Almost immediately, Anya Fernald knew that Grand Central Market was the perfect place to open a second retail outlet for Belcampo Meat Co., her insanely ambitious butcher shop in Marin County. “When I first walked into Grand Central, I had a feeling of being in a market from the turn of the century,” Fernald says. “I loved that there was the possibility for Belcampo to operate a shop in a place that had that history.”
Belcampo took over a spot vacated by another butcher on the northeast side of the marketplace; it was important to Fernald to find a location where people were already used to shopping for meat. But the meat sold at Belcampo — and really, Fernald's entire company and operation — is vastly different than any retail meat purveyor seen before at the market, or anywhere else for that matter.
See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue
Belcampo is a grand experiment in sustainable agriculture, an attempt to create a new system for producing, slaughtering and selling meat. What that means for consumers is a butcher shop and food counter selling meat of incredible quality. What it means for farming could be much bigger.
The experiment was born in 2005, when San Diego–based entrepreneur Todd Robinson sold his 60 percent stake in software company LPL Financial for $2.8 billion — and decided he wanted to put some of the money toward sustainable agriculture. Robinson hired Fernald as a consultant, hoping she could help him turn a large private farm he owned in Mt. Shasta, California, about four hours north of San Francisco, into a self-sufficient, sustainable and humane meat business.
A California native, Fernald was already a big name in the sustainable-food movement. Formerly executive director of Slow Food Nation, she'd held a number of high-profile jobs in the world of food advocacy, as well as a stint as a judge on Iron Chef America. Fernald became so invested in Robinson's project that she took on the role of founder and CEO, using his sizable investment to create Belcampo Meat Co.
The idea was for a meat company that would see animals through every stage of life, death and eventual sale. Raised on Belcampo's farm and slaughtered at its companion facility, then sold in the company's stores and restaurants, there would be no outside intervention or influence. Belcampo's president and spokeswoman, Bronwen Hanna-Korpi, explains, “With the slaughterhouse just 15 minutes from the farm, we control the entire chain. With other producers, we were seeing farmers taking all this time to raise meat ethically and sustainably, and then they had to ship them off hours away for slaughter in someone else's facility where really crappy things can happen, and the farmers have no control over that.”
At the butcher counter, this difference can be felt not only in the quality of the meat but in the knowledge of the butchers themselves. Intimately familiar with every aspect of the production of their product, they can tell you everything you'd ever want to know about the way these cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chicken, guineafowl, quail, squab and rabbit lived, died and were transported and butchered. Yes, perhaps it sounds like a scene out of Portlandia, but to the butchers who have devoted their careers to meat, a position with an operation as serious as Belcampo is an absolute dream job.
The first Belcampo retail counter opened in November 2012 in a mixed-use marketplace in Larkspur, Marin County. The second store, in Grand Central Market, opened in March, with a third a couple of months later in Santa Barbara. In October, Belcampo will open on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, with a full-service, 85-seat restaurant attached.
The aggressive expansion includes plans for at least two more shops by 2015, and more after that. The incredible expense of getting the farm up and running, building a slaughterhouse and creating a supply chain means that the retail locations need to be plentiful and profitable sooner rather than later. “We're in it for the long game, though,” Hanna-Korpi says. “This is a huge project we've undertaken. There is no get-rich-quick in this game.”
The location at Grand Central Market, at least, is a smashing success. “Downtown L.A. is doing really well for us. It's exceeding all expectations,” Hanna-Korpi says. “The reason we were attracted to the location in the first place — the mix of people, the diversity of the space — is part of why it's doing so well. We have all kinds of shoppers there, and we're selling a lot of cuts of meat that might be hard to sell elsewhere. Heads, offal, all of that.”
That level of success may seem surprising, given the price. You will pay a premium for this meat, especially compared with the meat counter that was here before Belcampo (though Belcampo's prices are consistent with other high-end butchers around town). Many locals bemoan the loss of the cheaper, less yuppified butcher that was here before. Yet Belcampo is thriving, whereas that counter faltered and ultimately closed shop.
The restaurant component of the Grand Central Market location also is thriving. During the day, a short list of sandwiches, as well as one hell of a burger, make for a fantastic lunch sitting at the counter. In the evening, Belcampo's chef, Robbie Arnold-Starr, is serving a prix fixe dinner three nights a week for about $50 per person. Recent offerings have included summer vegetables à la Grecque, and lamb tartare with summer pickles and yogurt.
Could there be a more perfect option for a second or third date than sitting amidst the bustle of the marketplace, eating chuck eye steak with sour onions and turnip leaves?
“I dream big with Belcampo,” Fernald says. “I think we're going to be the folks who figure out how to do livestock husbandry the right way environmentally, with a focus on taste quality that makes our meats the best-tasting product around — not just the best organic or the best grass-fed. I want to do it at a scale and with a direct sales channel that makes it wildly profitable. By making that happen, we're going to be able to inspire all sorts of larger-scale investments in sustainable and quality food production.”
See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue