"Do you want to meet the butchers?" Heather asked me as we rounded the corner of the kitchen. In the middle of next room two men intricately worked knives into the ribs of a pig, severed in half and propped on a table. Its skin was carnation-pink, and its bones were clean as a whistle and creamy white. Yes. I wanted to meet the butchers.
Heather Sanford and Brad Marshall never intended to run a full-scale butcher shop and deli in one of the Finger Lakes’ most vegetarian-friendly towns. They started their organic pig farm seven years ago with the most modest of goals: to raise a few dozen pigs and make artisanal charcuterie on a small scale. That was then. Now, with a storefront called The Piggery on Route 13 in Ithaca, a CSA and 500 pigs, they’ve grown. A lot.
“Brad just does everything hog-wild,” Heather said with a wave of her hand and not the slightest hint of irony when I interviewed her at the shop this week. “The demand was there, so he just opened up a bunch of books and started learning how to butcher.” The couple had originally intended on crafting patés and sausages from their pigs, but quickly realized that it wasn’t the most economically viable business model. Besides, their regular customers were clamoring for more. “They’d say ‘This is cool, but don’t you have pork chops?’” Heather explained.
The Piggery goes through 8-10 whole pigs a week, selling those chops as well as tenderloins, ribs, bacon and lard in the butcher case on Wednesday through Sunday. They also sell sandwiches, tacos and other deli-style meals in the same location. Brad is the deli’s executive chef, creating sandwiches with their Mortadella (a faintly pink Bologna-style meat studded with pistachios), shaved ham and Piggeroni, a salami similar to a -- you guessed it -- pepperoni. Carnitas and pulled pork on Kaiser rolls and tacos are also big sellers. There’s even a vegetarian option featuring local cheese and vegetables, though it doesn’t get much playing time. “We should create a salad, I guess,” said Heather before pausing and shrugging. “Meh.”
The business has expanded so steadily -- doubling their number of pigs every single year - that The Piggery also sells beef and lamb from Autumn’s Harvest Farm in Romulus. “We do all the butchering,” Heather said, speaking to the three full-time butchers on staff. In April, they will also begin selling bread products from Fat Boy Bakery in Freeville.
Dealing in such large amounts of raw product means Heather and Brad have learned to be resourceful. The walk-in cooler showcases whole pigs hanging from hooks, as well as their heads, wrapped neatly in plastic and stacked in boxes. “We use their cheeks - so tender! Or we make guanciale [jowl bacon]. Or boil the meat down to make headcheese.” Heather frowned. “But the headcheese is pretty labor intensive, and it’s not such a big seller.”
Still, The Piggery doesn’t seem to be lacking in customers. The weekdays are typically a steady stream of regulars on lunch break, but the weekends bring an onslaught of tourists who have heard about the deli and butcher shop through Yelp, where it has garnered a collection of glowing four- and five-star reviews. On a Saturday, the shop will see 500 customers - easily. The place can feel packed, but rarely unpleasantly so. This is no doubt because of the quirkily effervescent staff (some of whom pop in on their day off to order a platter of tacos, as I witnessed.) I’ve yet to see see a customer given the tell-tale surly stare from a disgruntled employee, even when the line at the counter was eight deep. The staff maintains and openly demonstrates a sense of camaraderie.
“I’ll grab that!” Heather shouted during our interview, seeing a customer pull up to the drive-through. “Whoops, they're too quick for me. Too good!” she said a moment later, pushing her headset away from her mouth as she noted a staff member at the counter taking the order.
In addition to maintaining a hectic storefront, the Piggery also offers a meat CSA. Although they originally provided for both Ithaca and New York City, they have decided to eliminate the out-of-city shipping and focus exclusively on local customers. “We fill this weird niche here, in that Ithaca hasn’t had an independent butcher since the 1990s. We provide for people who want more sustainable meat - or who just want specific cuts,” she said, referencing an oft-heard request for more fat left on the bone-in chops.
CSA members and curious locals and tourists alike can’t help but pop into the deli. Its walls are painted a cozy rust color that was a holdover from the previous business, the Orange Blossom Pancake House. A large wall separating the dining room from the kitchen and butcher shop is painted chalkboard black and proudly displays, in bright colors, the local farms and food producers that The Piggery partners with. Pig trinkets, stuffed animals and toys are scattered around the shop, including two small pigs with wings that seem to have flown directly into a pole and gotten lodged there. The effect is at once whimsical and charming, not unlike Heather and Brad themselves.
“Even though we’re raising so many pigs now, I still love them all,” said Heather. “I work with them, play with them. They’re my babies. And this may sound weird, but every time we take them to slaughter, I thank them - for giving us food.”
This sentiment rings true for many of the customers. In Ithaca, where it can seem like many eschew meat, or at least require a sense of accountability attached to it, The Piggery is providing honest food cultivated with respect.
“I don’t know,” she said, clasping her hands together on the table. “Even though I’m running this - this business -- I’m still really just a farmer.”