As mentioned in August, Michael took a trip to North Carolina to visit with our Poulet Rouge supplier, Joyce Farms, the first to develop a breeder flock and produce this French heritage chicken stateside. The trip solidified why we buy chicken from them exclusively, and why more restaurants need to do the same. Superior taste isn’t reason alone.
Michael shared some of his experience with the staff at pre-shift, including what he learned from owner Ron Joyce about the paltry state of the poultry industry in America and how he’s doing his part to turn things around. When Michael shared that the number of industrial chickens processed in the U.S. is about 175 million weekly, compared to Joyce Farms’ 4,000, I had to know more. I reached out to Ron with some questions, and he obliged.
Have you always had a passion for chicken and when exactly did your ‘ah ha’ moment occur about the need for change in the chicken industry in the States?
I grew up in the poultry business. When I was young, my dad worked as a plant manager of a poultry processing plant. Later, he started a poultry distribution business. During summers and weekends, I worked in the business. After college, I joined the company, which at the time had about 8 employees. I immediately started in sales and we grew the company substantially. My dad died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1981 and no one in the family had any interest in the company. I decided to buy the company from his estate, giving my mother a source of income. I continued to grow the distribution company and added further processing to provide custom cut products. The company continued to grow and ultimately employed over 200 people by 2000. But large national distribution companies and large poultry companies began distributing poultry directly to chain restaurants, cutting the margin for poultry distribution companies. I had the opportunity to sell the distribution part of the company in 2001 and concentrate on our all-natural product lines, which we sold through center of the plate specialty distributors through out the Southeast. Working with their chef customers exposed me to European chefs who mentioned the Label Rouge meat program in France.
Upon investigating this and other programs in France, I realized how homogenized the poultry industry in America had become and how bland our food had become. We basically grow industrial breeds of chicken and turkeys in this country to serve all markets, including natural and organic. My ‘ah ha’ moment came in a butcher shop in Paris as I discovered the enormous selection and variety of poultry that was available in France. I decided that someone needed to provide that offering to the U.S. and educate Americans about the differences in these products. After doing some research, I decided to produce Label Rouge products, known through out Europe as the best in the world. This required a commitment of not only exporting the breeder stock to America, but a completely different method of raising and processing the birds to replicate the Label Rouge program.
We started with the Poulet Rouge and Poussin, and then added the Pintade. Later, we acquired a 50% interest in a pheasant genetics and breeding company in Canada that had one of the best breeds of meat pheasants in the world.
Why Poulet Rouge as the heritage breed you chose to focus on?
When we visited ISA in France and discussed our vision for this program, I asked for the best (broiler size) chicken in the Label Rouge program. Without hesitation, we were told the Poulet Rouge, not only for the superior taste and meat texture attributes, but the thin skin added an additional unique culinary benefit that other chickens do not have.
Tell me a bit about where you go in France for the eggs and your relationships there. Were folks eager to sell the eggs to you at first or did you have to do some convincing? Explain please!
There are two companies in France that own the official Label Rouge genetics, ISA and Sasso. Only ISA was willing to work with us, and then only after getting to know us and becoming comfortable with us as a company. Having Denis Dronne, a French chef on board at the time also helped us put the deal together.
ISA’s first concern was that Americans would not be willing to pay the additional cost involved in growing a Label Rouge product and therefore there was no opportunity. The other concern was that we might try to copy their genetics. Once they got to know us, they realized that we were not a large factory-farmed agribusiness like most typical American producers. We were just like their customers in France, a small regional poultry producer, dedicated to producing the best products in the world.
What time of year do you do your visit for the eggs and how long do you stay for?
Our visits to France vary, but the breeder eggs are shipped twice a year on a pre-determined schedule. A visit is not necessary for each shipment.
Is there a French food or drink or place you always look forward to visiting when you are in town?
I enjoy discovering new places to eat when I visit. I stay away from the advertised “tourist” places and have never been disappointed with a meal in France, be it a slow roasted Pintade in an nice restaurant, or a ham and cheese sandwich with soup in a place I drop in at random. The French take so much pride in their food and serving it!
Is poulet rouge like champagne is to the French, i.e. geographically controlled by the government to maintain the quality and authenticity of the product? How does it work that you are able to breed in the U.S.?
Yes, the entire Label Rouge program is grown and processed on a regional basis. You will note from French labels “Poulet Noir Fermier du Normand” (Farm Raised Black Chicken from Normandy) or as our own Poulet Rouge Fermier du Piedmont (Farm Raised Red Chicken from the Piedmont-our region in N.C.). We do not claim that our product is grown in France, but from our own region in N.C. The Label Rouge breeds are the same and are grown all over France and other parts of Europe. However, as each region competes with wine, each region proclaims superiority in poultry products due to the distinct attributes of their soil, climate, methods of production, etc.
How is it as a breed to raise?
Our Poulet Rouge is very hardy, as are most heritage breeds. These birds are genetically suited to be grown outside as they have been for years and have a stronger immune system than industrial breeds. It was necessary to adapt our feed program to meet the nutritional and growth characteristics of this breed. American chicken feed is designed to push the growth of birds as fast as possible and our birds do not respond very well to that. Also, our growth time is double, almost 80 days for a 3# chicken vs. 40 days for a 4# industrial chicken. Our feed consumption is also greater. The feed conversion for industrial chickens is about 1.7 to 1.0 (1.7# of feed produces 1.0# of live weight) and with our Poulet Rouge it is about 2.8# to 1.0#. By the way, all of the natural and organic chickens in America are from industrial genetics.
I see its characteristics on your website. How do these stack up vs. the generic chicken egg laying and for-meat?
These birds are completely different from egg characteristics, colored feathers, meat density, flavor profile and thin skin. Our hens lay a brown egg that has a darker yolk than industrial breeds. The meat texture of our chickens is denser. In order to grow birds faster and cheaper, the commercial birds absorb more water in the meat cells, making the meat texture weak and somewhat spongy. The flavor is more pronounced. One reason is that the birds grow slowly and the fat metabolized from its diet is marbled into the muscle rather than on top of the muscle under the skin as with faster growing industrial breeds.
Describe the kill process and what makes your facility unique.
Our process is patterned after some of the small plants in France. We “harvest” each bird individually once they are unconscious from stunning. None of our birds experience pain in the process. The birds are then placed in hot water to loosen the feathers, and then move to a picker for feather removal.
Are you attracted to other heritage chicken breeds – or foreign breeds – other than of French origin?
At this time we are concentrating on our Poulet Rouge, our Poussin, our Pintade which all come from France, and our Faisan which was imported from Canada. We believe the products in our Epicure line are the best in the world. In the future if we find a quail or a duck that we feel ranks as the best in the world, we would consider producing it, no matter where the country of origin. The whole idea is the best in the world.
List some favorite ways you like to eat chicken?
Every possible way, grilled, oven roasted, pan-fried, or in soups or stews. The main thing is to not disrupt the natural flavor of the birds with excess sauces, coatings or marinades.
Do you cook, and if so, how do you prepare it yourself at home?
I’m certainly not a chef but that doesn’t keep me from cooking at home when I have time. One of my favorite recipes is very simple. Coat the birds with butter or olive oil; apply sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and maybe a little Cayenne or other hot pepper to make it interesting. Insert a little garlic and/or onions in the cavity. This may vary for each preparation. I have even used black garlic under the skin. My other favorite goes back to my Southern routes. Cut the bird (any of them) into 8 pieces. Soak in butter milk, toss in a mixture of flour, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and pan fry in peanut oil.
Where do you find support in the food industry for what you are doing?
There is very little support for our type company in the food industry.
We are very fortunate to have our operation located in North Carolina. We get a tremendous amount of support from both the Poultry Science and Food Science departments at N.C. State University. I have 8 or more professors with PhD’s in various specialty areas (breeding and hatching, grow out, animal nutrition, animal welfare, processing, product preparation, food safety and veterinarians) that are at our disposal for consulting.
Name some chefs/restaurants/locations/retail outlets that serve your product.
Because we ship through distributors, it is difficult for us to keep up with who is using our products, unless we have contact with the restaurant, and of course, some chefs rotate their menus on a regular basis. Some keep the Poulet Rouge as a regular item and rotate the Poussin, Pintade, and Faisan. A partial list, in addition to your restaurant would include: Watershed, O Ya, Magnolia Grill, Lantern, Daniel, Marlowe & Sons, Momofuku Sam Bar, Tao, Picholine, JCT, California Grill, Victoria and Albert, Blue Zoo, Colicchio and Sons, Beacon, Le Bernardin, Prime Meats, Del Posto, The Trellis, Highlands Bar & Grill, Five and Ten, Empire State South, The Union Club, Ford’s Filling Station.
We sell to very few retailers as we have concentrated so far on foodservice, but that is changing with our new retail packaging. Currently we have products in Whole Foods Southeast (does not include Florida, but we are working on that), Lowe’s FreshSmarts, and numerous small specialty stores and butcher shops. By the end of the year, we will be in all 16 Food Emporium Stores in Manhattan.
How many people do you currently employ? 90
What are your goals for the business — to focus on a few core products and increasing production, or diversifying more? Any products you are currently excited about exploring?
We are expanding our core “all-natural” business, which helps sustain the Epicure Line, by adding retail packaging to some of our prepared items (roulades, en croutes, etc.) These will be offered in up-scale gourmet stores within the next month. We will also focus on the expansion of the Epicure line by continuing to educate both consumer and chefs.
How do you skirt the fine line between increasing production and becoming too big for your own good? Always curious to hear about economies of scale.
We can expand and still maintain the integrity of our program by not changing the genetics to grow faster and cheaper and continue to use small family farms on a regional basis. 30% of the chickens consumed in France are Label Rouge birds, even though they are 2.5-3.0 times the price of industrial breeds. They have met this demand and maintained the superiority of Label Rouge by increasing the number of farms, but not the number of birds on each farm, and by using small regional processors who use artesian methods as we do. This can be duplicated in the U.S.
When you visit industry/trade shows and conferences do you feel that ‘change is in the air’ and people are ready to embrace more responsible, niche food production?
I do think things are changing in America. A lot more consumers are concerned about where and how their food is produced. I sense more awareness regarding animal welfare, small farmers, getting back to nature, food safety, healthy foods, and also foods that have real taste. Heritage and heirloom foods are also being discussed more often.