Look no further than the well-stocked, endlessly marbled meat options in the butcher case at Belcampo Meat Co., which opened its doors at Palo Alto's Town & Country Village in late June.
Belcampo's claim to fame in an industry where the phrase "farm to table" has almost lost meaning is that the company has total control over every single step of production, from start to finish. Belcampo raises its own cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, goats, lambs and sheep on a 20,000-acre farm at the base of Mount Shasta. The company is genetically selecting for heritage breeds and those that thrive in a fairly extreme ecosystem. The animals are fed organic greens grown on the farm. They are handled humanely in accordance with rigorous Animal Welfare Association standards.
At the end of their lives, they are not trucked miles away, but brought 20 minutes down the road to Belcampo's very own slaughterhouse with holding pens designed by Temple Grandin, a renowned animal behavior expert and consultant to the meat-processing industry. The meat is all hand processed and never distributed wholesale; it all stays within Belcampo's steadily growing network of restaurants and butcher shops.
"Meat is the scariest thing to buy in America," said Belcampo CEO Anya Fernald on a recent afternoon, sitting at one of a few tables outside of what used to be Joe Simitian's office in the rear of the upscale Town & Country shopping center.
"There are lots of places you go and you turn over a package of ground beef and it's like, 'This package contains product from Mexico, USA, Uruguay and Brazil.' Do you really want to feed your family that?"
Belcampo is all about challenging long-held conceptions about meat. The big one is that it's bad for you. Belcampo's organic meat has verified a one-to-one ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, a hard-to-achieve balance that's very sought-after for good health. Americans typically consume too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3 (typically a ratio of 15 to one). Omega-6s are pro-inflammatory, while omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect, so striking a balance in one's diet is important, but hard to do.
Another is that cattle should only be grass-fed for two years before switching to grain to fatten them up. Belcampo animals are kept on grass for 34 or 35 months, a full year longer than most farms. This results in meat with a richer taste and more marbling than is typical, Fernald said.
Fernald, who grew up in Palo Alto, arrived at some of these conclusions after spending time in rural Europe and Africa, observing much simpler food ecosystems. She graduated from Gunn High School in 1993 and headed to college with clear interest in food, but not knowing what to do with it. After graduating from college, she secured a $20,000 Watson Fellowship for independent study and travel outside the U.S. to study cheese making in rural communities in southern Europe and northern Africa. After the year ended, she came back to the United States, but soon returned to Sicily to do business development and marketing for a cooperative of cheese makers.
"It was the first time in my life I had been in a place where it seemed like the poorer you were, the better you ate," she said. People ate foraged vegetables in between ice cream and brioche for breakfast, raw meat and perhaps three pounds of fresh cheese each day. Fernald experienced a health transformation on this diet, she said. She lost weight; her energy levels went up; little physical ailments that bothered her before went away.
"Coming from fat-free mania" back home, this got her thinking. She eventually left Italy and got involved in the Slow Food movement back home. She worked with Alice Waters to organize the first Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco and founded consulting firm Live Culture Company to help small-scale artisan food companies become profitable.
Live Culture introduced her to Todd Robinson, a client with very deep pockets who was interested in meat, had some land and wanted to make a profitable play for some sort of sustainable, responsible business concept. In January 2010, Fernald developed the concept for Belcampo, pitched it to Robinson and he got on board. By November 2012, they opened their first butcher shop and restaurant in Larkspur.
Since then, Belcampos have popped up in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, downtown Los Angeles and Palo Alto, with another on its way to Santa Monica this fall and a deal recently inked in West Hollywood.
"I've been looking for an opportunity in Palo Alto since day one," she said. Not only does she have roots here — she grew up on the Stanford University campus with her two professor parents and her first jobs were as a paper girl for the Weekly and at Saint Michael's Alley — she saw a gap in the local meat offerings.
"I want this to become a great Palo Alto institution," she said. This means that Belcampo has all the standard stuff — New York steaks, trip tip, bacon, brisket, smoked ham, roast turkey breast, sausages, even hot dogs — and also the not so standard.
Ask about Belcampo's oyster steak, chicken giblets, matambrito, goat or beef tongue. The butchers behind the counter are knowledgeable, friendly and won't make you feel stupid for not knowing what something is, according to Fernald. Each cut of meat has a handy card with its name, price and an image of the part of animal it came from.
Because of the limited space at this 900-square-foot operation and the nature of other Town & Country tenants, Belcampo's prepared food options are somewhat limited. But that hasn't stopped them. There's a pulled pork bun with roasted jalapeno and cilantro aioli, daikon and pickled carrots ($5); a lamb belly bun ($5) with meat that's slow braised for four hours with paprika, garlic and cumin; a rotating sausage that comes with tailored toppings on a buttered bun ($8); a hefty meatball sandwich with tomato sauce, provolone, garlic butter and basil ($12). Recently added are chicken and steak salads and Fernald said they plan to offer marinated meats and prepared dinners.
The kitchen is headed up by Antonio Varillas, a chef from Peru with a degree in economics from Santa Clara University. The butcher case has its own head: Joey Ada, a local self-taught butcher who loves cutting lamb and Belcampo's nose-to-tail philosophy (you'll even find leather banquettes at the San Francisco restaurant made from their cattle).
You might get sticker shock for some of the cuts (oyster steak goes for $24.99 per pound; tri tip, $20.99; slab bacon, $14.99), but that's the true cost of production for an operation like Belcampo, Fernald says.
"I'll pay double if I know that (the meat) is healthy and it's clean," she said, "but our product is not necessarily for everyone. There is a beautiful culture in the U.S. that celebrates cheap food. Part of what we're doing is challenging the cost or talking about the cost associated with that cheap food and saying, 'Here's the real cost of food.'
"This is definitely not cheap food, but it's clean food," she said. "It's gratifying food."
Belcampo Meat Co.
855 El Camino Real #161 (between Sushi House and Tava Indian Kitchen)
Butcher counter hours:
Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.