“On March 1, I had 140 people signed up for our monthly meat CSA,” says Jennifer White, assistant manager and community-supported agriculture program coordinator at Hickory Nut Gap Farm. “Now [May 1] I’m at 345, and I’m going to have to cap it at 400 and start a waiting list.”
The monthly meat shares are sold in small (10-pound) and large (15-pound) sizes and currently must be picked up at the farm in Fairview. “We are selling at tailgate markets but not doing CSA pickups,” she says.
Hickory Nut Gap isn’t the only local meat provider seeing an uptick in business. Potential retail shortages of large-scale commodity meats whose processing plants have been direly affected by COVID-19, a move to cooking at home in the wake of restaurant closures and increasing interest in shortening the supply chain from farm to table are spurring increased consumer interest in locally raised meats.
“Astronomical” is how Wendy Brugh, who co-owns Dry Ridge Farm in Mars Hill with her husband, Graham Brugh, describes the jump in retail demand for the pork and beef they sell at three weekly tailgate markets. “We were at 30% wholesale [to restaurants] and 70% retail, and we are now 100% wholesale through tailgates,” she explains. “Our egg sales were 70% restaurant and 30% retail. Revenue is about the same, but our customer base has shifted.”
Retail shops Foothills Meats and Chop Shop Butchery have had to significantly alter operations by closing their stores to customers and increasing online ordering, deliveries and curbside pickup to meet the demands of old and new customers. “We’ve actually gone back to our roots,” says Foothills owner Casey McKissick, who in 2002 began selling product from his and other local farms to Asheville restaurants and in tailgate markets.
Foothills began expanding to include its butcher shops and dine-in Butcher Bar restaurants in Black Mountain and West Asheville in 2013. “With our dining rooms closed, we had to pivot to retail,” he says. “But we started as a retail butcher shop and have also always supplied our customers with a wide range of groceries, dairy products, breads and prepared foods in addition to meat, so we know how to do this.”
Foothills sources its beef from AH&W, a multigenerational family farm in Wilkes County, and all its pork comes from Colfax Creek Farm in Polk County. Its meat processor of 15 years is Mays Meats in Taylorsville. “We have been 100% transparent since day one about where we get our product, what we do in the processing and how we sell it,” says McKissack. Foothills now delivers six days a week and has added a third pickup location at Little Sprout Carryout on Sweeten Creek Road to its two stores.
P.J. Jackson, who co-owns The Chop Shop Butchery, which works in partnership with Apple Brandy Beef in Wilkesboro, says his business model has turned the supply chain into a ring. “All of our beef is pasture-raised on our farm 70 miles north of Asheville,” Jackson says. “Our abattoir (slaughterhouse) that we purchased last year is three miles from that. We have 12 employees there and a full-time USDA inspector and easily have the space to distance.”
Workstations at the butcher shop are at least 6 feet apart, he continues, and all employees wear masks and gloves. “The way we operate, it is likely that the beef someone buys from us went by five people from the time it was born to the time it was butchered and handed to you.”
That beef, as well as pork, poultry and seafood that Jackson picks up from Abundance Seafood in Charleston, is now ordered online, wrapped, bagged and placed in customers’ cars by a masked and gloved employee — often Jackson himself. “We really miss conversations over the counter with our customers,” he says.
Some local providers are helping those in the food business who are struggling. As they were transitioning from wholesale to retail, Dry Ridge donated over 100 cases — 15 dozen eggs per case — first to MANNA FoodBank and then to a program giving food boxes to unemployed restaurant workers. “It felt great to get them to folks who impacted our business through their restaurants and were in a terrible situation,” says Wendy Brugh.
Chop Shop is donating about 200 pounds of product a week to Cultura restaurant’s partnership with Food Connection to provide meals to the unemployed and others in need. “[Cultura chef] Eric Morris did not hesitate to call and ask what we could do to help,” says Jackson. “We are glad to be helping this community.”
Correction: This article was updated on May 15 to accurately reflect the business relationship between The Chop Shop Butchery and Apple Brandy Beef.