The McNellie’s Group switched up the sausages at their Fassler Hall location in Tulsa in November last year, largely due to a conversation company vice president Brian Fontaine had with himself.
"I made a change in my own life, trying to eat better—locally sourced, responsibly raised, all those things that really do make a difference—and I just thought our customers would probably benefit from the same options," Fontaine said.
That epiphany led to a conversation with Chef Ben Alexander, and the two then sat down with the owners of Prairie Creek Farms, a friend-owned farming operation outside Kellyville.
"We got pork chop samples, and we threw them in a skillet with salt and pepper," Fontaine said. "That was it. When I tasted the pork, I wanted to lick the skillet."
The farm focuses on Berkshire pigs—a breed that, according to Nate Beaulac, consistently wins awards for meat quality and moisture loss during cooking. Beaulac is one-third of the ownership team at Prairie Creek Farms; the other two are Jason Ketchum and Peter Prulhiere.
In 2015, the three friends decided to take a chance on "three scrubby acres" near Sand Springs after research told them that pasture-raised pork and beef were hard to find around the Tulsa area. In January 2016, the team bought 10 Berkshire piglets and started farming.
"We’ll probably raise 500 pigs this year," Prulhiere said. "The numbers now make sense for us to start looking at our own breeding program."
Finding a farmer who raises animals responsibly is a small issue within the larger logistical problem of what to do with a whole pig. Beaulac explains that most restaurants come to the farm looking for pork chop or bacon, presenting an obvious problem: There’s too much pig left over.
Fontaine talked to the larger McNellie’s Group, and the simple solution was to spread the pork between the concepts. "Yokozuna is using neck bones to make stock, and they’ll eventually have pork belly; Dilly Diner is using the ham steaks; chorizo at Guapo. We are finding ways to distribute it throughout the concepts, and once we realized that all these trimmings would be left, we realized we could switch the sausage at Fassler."
The price has gone up, but the group thinks it’s worth it. "People are at Fassler to enjoy the experience," Fontaine said. "We’re not one of those daily sustenance lunch places."
Getting the pigs in the supply chain takes time. Prairie Creek raises pigs the way they were raised before factory farming. The animals have 11 acres of woods—pigs love the woods!—around the farm, so the farmers move the paddock to a new acre every couple weeks, which opens up new foraging opportunities for the pigs. They spend time on fresh ground—woods and pasture—regularly, so the acreage doesn’t have the smell conjured in most people’s minds by the word "pig farm."
"It takes the land about three to four months to recover, but we have plenty of space," Beaulac said. "Predators aren’t a problem for pigs either, because a bobcat or coyote is going to have a terrible time with a herd of large pigs. The heart of a good farm is the constant movement of animals."
Mixed in with the black-and-white Berkshires are a few Durocs—a beautiful rust-colored breed—and a few of the archetypal Babe/Wilbur breed, the Yorkshire. A goat named Porch roams freely, and laying chickens and meat chickens are in pens between the woods and pasture. The farm may raise 10,000 meat chickens this year.
To feed all the animals, Prulhiere mills non-GMO corn, milo, and soybeans on the grounds of Prairie Creek. That’s made it possible to expand their operations, even as they scaled back beef production.
"Hay prices spiked last year, so we sold off our herd of 25 steer," Beaulac said. "We still process beef, but we buy for customers as they order. Our goal always is to give people the breed they’re used to eating, and then raise them as responsibly as possible."
The ultimate goal for the team is to have a venue on the grounds of the farm so that people can see the operation up close. Rapture Brewing Company, a brewery next to the farmhouse, will have licensing sometime this spring, too.
The McNellie’s Group is sourcing beef from Prairie Creek also. It’s part of a wholesale change of ethos spawned by Fontaine’s curiosity and convictions: "After looking at the quality and the way the animals are raised, I just felt a responsibility to move local and naturally raised products."