jobs, they made an adult job out of their bikes. Perkins says they use a car for some deliveries. “We’re asked to haul a lot of heavy random stuff. But the cost and upkeep of a car is so much.”

Perkins says the process of developing the bike with Owen was part of the appeal. “He was interested in doing it, and we liked the idea of working with somebody, seeing the whole process.” They worked out the loads it must carry, and how wide it could be and still remain agile in traffic. And they worked out a payment plan to cover the cost.

“It’s an odd looking bike,” Owen says. “But it’s one of the bikes I like the most. Because it works 40 hours a week, carrying large amounts of crap.”

Owen says he hasn’t actively marketed his frames. “I want to make sure I’m a good solid builder before I jump out there and say ‘I’m going to build you anything you want.’” But he builds 3 to 4 framesets a year under the name Lloyd Cycles. “I spend more time repairing frames than I do building frames,” he adds. “Because I’m the only one in the city that takes in steel frame repair.”

Bike retail and frame fabrication are separate businesses today. “There are economic reasons for that, but I think they should be integral to each other,” Owen says. “At a shop, you repair and build wheels, you replace components and assemble the bike.

“Being able to repair or modify a frame seems to be a logical progression. Someone should be able to come into a bike shop and have all those things done.” And at Blue City Cycles, the bike shop Lloyd and Knipper own at 32nd and Halsted, you can.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Arrival of the Bridgeport Pasty

It’s not clear if the Bridgeport laborers who dug the I & M Canal ate pasties to sustain their strength, but if they were digging it again today, they probably would. Carrie Clark and Jay Sebastian aim to have the Bridgeport Pasty Company open for the business at 3142 S. Morgan by spring.

“Make sure you say it’s pronounced ‘pass-tee’,” Carrie urges. Not to be confused with ‘paste-ee,’ a sparkly ornament worn by strippers, or ‘patz-ee,’ a gullible dupe. A pasty is a pastry pocket, filled with potato, onion and any kind of savory meat, or fish.

“It’s not a light food,” Carrie admits. It’s got a substantial history. Knights in Arthurian legends fortified themselves with pasties. So did Cornish miners, who brought them to the copper mines in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the portable meal proved to have broad appeal. It stays hot in the lunch pail for hours, and it can be held by its pastry corner and eaten without a fork.

Jay and Carrie ate their first pasty from a street vendor on a Christmas trip to England 2 years ago. They couldn’t believe no one was selling them at home.

Jay manages a legal research team at a big firm downtown, and Carrie coordinates the international vetting process for proposals to use the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne Labs. They’ve been looking to open their own business on the side for some time.

They briefly considered opening a produce market to replace the Egg Store, but the space got leased to a physical therapy center, and now Cermak Produce is opening across the street. Pasties, as street food, were still on their minds.

Street food, sold from trucks, is a hot concept in other cities. It’s evolved from the sandwich trucks that pull up alongside construction sites, to a vehicle for cool chefs, who post their itinerary on Twitter, so fans can meet them along the route.

Jay has fond memories of a childhood enterprise selling lemonade and other treats from a simple food truck built from a wagon. He envisioned a human powered vehicle could be ideal for bringing pasties to city streets today. He bought a Workman tricycle-based food truck, and was working out plans to rig it with a hand-washing sink to meet city licensing requirements.

But when he got to the City Hall, the self-powered truck didn’t fly. “It has to be a (automotive) truck,” he was told. He protested bicycles are vehicles with rights of automobiles under the law, but the people behind the desk weren’t convinced.

He’s still got the Workman trike-truck in the garage, in the event they come around, as the city’s thinking on new businesses evolves. It is in the process of evolving on the food truck question right now.

Currently, food trucks in Chicago are limited to selling pre-packaged foods. Chicago chefs like Matt Maroni of Gaztro Wagon, and Philip Foss of Meatyballs Mobile, are pushing the new truck-food concept with dishes they prepare at their restaurant kitchens. And they’ve found an advocate in 32nd Ward Alderman Waguespack, who is backing an ordinance that would allow food trucks, properly outfitted, to sell foods prepared on the truck, provided they stick to a regular route, so food inspectors can catch up for random inspections.

The restaurant establishment is loudly opposed to changing the rules. Restaurateurs complain it’s unfair competition if some guy in a truck can pull up outside their brick and mortar store, which cost them millions to build, and benefit from the same customer demographic. The Illinois Restaurant Association says food trucks should be limited to food deserts.

Some of the complaints – that the trucks don’t have bathrooms so they’ll add strain to other people’s facilities, that they will exhaust city inspectors, who are already in limited supply, that they have an illicit, “gypsy-like” feel – sound weird. The trucks aren’t designed to compete with a restaurant’s sit down business, and they are, by design, on the move.

At any rate, while the proposed ordinance navigates the gauntlet, the pasty is the original pre-packaged food. Jay and Carrie have been lining up their incorporation papers, their licenses and their state health certifications. They’ve also been looking for ways to link up with other local businesses.

The kitchen at at a local pizza restaurant sits empty until afternoon, and it turns out equipment for preparing pizzas also works great for pasties. The Bridgeport Pasty Company could source meat from Allen Brothers on Halsted Street, and produce from Goodness Greenness, the organic wholesaler in Englewood. “The more local, the better,” Carrie says.

Traditional pasties are better known for being filling than for being flavorful, but Carrie has been working on that. She’s developed various wine, herb and curry enhancements; Jay’s been perfecting a flaky, but chewy crust. On New Year’s Day, they hosted a party that turned out to be an advance sampling of some of their best recipes.

The tasters were diverse in their expertise: they included the personal chef for the Governor of Virginia (who is considering setting up shop in Bridgeport when he finishes his current post), as well as an eminent expert in holography, the glass blower for Argonne Labs (who creates all their custom glass instruments by hand), a mixed crowd of cyclists, musicians, sound and video engineers, and at least one Bridgeport blogger.

We all sampled pasties under development for the Bridgeport Pasty Company. And now, we can all attest that they are filling, wholesome, and very, very good. Personally, I predict the pasty will emerge as a Bridgeport specialty, like hot dipped Italian beef is now, except with more vegetables, and more variety, and easier to eat.