Belcampo’s journey brings quality meat to the table

Clay Kallam

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Belcampo’s ranch is the starting point for its organic, certified humane meats.Brown Cannon

Most restaurant stories follow the same pattern: Chef learns the trade, works in many kitchens, finds a comfortable cuisine, adds creativity, and opens the doors.

Belcampo, however, traveled a much different path, one that really began in Sicily.

No, Anya Fernald is not Sicilian – she grew up on the Peninsula, and went to Gunn High School – and she loved food. “I’m passionate about cooking,” she says, but instead of focusing on meat and vegetables, she was drawn to cheese and dairies. After some time in Wales and northern Italy, she made her way to Sicily.

“I worked in small, high-quality dairies,” she says, “and I learned that animal husbandry was everything.”

She eventually came back to Northern California, studying at UC Davis, and realized some harsh truths about American agriculture and animal husbandry.

“Agriculture in the United States creates bad outcomes in the environment,” she says, but unlike so many who simply accept the system and work within it, Fernald wanted to make things different. That began with a series of fundamental questions: “How do you create high-quality food that’s good for the environment? How do you farm in a way that produces the best-tasting food that is good for the earth? And how do we create a market for a more expensive and higher quality of meat?”

In 2012, she and co-founder Todd Robinson decided to answer those questions with the formation of Belcampo, a vertically integrated operation dedicated to making quality meat available to restaurant-goers and general consumers.

“What I learned at Davis was that it was really hard to source high-quality meat in the United States,” she says. The meat used in restaurants and found at even high-end grocery stores was, in a sense, anonymous. There was no way to find out where the animal came from, and what kind of farms, what kind of agricultural processes, were used to raise it. And what about the slaughterhouse? Did that enhance the quality of the meat or degrade it? And then there’s the aging, and the butcher, and the transport, and the meal on the plate at the restaurant.

Fernald understood the process, and had the vision of how to change it, so she and Robinson set out to be agents of that change. First, they wanted to develop a brand, or as Fernald puts it, “an identity that travels with the animal.” Clearly, Belcampo needed its own farm, but also needed its own slaughterhouse, and finally, its own way to reach the market.

Obviously, this required a major investment – and a leap of faith. “It was definitely risky,” she says. “I would describe it as a lot of plates to spin.”

First, there was the 7,000-acre farm near Weed in Northern California. Right behind was the slaughterhouse in Yreka, followed closely by the first Belcampo in Larkspur.

So on to fame and glory, right? Once all the pieces were in place, success was bound to follow, right?

“In the first two years, we changed the concept radically,” says Fernald. She understood that the grandest plan might not mesh with gritty reality, so Belcampo cut down on the number of animals it raised (from a dozen to two), and shifted the focus of the Larkspur retail outlet.

“We started as a butcher shop with a small café,” she says, but soon realized the reverse would work better. And now, in fact, only one of the five Belcampos has a butcher shop, though all do sell packaged meat to take home. (The Larkspur location was eventually a casualty of the change in focus.)

And as Fernald and Robinson fine-tuned their business plan, they found themselves in the forefront of a sea change in American food. “The whole marketplace began to evolve,” she says. “More customers were getting interested in the brand because of health and concern for the environment.”

So now, 3,500 head of cattle roam 39,000 acres in Northern California, and the organic, certified humane Belcampo meats can be found in three locations in Southern California and two in the Bay Area. Fernald’s favorite, though, is in Oakland’s Jack London Square, just across the Bay from where she grew up and not far from Berkeley, where she lives.

Of course, she had to go to Sicily to find her way back to the Bay Area, but the long detour was worth it. The high quality of Belcampo’s meat has drawn diners to its restaurants in growing numbers, and transformed Fernald and Robinson’s unique vision into an unusual, and environmentally sound, success story.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

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