The last few years have seen a huge surge in how people look at food. After the recession, there has been a return to fine dining, as people seek an experience outside of the day-to-day norm—a little treat. Americans, in particular, have been eager to gain a higher level of education about our food . . . and that, in turn, leads to an interest in where food originates.
It goes beyond the catch phrase “farm-to-table” and into a real experience of food traceability, food sourcing, and the partnerships that take place along the way among the growers and producers, the distributors, all the way to those who serve.
In other words, farm-to-table has come into its own. For Prime Food Distributor (PFD), a specialty meat fabricator and beef producer, farm-to-table is more than a phrase—it’s a way of life. PFD is a third generation family business that truly cares about the product it provides.
John Kosmidis, Executive Vice President of PFD, told us, “To have a facility of this scope is a testament to the relationships that have been built over the years.” He adds, “All of the cattle that we source are Black Angus. We are dependent on the slaughterhouses as much as they are on us.” In other words, each step of the way there are people who are watching over the beef, ensuring it is raised, harvested, and delivered as promised. He adds, “That is how we ensure the cycle of ‘Created by Nature, Perfected by Prime’ is completed.”
The Food Channel followed a shipment of what is known as “swinging beef” as it came into PFD’s Long Island, NY, facility—sticking with it all the way through being shipped as a Smith & Wollensky online purchase.
Here’s what we observed:
Just off the loading dock adjacent to the main production room, the tractor-trailer pulls up at 3 a.m. with the load of carcass beef. The fresh meat, each piece between 200-250 pounds, comes into the carcass room literally hung on hooks that are mounted to the ceiling on a track. As the carcasses are attached, they are pushed forward and from that point on the beef is in motion.
The “breakers” come in and make rough breaks, followed by the butchers. They take their first swipes, cutting the beef in half, and then half again. Nicholas Castellana, Vice President of Operations, is hands-on as a butcher himself and says, “The first thing I learned is that everything wants to come apart.”
Castellana explains, “It’s bones and muscles; muscles are just seams, and the seams overlap. They want to come apart, they show you where to go.” As the butchers work, the term “swinging beef” suddenly needs no further explanation—the meat stays in motion on its hooks as pieces are separated and re-hung.
The beef continues on its track, moving into the production room where the company’s operational managers survey it for that “cut above,” keeping in mind that this beef is already USDA Prime grade. This is where a piece may be tagged specifically for a customer such as Smith & Wollensky.
And, since all of the beef that comes into PFD is already graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they are looking for the best of the best. “When we can look at both sides of the meat and see the boldness, the different size of the eye, the strong marbling, regardless of what the grader said—that’s the human touch,” says Kosmidis.
“There are so many pre-conceived ideas about the process,” he adds. “It’s a game of momentum, efficiency, and of being precise. It’s a matter of being good at what you do.”
The company president, Joseph Castellana, Sr., points out that, “A machine can help manage the size, but there is nothing more crucial than a trained butcher’s eyes and hands.”
Kosmidis explains the process further, saying, “We marry modern food safety practices with old school butchering. There’s something to be said for the tried and true.”
Once in the portioning room, butchers are working fast and we begin to see the many primal cuts, which then get bar coded and labeled. They work in real time to cut, box, and then ship. By the end of each day, the fresh meat has been butchered and is sent to the dry aging room, or placed on trucks and delivered daily–in this case, to Smith & Wollensky to begin their proprietary dry aging process in-house.
Kosmidis tells us, “Carcass meat costs more. It’s at a premium and has about three days’ shelf life. It shrinks at a percentage point a day so we need to move it quickly.” He also explains that the end result makes it worthwhile, saying, “It’s like mashed potatoes from a box versus a fresh potato. There is a difference in texture and taste!”
From the portioning room, the butchered sub-primal cuts may move into the dry aging room, where PFD simultaneously runs heat and cold elements, with high-velocity fans, into the environment to keep it the right temperature and humidity. “Dry aged beef is the safest product you can eat,” says Kosmidis. “No micro-organism can survive in the cold, under black lights and where there is no moisture.”
All of the dry aging, including that for the Smith & Wollensky Prime Steaks Online program, is done to exact client specifications.
“We think about things like, ‘Who is the person who is going to be eating this,’” says Nicholas Castellana. “We know that the other side of this plate is the Smith & Wollensky experience. We select carefully to deliver meat that will be part of that guest experience.”
Allan Marrus, Chief Administrative Officer for PFD, is also a believer in the company philosophy around “handcrafted” as a priority. He says, “Service is the hallmark of the business. Our expert craftsmen deliver consistent quality. There is a need out there for a quality product, and that’s what we deliver.”
So, when it comes to an understanding of where your steak comes from, and who has handled it, the PFD family is part of the experience along the way. Says Joseph Castellana, “As people are more conscious of where their food is coming from, we welcome the change, knowing that our company is right there with them, watching over the meat as it goes through each step.”
“We don’t deal with a commodity,” he says. “This is passion.”
Note: Prime Food Distributor has provided some level of compensation for this material.