Guests love seeing "house-made" salumi and sausages on restaurant menus, because it signals quality, freshness, and care. But is it really worth it to make in house what you can just as easily buy from a producer?
In a word, yes -- but only if you do it right.
Salvatore Cracco is the Executive Chef at San Francisco's Trou Normand, where he oversees the kitchen and the restaurant's acclaimed charcuterie program. The team makes up to 40 types of salumi and charcuterie -- from fresh pates to dried and fermented products like coppa, mortadella and lardo -- which they slice and serve on boards for guests.
We sat down with Sal to learn the business behind the craft of charcuterie and how to make it economically viable for a restaurant. As with everything in the world of food, it starts at the source.
Pay Attention to Sourcing
Sal buys two types of pigs for Trou Normand: Riverdog Reds from Riverdog Farm and Mangalitsa pigs from Csarda Haz Farm and Dinner Bell Farm. Both breeds are 100% organic and pasture-raised, but Sal uses Riverdog pork for fresh cuts and non-dried products, such as pates and rillettes. For dried charcuterie (pancetta, lardo) he uses Mangalitsa pigs, which have never been fed corn or soy, the primary ingredients in a lot of pig feed. The fats in corn and soy actually change the fat of the animals; it becomes firmer and will go rancid more quickly, which is bad for dried products that age for a long time. In fact, Mangalitsa pigs are bred for fat, not meat, so a Mangalitsa pig will have more fat than a Riverdog pig of the same weight.
Combine corn and soy, and you have a very high-energy feed. The average pig raised on those products can be brought to slaughter weight between six and nine months, but because Mangalitsa pigs are never fed corn or soy, they take much longer to mature -- up to 16 or 18 months. That's twice the amount of time and labor for farmers, which makes Mangalitsa pigs more expensive.
Trou Normand pays $4 per pound for Riverdog pigs and $6.50 a pound for Mangalitsas, and both breeds average about 250 pounds. That's anywhere from $1,000 to $1,600+ for a whole pig.
"If you buy a whole animal, you will make a lot more money on it because you don't have to pay someone to cut it," says Sal. "It is economical for people to buy whole animals in restaurants, but you have to invest the time and you have to have skilled people who know how to utilize it all and cut it properly. Otherwise you're wasting your time and you're wasting money."
Invest Up Front
Charcuterie was always a core part of the concept at Trou Normand, which also specializes in craft cocktails. Sal explains, "It's a natural pairing: the richness of charcuterie and the way the alcohol and spirits complement it."
The team invested in certain pieces of equipment at the beginning, building an additional walk-in just for drying meats. They created an entire butcher room with a giant wooden table in the middle of the restaurant (also a state-licensed meat processing facility!). They seat people around the butcher table at dinner service, but during the day it's used exclusively for butchering. (That room could have been extra dining space -- an extra 20 seats.) Plus, Sal keeps two butchers on staff who are focused entirely on butchering meat and making charcuterie.
"Invest in the equipment from the beginning," Sal advises. "The products will be better. They'll be more cared for. You don't need a walk-in -- you can buy free-standing units from Italy to dry products in that are about the size of wine refrigerators. Even a section of a wine storage area that's temperature and humidity controlled. It sucks to invest all that time and just shove it in a corner somewhere."
Charcuterie is unique as a restaurant product because it takes time to age before it's ready to serve -- but it also keeps. When Trou Normand first opened, Sal and his team were getting in four Mangalitsa pigs a week and making charcuterie constantly to fill up the drying room. Still, the restaurant opened with no charcuterie menu.
"It's an investment. Not only do we have to pay for all the equipment, the two walk-ins and the butchers on staff, but we also don't start making profit on these products for a minimum of eight weeks -- some things even longer."
Now, at any given moment, Sal estimates he has between $10,000 and $20,000 of meat inventory alone, including fresh meat in the walk-in and whole animals waiting to be butchered. The flip side of that up-front investment is that charcuterie products won't go bad for a very long time. Properly made salami can hang out in the refrigerator for months and still be good for serving, so it's unlikely you'd ever lose money on it.
Do It Safely (& Legally)
After Trou Normand founder Thad Vogler told him about the concept, the first call Sal made was to the health department. He wanted to be up front about what they were doing and figure out how to do it legally.
"The health department does not look highly on things like this; cured and dried and fermented meats that are never cooked," says Sal. "It's also not regular refrigerator temperatures, so it's a shady area."
Sal acquired a special license to become a state-licensed meat processing inspector (he even has an ID card to prove it). Additionally, the butcher room became a state-licensed meat processing facility. The licenses are not expensive -- $150 a year for Sal's and around $200-$300 a year for the restaurant -- but the process of getting it was time-consuming. Sal passed a written exam, and people inspected the restaurant during construction. He also sent a water sample to a lab to test for bacterial contamination. Now, with the licenses, Trou Normand can make, serve and sell dried products with a clear conscience. "I would recommend looking into doing it legally -- it's a pain to try and hide it," he says, noting that he's worked at restaurants in the past that did just that.
Photo Credit: Alex Loscher