Recipe and ingredient delivery service Blue Apron has just locked in a $135 million investment from a group led by Fidelity Management and Research Company, with participation from existing investors. The company will use the new capital to scale its rapidly growing network of farms, suppliers, and fulfillment capabilities throughout the country.
“Our mission is to make incredible home cooking accessible to everyone. This financing will allow us to further improve the efficiency of our model, from sourcing to fulfillment, in order to bring our customers a level of quality that has never been available at scale before,” said Blue Apron Co-Founder and CEO Matt Salzberg.
Blue Apron has tripled its volume in the last six months, and is now delivering over 3 million meals a month to homes across the United States. To further its mission, the company has forged exclusive relationships with hundreds of farmers and artisans. These direct relationships, along with advanced menu-planning, allow Blue Apron to collaborate with farmers to plan their crop rotation throughout the growing season. This summer alone, Blue Apron will purchase millions of pounds of produce directly from small, family-run farms who emphasize sustainable growing practices, with over 1 million pounds of specialty crops being planted and harvested for specifically for the company.
To further support the company’s rapid growth, Blue Apron is developing custom fulfillment software tools and investing in automation. These new capabilities will be deployed across Blue Apron’s network of fulfillment centers, including the company’s newest facility, which opened in Arlington, Texas this month and enables Blue Apron to reach home chefs in over 99 percent of the continental United States.
The news marks the latest in a series of milestones for Blue Apron. Earlier this year, Blue Apron expanded its product offering to include a family plan, featuring seasonal, family-friendly recipes for four, which has proven extremely popular among busy parents. In November of last year, Blue Apron opened its largest, state of the art fulfillment center in Jersey City, New Jersey, and launched the Blue Apron Market, a curated e-commerce store for Blue Apron home chefs.
For many years, sweet cherries have been commercially classified in two ways at grocery stores – dark sweet and Rainier – but now, a rare new cherry has created cause for a new classification due to its unique attributes and sweet flavor that set it apart from the rest. Debuting in select grocery stores mid-June, the new Skylar Rae® brand Tip Top cultivar cherry was discovered by chance in a family-run Washington State orchard, and is distinguished by its beautiful red and yellow bi-colored skin, firm texture and a flavor profile that makes it “The Sweetest Cherry You’ll Ever Eat™.”
Grown and marketed exclusively by Stemilt Growers, the Tip Top cherry cultivar, which goes to market under the Skylar Rae brand, was granted its own varietal classification by the International Federation for Produce Standards and is the first cherry in years to be given its own price look-up (PLU) number. While Skylar Rae was released in a miniscule volume the last two years to a handful of grocery stores, 2015 marks the first season this unique cherry will be nationally available through select grocery stores. During the cherry’s short four week season, from mid-June to mid-July, Stemilt estimates it will ship 20,000 units of Skylar Rae cherries, with plans to increase production in future years.
“A rarity in nature, Skylar Rae’s unique genetics and extremely high natural sugar content set it apart from other cherries – it truly is a treat from nature,” said West Mathison, Stemilt President and fifth generation grower. “We are excited to introduce this special cherry to the world, and encourage shoppers to pick up Skylar Rae cherries when they see them this summer because they won’t be around for long!”
The parentage of the new cherry is unknown, and was the result of a natural mutation of one tree that was planted from nursery stock. The “mother tree” was propagated upon its discovery and plantings of Tip Top cherries (the cultivar name which comes from the name of the orchard where it was discovered) have moved from a test environment to commercial orchards over the past decade. Today, only the highest quality Tip Top cultivar cherries go to market as Skylar Rae brand cherries.
Boasting a golden yellow skin with a partial to full orange-red blush, and a firm and nearly colorless flesh, Skylar Rae cherries contain the highest sugar content of any sweet cherry on the market, measuring in at 23-25 Brix. In comparison, Rainier cherries contain a Brix of 19-23 and Dark Sweet cherries, 17-20. Because of its sweet flavor profile, Skylar Rae cherries are ideally enjoyed as a pop-in-your-mouth snack, and can also be added to any number of culinary adventures and recipes for an extra sweet kick.
The new cherry is grown exclusively on Stemilt orchards in Washington state – where all cherries naturally flourish in eastern Washington’s dry, warm days and cool nights. In 2005, the Toftness family, who have been farming cherries at Tip Top Orchards for more than a decade, suffered the unimaginable loss of their infant daughter. As the family was healing, they discovered a cherry never before seen on a single tree growing in their orchard. The family felt it was a gift from nature meant to honor their beautiful daughter, Skylar Rae Toftness; and when it came time to trademark a brand name for the fruit, it was a unanimous decision that the cherry should be called, “Skylar Rae.”
“While new cherry discoveries in nature are not unheard of, what makes this particular cherry so special is that it was able to be cultivated into a commercially viable varietal, which is a very rare occurrence,” continued Mathison. “The fact that the Skylar Rae cherry also holds a special honor among one of the hard working family farmers we partner with, is, as they say, the cherry on top.”
Skylar Rae cherries are available in two packaging options: a convenient 1.25-pound bag and a smaller 1-pound clamshell carton for $5.99 – $6.99, depending on the harvest window. The cherries are available from mid-June to mid-July, in select markets. Stemilt has plans for increased distribution in the future as the crop and demand for the cherry continues to multiply. For more information on the Skylar Rae cherry, visit www.SkylarRaeCherries.com.
Matcha LOVE CULINARY MATCHA from ITO EN was named as “Best New Product-Tea as an Ingredient” at the recent World Tea Expo 2015 held in Long Beach, California. “We are greatly honored with this award as we invite more aspiring cooks to explore the purity and vitality of the entire green tea leaf,” says Rona Tison, Senior Vice President of Corporate Relations for ITO-EN. “The fresh balance of sweetness and herbaceous grassiness is a taste profile and sensation like no other.”
Fast becoming a popular ingredient for its rich umami taste and antioxidant rich benefits, Matcha LOVE’s CULINARY MATCHA is a finely milled green tea powder, traditionally used in Japanese tea ceremonies, made from premium quality whole tea leaves. Today a versatile ingredient used for baking or cooking both sweet and savory dishes is also a favorite in smoothies and super drinks.
Celebrated for its powerful EGCG tea antioxidants and Vitamin C, matcha is considered and natural energy boost. Matcha generates new layers of amplified flavors with a sweet lingering taste sensation. Bold and rich in flavor with an herbaceous finish, a little matcha goes along way. The new CULINARY MATCHA joins the Matcha LOVE’s® line of ceremonial matcha powder, teabags and convenient on-the-go Matcha drinks, available in unsweetened and sweetened. Taking a modern take on an ancient ritual, the innovative Matcha LOVE line is making its way into the urban lifestyle.
By Richard Thompson
Retailers looking for any supply increases or price stabilization for Italian olive oil are most likely not going to find it this year. The dismal 2014 harvest of Italian olive oil lowered levels of production and increased costs to retailers and consumers from a combination of conditions that have no immediate solutions and probably won’t be resolved in the near future.
David Neuman, CEO of Gaea, North America, LLC and who has worked previously with Lucini Italia has seen problems with Italian oil harvests for years and sees the industry working on borrowed time. “Every single year there’s a problem,” Neuman said, “Every year there are good harvests and bad harvests, but southern Italy is getting pummeled [by Olive Quick Decline Syndrome], and the last harvest was like a perfect storm. Too many combinations that came together.”
So what is plaguing Italian farmers and oil producers on such a dismal scale? Basically, everything that could harm production is happening all at once.
Italy had a terrible rainy season last year and olive flies had infested compromised crops, but the Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS), a bacterial infection that withers and desiccates the tree shoots, is now spreading across the province of Lecce, leaving Italian officials unsure on how to resolve the problem.
First reported at the end of September 2013 by the Italian government’s Plant Health Directorate in Malta, OQDS was already considered an epidemic in the Italian province of Lecce, with more than 8000 hectares of olive orchards affected, but a declaration that OQDS was responsible for olive tree deaths was deferred pending further study.
The Italian Trade Commissioner agrees with this non-committal stance, even while acknowledging the growing blight caused by OQDS. “We feel the authorities have to further investigate the bacteria and its effects that are a cause for concern” said Pier Paolo Celeste, Italian Trade Commissioner and Executive Director for the NY offices in the US, “It is not entirely proven yet.”
The ITC believes that the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium – the cause for OQDS – may not be what is making the olive trees sick. Instead, they believe that it is only a component that must be activated by right conditions to harm the trees, leaving the olive fruit still safe for consumption. “We know for sure that the quality of the fruit is intact,” Celeste said, “It attacks the tree itself, but does not affect the quality of the olive oil produced. It is absolutely safe.”
Some Italian non-government organizations, such as Peacelink, are pushing to save the trees infected by OQDS. The organization has requested the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent organization that advises the European Union, to confirm that the bacterium is not the cause of olive tree death. Peacelink points to trees that have survived and rebounded after the orchards have been treated, but hasn’t been able to provide enough proof to be sure.
The EFSA is saying that X. fastidiosa is a new problem for Italian olive trees and doesn’t seem to need specific conditions in order to spread, so there’s no concrete plan that is sure to succeed that will stop the spread. Since X. fastidiosa has such as wide range of hosts, it can persist even with insecticide treatments on specific host crops – such as olive trees.
On top of that, there is no record of successful eradication of X. fastidiosa once it finds a home outdoors. The destruction of olive trees that have been infected is one of the only ways to contain the spread of the blight, an action the Italian government is reluctant to approve and Peacelink outright opposes.
Despite their qualms, the Italian government has already culled an estimated 700,000 olive trees, with some reports indicating the number closer to 1 million or more. Some of these trees were between 150 and 200 years old.
The acreage that was culled was immediately replanted with new precautions in place to prevent further spread. This new crop of olive trees is hoped to be back in production in about three to four years.
“We are actively seeking out viable solutions,” Celeste said, “It is something that is being vigorously studied by our authorities; as it represents a unique challenge.”
The production will certainly not be back to normal in 2015. Neither will prices.
The Italian Trade Commission Office confirms that 2014′s limited production did affect prices. A recent report by the International Olive Council (IOC), an independent organization that reports on the olive industry annually, stated that Italian production actually declined 55 percent and prices climbed by as much as 37 percent from 2013. The IOC is currently projecting that Italy’s 2015 olive oil production will be larger than 2014′s, but still significantly below normal.
By Lorrie Baumann
Specialty oils represent an area of great opportunity for retailers, and many are under-representing specialty oils, says La Tourangelle Founder and CEO Matthieu Kohlmeyer. “A lot of supermarkets are still under-representing the specialty oils – usually they have a lot of cooking oils, including sunflower oil and olive oil. But when it comes to other kinds of oils, they don’t have a good representation. I think that specialty oils is an area of great opportunity for retailers.”
La Tourangelle produces about 20 different specialty oils in a range of sizes. Extra virgin olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and canola oil are offered as organics, there are nut oils including Roasted Walnut Oil – historically, one of La Tourangelle’s biggest sellers; Roasted Pecan, Roasted Pistachio, Roasted Almond Oil and Roasted Hazelnut Oil that are useful for finishing dishes after they’re cooked or for salad dressings; and a range of spray oils that appeal to low-fat cooks.
Sales of the oils are being driven partly by food enthusiasts who’ve discovered that they present an easy way to infuse new flavors into vegetable dishes, including salads, but also by health-conscious shoppers who are looking for alternatives to highly refined polyunsaturated oils that have been associated with higher cancer rates in nutrition studies as well as consumers with sensitive skin who’ve adopted La Tourangelle’s organic coconut oil, grapeseed oil and avocado oil as part of their skin care regimes. “A major trend is that we are seeing a shift in which many women and men are using organic oils for skin care and body care. A lot of consumers are buying our grapeseed, avocado, coconut oil, not just for cooking but for skin care, makeup removal, hair care. This has directly impacted our sales,” Kohlmeyer said. “It’s a huge driver for us. So many people now are getting allergic reactions to chemicals. If they go to 100 percent organic coconut oil, they know that they’re not getting adulterants…. It’s really not only food – it’s a lot of different things. A lot of people are telling me that, ‘Your jar is in my bathroom, not in my kitchen.’… People are trying to improve their health; they want to be more selective. They’re paying more attention to the quality of the products they consume and that they use on their body as well.”
In the kitchen, La Tourangelle oils contribute more flavor than refined oils. “The refining process removes flavor. Even though you may get the same fatty acids, they remove the flavors,” Kohlmeyer said. He suggested that consumers can gain some insight about whether an oil is highly refined by checking the label for the addition of Vitamin E, which is often added to refined oils to replace the Vitamin E that’s lost during refining. “It’s difficult for a store manager to be an oil specialist, but if the label says it’s refined, you should understand that it’s not going to have the flavor,” Kohlmeyer said.
Many of the leaders of food movements who are urging their followers to avoid highly refined oils are advocating for coconut oil despite its saturated fatty acids. “Organic virgin coconut oil is now our best-seller. For a very long time, consumers have been told they should avoid saturated fat. When people became more knowledgeable, they realized that some saturated fats were actually very good for them.” Kohlmeyer said. About half the fatty acid content in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that’s also found in human breast milk and that is known to increase total serum cholesterol. But more recent nutrition studies have found that most of the cholesterol increase is in the form of high-density lipoprotein, the so-called “good cholesterol.”
But while Kohlmeyer acknowledges these health and beauty reasons for consumer interest in his La Tourangelle oils, his own reason for appreciating them is the flavor they add to food. “I strongly believe that good food should taste good. Good oils, specialty oils, all oils, should have a good flavor,” he said. “Refined olive oil on the shelf doesn’t cover the needs of your customers…. Cooking is about using flavor. These oils are a way to enhance flavor.”
While most specialty oils are packaged in glass bottles, most La Tourangelle oils are packaged in tin cans to protect their flavors. “Specialty oils can be quite fragile and can deteriorate fairly quickly if they’re exposed to oxygen or natural light. The first step in preserving the oil is to seal it from oxygen and to keep it safe from light,” he said. With some oils that are packaged in clear bottles, it’s possible to notice that they begin changing color within a few weeks of bottling, which is a sign that they’re oxidizing. Colored glass bottles slow this process by limiting exposure to the effects of light, but tin cans do a better job of protecting the oils, Kohlmeyer said, adding that the tin cans also constitute a better choice for the environment. “It weighs nothing, and it’s easy to recycle. The typical glass bottle, half of the weight is the bottle, and the other half is the oil.” Less weight means a lighter carbon footprint for the product because a heavier container requires more fuel to transport it.
La Tourangelle’s newest packaging option is a spray can that appeals to home cooks who are already very familiar with PAM. La Tourangelle offers sprays for extra virgin olive, roasted walnut, roasted pistachio, expeller-pressed grapeseed, avocado and canola oils as well as Thai Wok and toasted sesame Spray Oils. The La Tourangelle products don’t contain the propellants found in competing spray oils, Kohlmeyer said. “I don’t think people realize when people use a traditional spray, that they’re spraying a petroleum product on their food…. [With the La Tourangelle sprays,] when you press the spray button, 100 percent oil comes out, no propellants.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Does asking your customers to bring reusable shopping bags with them to your store change their shopping behaviors in other ways? It turns out that it does, especially if customers have the choice about whether they do that or not.
The question was the subject of a recent study by Harvard Business School consumer behavior researcher Uma Karmakar and Bryan Bollinger, a researcher from Duke Fuqua School of Business. They used loyalty card data from a single California location of a major grocery chain and a set of their own experiments to demonstrate that shoppers who bring their own shopping bags to the grocery store are more likely to buy organic products as well as those considered indulgences, which includes products like candy, ice cream and snack chips. “Asking customers to bring their own bags introduces a new element. You’re asking customers to change their routine for a good reason. We were curious about whether asking people to add something new to something that they’re very familiar with could create a ripple effects, or changes in their decisions,” Karmarkar said.
The researchers began their study by speculating that the act of bringing reusable bags along to the grocery store might prime shoppers to behave virtuously, and they might express that by taking other positive environmental actions, such as choosing organic produce over nonorganics. They also speculated that, if customers took an action they considered virtuous – bringing their own bags to the store – they might then feel that they had earned themselves a little treat, and that might make them more likely to toss a candy bar or a carton of ice cream into their baskets. “The psychological effect is called licensing. If you do something virtuous in one area of your life, you might feel licensed to do something indulgent in another area of your life,” Karmarkar said. That led them to another question: Does it make a difference if the customers bring their own bags of their own volition or because store policy requires them to do so?
The researches found that customers who bring along their own bags are more likely to buy organic products if they’re available and if the price difference between organic and nonorganic products is not large. “The higher the prices, the less likely it is that bringing your bags will result in a different purchase,” Karmarkar said. “People aren’t suddenly going to run out and purchase a huge box of expensive truffles merely because they brought their bags. They’re still sensitive to prices.”
Customers who bring their own bags are also more likely to buy indulgent products like candy and snack chips, but only if they brought bags because they chose to do so rather than as a result of a store policy requiring them to do so. Karmarkar and Bollinger suggest that that’s because there may be a different psychology involved in the decision to buy the candy bar than in the decision to buy the organic apples. “In the case of organic items, our proposed psychology is that bringing the bag primes the customers with the reminder to take green actions. That might not change if the supermarket makes the rules,” Karmarkar said. “For indulgences, if consumers know that they’re bringing a bag because of the requirements of the store, we don’t see the same effect.”
The takeaway from the study for grocery retailers is that changes in store policies can have unexpected ripple effects, and that’s something to think about while planning the change, according to Karmarkar. “It’s useful to know that applying this kind of policies can have broader effects across the store. When a store enacts a policy, depending on the way they enact it, there can be downstream effects,” she said. “There are some interesting questions about environmental promotions – the store might consider enforcing that in a positive way. If your consumers are bringing their own bags, you might highlight the organic and environmental offerings in messaging and promotions. Because these effects for indulgences are conditional on the way the policies are implemented, the takeaway is that there may be different patterns in the way that consumers address impulse items or desserts in the store.”
By Micah Cheek
With gluten free diets making headlines, food companies are putting more focus than ever on their wheat free alternative products. Irene Gottesman, Director of Marketing and Sales at Blends by Orly, credits the shift to the new availability of gluten allergy testing, which has led to children being tested earlier in life. She adds, “When one child is gluten free, often the whole family becomes gluten free.” Parents will start consuming gluten free products make sure their child doesn’t have to eat a different meal than the rest of the family. An added benefit to this is a greater ease in meal planning. This increased consumption has placed gluten free breads, cookies and pastas side by side with their wheat filled counterparts in grocery aisles.
The pre-made foods being produced are a great help to people with gluten sensitivities or allergies, but they still suffer some significant shortfalls. The shelf life of unfrozen gluten free baked goods is generally shorter than baked goods with wheat. This causes many baked goods to come out of their package already stale. Some companies have to resort to using more preservatives to maintain shelf stability. Flavor and texture issues have also cast a bad light on the gluten free market, and discriminating consumers are now driving demand for products that match or exceed the palatability of wheat based baked goods. Rivaling wheat products is where baking mixes most stand out from other gluten free products. Janine Somers, Director of Marketing at Stonewall Kitchen, says, “Using high quality ingredients and never sacrificing on taste, we develop our gluten free products with the same standards we use for every other Stonewall Kitchen product. Quality and flavor are never compromised.” Due to the popularity of these mixes, gluten free recipes from pizza crust to doughnuts are now being offered. The homemade aspect of these products offers a greater sense of quality and freshness. “Since everything at Stonewall Kitchen starts and ends with quality, we believe the rise in this category for us in particular is due to the fact that our gluten free products are just as tasty and satisfying as our traditional mixes,” Somers says.
The ability to replicate the texture and flavor of wheat based products is determined by the careful mixing of different flours. As the market for gluten free flour blends and baking mixes grows, producers are trying new combinations of grains and starches in an effort to more accurately replicate wheat’s behaviors. Somers says, “While most mixes use potato, rice and tapioca flours, developers are looking at oats which also offer a nutritional quality. Another trend in mix development is the use of bean flours and other grains such as sorghum, chia and millet, which are being used in a combination with other gluten free flours.” Blends by Orly has a collection of flour blends which are designed as one to one wheat flour substitutes in any recipe, rather than a single product mix. “The reason we’re able to say it rivals wheat products,” says Gottesman, “Is because we tested them against wheat recipes.” Blends by Orly baked classic recipes with their flours, taste testing them on people who regularly ate gluten. This helped to eventually match the familiar qualities of the original product.
The emotional motivator for making gluten-free products at home comes from how customers feel they are perceived personally. Buying gluten free products can make consumers feel like their eating habits or restrictions are on display. Gluten free packaging is often distinct from other packages, and is marketed primarily for health rather than flavor. Gottesman says, “When you’re buying something for a dietary issue, you don’t want to feel like you’re in a pharmacy all the time.”
For more from Gourmet News on gluten-free eating, visit here.
Each batch of Appel Farms cheese is made in the traditional manner using milk from the farm’s own herd of dairy cows. Appel Farms was founded 35 years ago by Jack Appel, who was trained in Europe and brought those cheesemaking skills with him to the U.S. Today, his son, John Appel, takes the milk fresh from the cow and makes artisan cheese just as his father taught him. Controlling the process from the milk source to the finished product ensures consistent quality and flavor, and John strives to maintain that consistency in the cheese while improving efficiency in the process and adding to the line of cheeses.
Appel Farms Gouda has a creamy, buttery texture and nutty flavor. Varieties include Smoked, Mild, Jalapeno, and Sweet Red Pepper. Appel Farms cheeses are available in retail as well as restaurant and food service sizes.
For more information about Appel Farms, call 360.384.4996, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.appel-farms.com.
By Dave Bernard
Once a cheese of last resort for those intolerant or allergic to cow dairy products, goat cheese has grown in popularity in the last 15 years to achieve mainstream status. With many chefs preferring the bright, tangy flavor of fresh chèvre over creamier cow’s milk cheese varieties, goat cheese is “here to stay,” according to Lynne Devereux, Marketing Manager at Laura Chenel’s Chevre.
The rise of goat cheese involves a confluence of factors, from consumer hunger for more healthful foods to the desire for local and artisan products, a taste-adventurous Millennial-generation consumer group along with increasingly knowledgeable and flavor-seeking consumers in all categories, to the goat dairy industry’s dedication of more resources to education.
Goat cheese’s increasing popularity among American consumers is attributed to pioneering chef Alice Waters, who co-founded the Farm to Table movement of the 1980s and, working with Laura Chenel, intoduced diners at her Chez Panisse restaurant to goat cheese-inspired dishes. The news about goat cheese spread from there. “A lot of famous chefs worked at her restaurant first, and they went on to open restaurants across the country,” explained Jennifer Lynn Bice, CEO and President of Sebastopol, California’s Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery. “Diners would enjoy these wonderful goat cheese dishes, and then go into stores looking for the cheese; and from there it just mushroomed all around the country.”
While consumers came for the flavor and bright white, clean appearance of goat cheese, they stayed for the health benefits. Goat dairy products often work for those with lactose intolerance, and they contain a different saturated fat composition from that found incow’s milk. And it’s also higher in calcium, vitamin A and often protein. Some varieties contain just a third of the fat and calories of cow’s milk cheese. goat cheese got a hoof in the door, and to grow the category.
While the cream cheese-like fresh chèvre, popular in baking and cooking, leads the category, an increasing number of small and some large producers have developed more and varied, quality cheeses, with producers like Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery offering unique varieties like Roasted Chile, Three Peppercorn and Garlic Chive chevres.
Producers have also developed harder, aged cheeses more conducive to snacking, sandwich topping and other uses. Cypress Grove Chevre of Arcata, California, partners with a Dutch cheesemaker to produce the dense and chewy Midnight Moon, a Gouda-type cheese boasting a brown buttery flavor with caramel undertones. Laura Chenel’s Chevre’s rich and nutty Tome is a pale ivory, firm cheese that slices and grates easily; and Redwood Hill Farm’s offerings include Aged Cheddar and Smoked Cheddar.
“When I first started here 15 years ago, we were trying to convince people that goats gave milk,” said Lynne Devereux. “So the trajectory in the last 15 years has been fantastic.”
By Micah Cheek
Like most new things in Chicago, Greg Laketek is on his way up. In the two years since Laketek’s West Loop Salumi opened, his client list has ballooned with the names of heavy hitting businesses. “There were always dreams of serving the customers we have,” says Laketek, “We never expected them to seek us out.” Among those seekers are famed restaurants such as Alinea and Nomi, as well as high profile market retailers, including Eataly NYC. Fueled by the stunning endorsements of traveling chefs, West Loop meats are finding their way into culinary hot spots from San Diego to Boca Raton.
Laketek, 29, opened West Loop Salumi in 2013 after spending four years training under master salumiere Massimo Spigaroli. At Spigaroli’s Antica Corte Pollavicina in Polesine Parmense, he learned the craft of curing and preserving meats with an eye for quality ingredients and Old World techniques. Laketek even took part in the processing of the British royal family’s prized Berkshire hogs. When he returned to his home town of Chicago, he saw that these traditional Italian salamis were in nowhere to be found. “I noticed in Chicago, not many people are doing salumi and charcuterie; it seemed like a good market to get into.” he says. West Loop Salumi began with a small crew and no safety net. Laketek recalls, “Last year we had a flood because we had a frozen pipe. We ended up losing about $140,000 in product. That was our first eight months, we only had three employees, and our products weren’t covered in the insurance. It was a big hit to us.” The flooded shop could not stop the flood of praise, however, and West Loop rebounded to even more critical success. Zagat has since included Laketek in its “30 under 30 2014” list, as well as “11 Chicago Food Artisans to Watch.”
West Loop Salumi takes its name from the neighborhood it occupies, a formerly industrial area that is now a dining and art hot spot. The neighborhood’s rebirth as a fine food and leisure hub, though beneficial to the city, is not without its consequences. Greg says, “West Loop was the butchering and packing area of Chicago. It’s really dying though, now this area is called Restaurant Row, there are only a few butcher shops left here. It’s really a shame. Hotels and restaurants are coming in and raising the rent.” A particular loss, Greg says, is the redevelopment of the Fulton Cold Storage building, which had operated for over 90 years. “They took all the old signage down. Google is using the building. The insulation was all horse hair; it took four months to defrost the place.”
From the start, buyers could tell something was different about West Loop’s wares. Laketek believes the contrast lies in how other American processors make charcuterie, compared to how he was trained in Italy. “Producers out here don’t understand how to make the salumi we’re making,” he says. The difference can be seen especially well in meats like culatello, a whole muscle ham cured in wine, salt and pepper for more than 12 months, which West Loop makes in the Italian style. “The thing about culatello is you can’t import it, it’s not available in the US. We’re now doing the culatello the way they did, but not many others can,” Laketek says. He found that he could avoid using nitrite, a commonly used preservative for cured meat products, in his culatello by aging it even longer, up to 16 months. This keen knowledge of the curing process sets his products apart from his competitors. “They’re cutting corners they don’t even know they’re cutting. It’s about attention to detail,” he says.
Attention to detail goes hand in hand with the extremely high quality ingredients that West Loop starts with. Berkshire and Iberian pork are heavily used, as are fresh Calabrian peppers. Laketek takes special pride in his braseola, which he formerly made with pasture-raised, grass-fed beef. “We’ve switched to just using wagyu now. We are the only producer in the US that’s allowed to make bresaola without spraying any bleach on it. We use the acidity of white wine vinegar to make it stable.”
While the lowlands of Parma are ideal for the dry curing of specialty pork, the environment of Chicago doesn’t lend itself to the process. The chill and humidity of the Midwest would make traditional open air curing impossible if not for West Loop’s state of the art curing chambers. A constantly operating computer carefully balances the humidity and heat needed to promote the right bacterial cultures and drying times.
Laketek is bucking an old trend in American eating. When looking for salami, the American diner has an expectation of glossy, razor thin slices with a distinctly chewy quality. West Loop teaches a different lesson. The texture of its product is notably soft, even delicate. The casing must be gently removed to avoid taking bits of pork with it. Portions are cut in a thick wedge, similar to a serving of cheese. The thin slices are all pieces of whole muscles, cut against the grain.
Having proven himself in classic ciauscolos and sopprassetas, Laketek has begun to try new things. His Lagunitas IPA salame features not only the hoppy beer, but toasted spent grains from brewing as well. The Finnochiona is dusted with fennel pollen before aging. The Krug Champagne and Truffle is as decadent as it sounds; finely aged Krug Grande Cuvee adds flavors of sweet barley, and pieces of Alba black truffles are hidden throughout. “A chef needs to start out with a basis of how to make the basics. You can’t just say ‘I have a crazy idea, let’s put Sriracha and plum wine into a salami,’ without any background,” Laketek says.
The USDA has declared Laketek’s salamis completely shelf stable. They travel well too, as the meats are packed with degassers and deoxygenizers. For the retail market, Laketek has a few tips for care and handling. “For salami, we just recommend they don’t keep them in the fridge or deli case. Those cases have a lot of moisture in them. Salami breathes, just like bread. We recommend taking it out of the package, letting it hang and do its thing.”