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Anya Fernald's Empire of Meat

Josh Sens | March 26, 2013 | Food & Drink Story Eat and Drink

Ask Anya Fernald how she likes her burger, and her answer doesn’t end with “medium rare.” It’s lunchtime at a sun-splashed Larkspur shopping plaza, and the Slow Food activist–turned–entrepreneur is sitting in her new butcher shop–cum–restaurant, ticking off her requisites for ground beef. Everything begins, she says, with pedigree cattle raised for at least two years on open pastures, where they develop marbled muscle before making the journey to a slaughterhouse devised to minimize their anguish and a butchery designed to maximize their use. In Fernald’s ideal world, the choice cuts of each animal are set to age, and their less heralded parts are put to creative purpose, so that little of their fleshly being is left to waste. As for the sirloin that becomes hamburger, it’s house-ground and served in modest portions, not the hulking patties of so many mainstream troughs. Oh, and she likes it on a sesame seed bun.

Having it her way has taken work, though. Seven years ago, when Fernald returned to California after an extended stint in Italy, she had such trouble finding meat that pleased her palate and eased her conscience that she seriously fretted, she says, about whether she would be able to buy meat at all. But where another carnivore might have retreated to a life of grains and legumes, she attacked the problem head-on.

The result of Fernald’s efforts is the Larkspur Landing space in which she sits this afternoon. It’s called Belcampo, the retail arm of a larger operation unlike any other in the United States—one that includes not just a storefront but also a 10,000-acre farm in Shasta Valley and a slaughterhouse designed by animal welfare expert Temple Grandin. As chief executive officer of this multilayered business, Fernald enjoys a luxury unknown to other sustainably minded meat producers: control of every step in an animal’s march to market. Forget farm-to-table. Think of it as pasture-to-processing-to-plate. “We’re pretty much going balls to the wall here,” Fernald says. “But if you want to do the right thing while delivering a consistently superior product, that’s the way to do it. You’ve got to own more of the supply chain.”

At age 37, with a no-nonsense demeanor and a telegenic face familiar to fans of Iron Chef America (she guest-stars as a judge), Fernald seems well equipped to walk the narrow ground where good ethics and sound economics overlap. She’s that rare food-world hybrid, combining Alice Waters’s rooftop-garden idealism with sharp-edged boardroom skills that would make Martha Stewart proud.

Both sides have been in evidence in Fernald’s rapid rise in sustainable-food circles. After college, she lit out overseas to work with cheesemakers in Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, and Sicily. By the early 2000s, she had relocated to northern Italy, where she met her now husband, Baia Pasta cofounder Renato Sardo, and joined the Slow Food Foundation. In 2008, now back in California, she was named executive director of Slow Food Nation, an annual event in San Francisco that honors farmers and artisan food producers. The following year, she founded Live Culture Co., a consulting firm focused on sustainable-food businesses, and, soon after, the Eat Real Festival in Jack London Square.

One of the truths that Fernald learned during those formative years was that “small systems produce the best food.” Another was this: Small food circles are prone to navel-gazing. “I realized that I wanted to take on big, messy problems, not sit around debating the nuances of sustainability,” she says. “There’s a lot of poetry in food, but I don’t want to be so focused on the poetry that I forget about the math.”

It’s just past noon, and Fernald is standing at her clean, well-lighted butcher counter, wearing fashionable jeans and an Italian leather jacket. The glass counters before her glisten with fresh cuts, ranging from the staples of backyard grilling—top sirloin, pork chops, New York steaks—to less celebrated cuts, like the lamb belly and goat liver that Fernald says are central not only to her financial success but also to her sense of fairness. “If you’re going to slaughter an animal,” she emphasizes, “you have an obligation to put every part of it that you can to use.”

Belcampo is set up to do just that, Fernald says, including turning bones into stock, entrails into sausage casings, and pig ears and bull penises into doggie snacks. She’s developing a product called Belcampo Blunts, a riff on the Slim Jim, and she’s getting ready to start tanning leather. Within two years, she expects to be able to swap her Italian jacket for a garment fabricated from Belcampo hides. Indeed, the entire business, Fernald says, is a “long-term play, looking 20 to 30 years out.” Her plans call for broadening Belcampo’s reach to 10 retail outposts across California, the better to make use of the company farm, which raises 2,000 head of cattle as well as pigs, goats, rabbits, sheep, game birds, chickens, and eggs. She expects to turn a profit within four to five years, as her retail reach extends across the state and she brings the operation up to scale.

In a region filled with conscientious consumers, Fernald is aware that she is being watched, and she expects to draw her share of dubious glances from skeptics suspicious of the big money behind her—Belcampo is backed by a financial services titan named Todd Robinson, who owns the Shasta land and first hired Fernald as a consultant before handing her the company’s reins—or wary that her products, for all their virtues, may be little more than perks for the 1 percent.

Fernald understands those worries. She just doesn’t share them. “I’m sure there still is a percentage of people who want everything to stay small and grungy and alternative,” she says. “But if anything, having more leverage is going to make it easier for me to stick to my guns.” Nor does she see her products as off-limits to all but the super-rich. “A lot of it comes down to priorities,” she says. “Obviously, some people have a lot more choices than others. But we live in a country where people routinely spend more than $100 a month on TV. Can I afford to eat this meat every day? No. But am I willing to spend a little extra so I can have it twice a week? Absolutely.”

As to how big a change she can hope to effect with just one operation, Fernald realizes that a lot remains beyond Belcampo’s reach even if she is able to replicate her model around the country. What she can change right now is what some people have for lunch.

A midday line has formed at Belcampo’s restaurant counter, and Fernald gestures toward it. “I want people to come here and feel good about the products, to know that they’ve been raised sustainably, ethically, safely,” she says. “But more than anything, I want them to walk away saying, ‘Damn, that was the best burger I’ve ever had.’” ❑


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