In the nation's pandemic-battered restaurants, the need to reinvent — or, in contemporary lingo, "pivot" — has become a key strategy in the fight to stay financially afloat.
Not surprisingly, "pivot" is also the Word of the Year up and down the dining industry's beleaguered supply chain.
Just ask Mike Phillips. In the space of a few weeks this past March, the owner and creative force behind Red Table Meat Co. watched as his primary customer base — a nationwide network of high-end restaurants — fell away.
When demand for his top-rated salumi products plunged from 15,000 pounds per week to 2,000, Phillips was forced to lay off his staff of five.
"I was here, by myself, and I had time to think," he said. "In a weird way, COVID has given us the opportunity to press pause and figure out what's important."
At the time, giant corporate slaughterhouses were being slammed by COVID-19 outbreaks, crimping the nation's pork supply and leaving hogs with no place to go. Phillips' initial reaction was to lend a hand.
"But then I thought, 'That's not a system that I've ever wanted to be a part of, so why should I bail it out?' " he said.
Instead, he decided to focus his considerable energies on his system, which transforms heritage-breed pork from quality-obsessed Minnesota family-owned farms into a dazzling array of dry-cured meats, all created at a fascinating, watch-them-work facility inside the Food Building in northeast Minneapolis.
His pandemic-driven solution: Have consumers purchase hogs directly from a shortlist of Minnesota farmers, then tap into Red Table's master-craftsman expertise to create custom-made guanciale, pancetta and other porky delights, all tailored to the buyer's wishes.
"This program checks all the boxes," said Phillips. "It's small farms, it's local, it's sustainable. It's everything you could imagine."
The program has quickly developed all kinds of win-wins.
For Red Table, there's not only a new revenue stream (via a flat $3-per-pound processing fee) but also improved cash flow. That's because the customer, not Phillips, floats the not insubstantial investment in buying the animal, and Red Table isn't burdened with carrying those costs over the monthslong curing process.
"It has taken the financial risk out of our hands," he said.
Minnesota farmers gain customers for their products. Consumers benefit, too. Clients can savor an up-close look at where their food comes from, literally; they can visit the farms and, post-pandemic, they can schedule an appointment at Red Table and observe as the crew breaks down the animal.
Customers dictate exactly what they want, whether it's mortadella, soppressata, ham or some other custom-made delicacy, and specify the quantities. The direct-to-consumer process also eliminates a time-consuming (and expense-adding) distribution channel.
"It's getting the product directly to people when it's 100 percent at its peak," said Phillips. "When it comes out of the aging room, I call people and say, 'Come and get it.' It's like opening the Bordeaux at the exact moment that it's ready to drink."
One of those people is Tim McKee. The chef/owner of the former La Belle Vie and Octo Fishbar was one of the first to, pardon the expression, go whole-hog into Phillips' new venture, teaming up with a neighbor and selecting a Red Wattle from the farm that Phillips refers to as "the gold standard," Pork & Plants in Altura, Minn.
"It's the coolest idea, ever," said McKee. "The ability to be a part of this process is amazing for me. Today I was informed that the leaf lard and pancetta are both ready. I can't wait."
Since program participants like McKee could be categorized as super users, Phillips is taking advantage of their curiosity and enthusiasm by encouraging experimentation.
"This gives us the ability to try new stuff, a test market," he said. "Maybe something catches and it goes into general consumption."
When he launched the custom program in August, Phillips immediately signed up a dozen customers, and another 15 quickly populated a waiting list.
Fortunately, Red Table sales have slowly rebounded, climbing to about 75% of their late-winter levels. That has allowed staffers to return; Phillips said that by early September, the entire crew was back at work.
"We're adapting to the market," he said. "Who knows? There's no crystal ball. Everyone is waiting to see what's going to happen."
While making this pivot, Phillips realizes that he's not exactly breaking new ground.
"People have been doing this forever, buying pigs and getting this many pork chops, and that many roasts, and this much sausage," he said. "This isn't a new model. But what about if you translate that into getting coppa? This is what we do. We can cut pork chops all day, but why not play to our strengths?"
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib