Visiting Suppliers in Chicago

Just got back from Chicago where I dropped in on a couple of our vendors (and shot some mediocre photos on my camera phone).

First up was one of our suppliers of bulk pantry goods.  I have always regarded them as having top notch quality and touring through their new facility I learned a couple interesting things.

First, this is one of the most impeccable warehouses I have ever seen.  It was immaculate.

Second, the quality control is uber-stringent. I checked out their labs and was struck by the extensive testing that they do on all batches of product when they come in.  Depending on the product, it will go through metal detectors, scoville tests, moisture test, smell test, sizing/grading, bacteria tests, heavy metal tests and pesticide tests … not to mention excruciating visual examination.  Check out this inspection line.  That’s 5 sets of eyes looking through a stream of dried black trumpet mushrooms.

Finally, their traceability was on point.  Not only does a “lot code” follow the product from the two ton tote all the way to the smallest packaging, but they reserve a small sample of all of their lots in case they need to go back for more elaborate testing in the event of a problem or recall.  Check out this one shelf of samples.  Now realize that they are 3 rows deep in that shelf and there is drawer after drawer after drawer of these samples.  It was very impressive.

Next, I headed to one of our seafood purveyors.  Before we started doing business with these guys a few years ago, my reaction was the same.  Seafood in Chicago?  Keep in mind that we have a dozen seafood suppliers, but believe it or not, some of our best internationally sourced fish comes out of Chicago.  The reality of the global seafood chain is that so many species come from international markets.  Chicago has a huge airport, is centrally located in the country, and has a large cadre of world class restaurants.

Of course they have excellent product.  What makes these guys stand out is the way they handle and process fish.  Fish freshness is all about handling and handling is all about times and temperatures.  These guys know how to move product quickly and at constant temperatures appropriate to the species.

You probably don’t think to put tuna and Chicago together, but let me tell you, this fish is great.

What it’s like in a Slaughterhouse

I didn’t expect to have so much to say about touring a meat packing plant and slaughterhouse. After taking a walk down memory lane, describing what wasn’t there and offering an analogy, I just can’t shut up. Here, I try to explain what it was like to be in this New Zealand beef packing plant.


Getting Geared Up: New Zealand is well known for the cleanliness of their slaughterhouses and the extended shelf-life that their meat has as a result of their ability to control bacteria and such. You can expect a post about hygiene over on the grass-fed beef blog. For now, I’ll just describe what I had to go through to gain entry. First, I had to fill out an affidavit that I did not have any gastrointestinal ailments (and there were 6 or 7 other checkboxes that I don’t remember). Then I had to put on a hair net, beard net, smock, pants and rubber boots. Think: surgeon’s outfit. And, just like a surgeon, I had to wash my hands extensively. Then I had to scrub my boots with soap and scrub brush, walk through a car-wash-for-boots and finally stepped in a solution of some kind. Whew. Not a germ on me.

The Sounds: The safety briefing is short. The only thing I remember being said was that when the buzzer goes off, the production line moves. Imagine sides of beef hanging from rails. When the buzzer sounds, the entire line shifts about 6 feet as the sides of beef move to the next station. We follow the production manager in and before I have a chance to adjust to the rhythm of the beeps, I hear the buzzer and realize that I am standing in the path of the line. Adrenaline pumps. I jump forward to avoid being slammed by a side of beef. Our guide, the plant manager, turns around with an approving look. I am very agile person and I felt as if I had dodged a bullet. Not hard to imagine that people have been slammed before. I later learn that a Japanese guy once got smashed by a side of beef.

In addition to the buzzer, most of what I hear is saws, clips, hydraulics, high-pressure hoses and knives being sharpened. This place is more notable for what you don’t hear.

The Sights: Imagine a factory that is designed to disassemble instead of assemble. And, then imagine a FedEx sort facility with boxes and bags and chutes and conveyors moving in every direction.

What you see is an army of butchers. What you don’t see is the team of engineers and technicians that must be required to run this technologically sophisticated place. People don’t move product. They mostly stay in their station and work on their very specific job. Conveyors and chutes move product this way and that. There are conveyors overhead, at knee level, chutes that take product from one conveyor to the next, even a conveyor that moves the final boxed products through a hole in the ceiling and to another place.

Chutes, chutes, chutes. Tongues go in this one. Hides disappear through that one. Brains in this one. Guts down this one. Trim meat in that one. Nothing goes to waste. Everything has a use, right down to the aorta, which I think I heard is a Chinese delicacy or something.

The butchers themselves wear metal chainmail gloves. Some just wield knives, while others multitask between a knife they quickly pull out of their scabbard to cut a muscle, then deftly drop it back in their scabbard and to grab a giant handheld saw that is hanging from the ceiling by a wire and it looks like a giant chainsaw except that it is a bandsaw like your local butcher shop. Whew. More men than women, all dressed in whites and there is hardly any blood on their whites. They are wearing white rubber boots and white hats. Their noise cancelling headphones have antennas. I forgot to ask whether that is for music or if they are broadcasting information or the beeps of the moving production line.

The butchers each have their own specific job and appeared to all be working expeditiously. On a break, I observed a few butchers at a knife sharpening station and they were sharpening their knives with the attentiveness of an artist making a sculpture. It seemed strangely meditative.

The machines are epic. Imagine giant hydraulic scissors that lop off leg bones, giant hand-held bone saws that cut right down the spine to split the carcass. Imagine a 5 foot diameter roller that the hide is attached to. Then the roller spins and pulls the hide right off the animal as workers on either side stand on a platform that lowers with the hide as the pair of workers use a rotary saw to help shave the hide away from the carcass.

White walls and conveyor belts. Concrete Floors. Stainless steel machines and tables.

The sanitation is impressive. There’s hardly any blood. The floor is clean. The conveyors are clean. The butchers are clean.

The technology is impressive. Not like the old days where the packing line could only handle one cut at a time, this facility handled every single cut at once. On top of that, they appeared to be handling multiple breeds, multiple brands and were labeling product for multiple destination countries and the specific requirements that go with each export country. The technical complexity is mind bending.

Even though I have been there and done that … visiting a meatpacking plant for the first time in 20 years was an epic experience. More than anything, I was blown away by how much things have changed and by how impressively advanced New Zealand facilities are.

Post Written by Justin Marx

New Zealand Cattle & Ranches are Strikingly Beautiful

The New Zealand countryside is pastoral and beautiful. The animals are clean, calm and healthy. Never before have I looked at a herd of cattle and been struck by the beauty. Beauty in the aesthetic, but also in the simplicity. Of course, livestock management is remarkably complex and above my head, but fundamentally it is simple: Grass grows abundantly in New Zealand. Cattle graze it and in the process their hooves aerate the soil and their excrement fertilizes the grass. Here are a few pics of New Zealand Grass-fed Beef Cattle.

Fancy Food Show – A Marx Foods Perk

A post by Ryan, our fabulously creative and versatile design director


Before joining Marx Foods I worked for one of Washington State’s largest privately owned companies. One of those places that is run by a strict set of rules and guidelines, where your job is set in stone, and there are no variations allowed. With that background in mind I’ve come to fully appreciate the perks of working at Marx Foods. One of those perks is that everyone, no matter their specialty, gets to learn a fair amount of knowledge of how every bit of the business works which is how I managed to get into the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco a couple weekends back.

I’m an artist, first and foremost. I’m part of the team who takes the photos, who designs and codes the webstore and blogs. Color options, check, I can help with that. But thanks to some handy unofficial office policies I’ve also gotten a decent taste, so to say, of what makes a good product for our store. For the most part, everyone here has good taste when it comes to our products because it’s important to believe in the products we carry. So, when a few months back, Justin asked if I’d be up for joining him at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco I jumped at a “work” weekend. It’s a pretty good office perk I have to admit. As a dad of a 4yr old any vacation/trip that didn’t include the words “kid friendly” is welcome. But as things got closer Justin got called to a weeklong trip to New Zealand for our great new grass-fed beef line during the same week of the show, and of course who was he to turn down New Zealand in their summer when our weather report was calling for record amounts of snow. I got a quick crash course on the business end of things by daily pop quizzes and sent on my way.

The first day of the trip was for me to get down there early and to explore what the town had to offer to the food scene, as part of our research as we develop our retail store. Seattle is pretty respectable on the food front but it never hurts to check out new locations, see what’s going on in other places. After 10+ miles on foot across town from small food retailers to the Ferry Terminal, I retired to dinner at the Chef’s table at SPQR and took notes for plating techniques for our next photo shoot followed by early to bed. Not a bad first day. Oh, and what a first day as my fair skinned Norwegian heritage came out as a minor sunburn, in January…

The next day the show began. I knew that this was one of the biggest places for likeminded food industry people but I was overwhelmed. “80,000 specialty foods and beverages from 1,300 exhibitors spanning 35+ countries” spread out over both the north and south halls of the Moscone Center.

Now again, I’m a designer/photographer, all day behind three computer monitors or out in the field with a camera, which made the first day that much more overwhelming. Olive oils, vinegars, crackers, chocolates, cheese, teas, and just about any other specialty food item you can name. Major food producing countries had their own mini cities. Rows and rows built up with towering displays, and sectioned off rooms for business dealings. Just about every food brand you find in your local big box grocer had a presence as well. My job was to find that rare quality product, among the 80,000, that was both as exceptional in quality and a good fit for our very curated store. I had a small mental list of categories that we needed to expand, as well as an open mind for the occasional product that just looked too delicious to pass up. It took almost the entire day to take it all in, take notes and find my way to The Slanted Door where I sat and had a lively discussion with a chef over something more substantial. Almost forgetting I was half way through the show and had yet to actually find a specific product or three to take home. Oh my, a little bit of butterflies that night. I had to produce if I hoped to be offered the job again.

But the second day was a lot less stressful. I had seen it all, I had a plan. I knew what I wanted to bring back to the office. And it was a lot more fun. The pressure was definitely off once it became known I wasn’t in charge of buying the product, only recommending them. I could really just pursue and enjoy the many fine foods without needing to deal with sales pitches. My attention could be on what I was tasting, not what I was hearing. Cheeses after cheeses, oils and vinegars, chocolate, sauces, occasionally the bite of something that was just needed to cleanse the palate between cups of straight olive oil. Occasionally there was a product that just tasted horrible, and once in a while there was a product I’d be happy to serve my guests. Then a quick BART ride back to the airport for a late night flight home, trading the sunburns of California to the freezing snow/rain of Seattle in January.

So, thanks to Marx Foods’s great policies, this designer got to travel to a sunny climate in the middle of winter and eat better than I will again for quite a while, and got paid to do it. Now I just have to figure out how to convince Justin that its essential that I get to New Zealand.


If you are going to eat meat…

…this is the best meat to eat.


I am obviously biased because we sell this grass-fed beef. Having gotten that disclaimer out of the way, I was so impressed by how humane, hygienic and efficient the New Zealand Grass-fed Beef production is. If you are conscious about your consumption, I am authoritatively and unequivocally telling you that New Zealand Grass-fed product is the best product by just about any measure.

I Grew Up in a Slaughterhouse

A recent visit to a New Zealand meat packing plant was impressive, interesting, and a walk down memory lane. This first post is mostly about the memory lane part…


I was raised in a Veal Slaughterhouse & Meat Packing Plant in New Jersey

I don’t mean that I lived in one, but my father owned one and I spent quite a bit of time in a veal slaughterhouse in New Jersey. That’s three nouns, any of which all by itself might make someone cringe depending on their politics and preferences and such. Veal. Slaughterhouse. New Jersey. Add them together and it is difficult to imagine a less idyllic environment to visit your father at work. Set it in the 1980s before the modern animal rights and food safety movements really took hold and, well, it’s what I knew so it all seemed normal. My father and grandfather and so on grew up similarly.

My father, the 4th generation in our family business ran the abbatoir. And when I was very young and the business was small, he actually did the slaughtering … and as a young child I apparently used to hang out on the kill floor with him and watch him slaughter livestock.

At age 11-14, I worked in the slaughterhouse during the summer in the mornings. Not sure if I have formed my own mythology about those days, but I remember my job functions as follows: the first summer was spent with a hose in my hand. I bounced back and forth between the holding pens in back where I would hose the shit off of live calves and the room next door where I would hose blood off the inside of the body cavity. The next summer I held a hose again, this time rinsing organ meat on the kill floor drain table. The latter two years I was mercifully moved to the packing area where I helped bag, cryovac, label, box, and move meat cuts. The mercy in this move is only apparent in retrospect. I don’t think I minded the dirty work and I certainly didn’t know any different.

Those days formed my work ethic. There are few jobs that are stinkier and dirtier than hosing shit off calves. And, few jobs are colder or harder on the hands and face than stacking boxes in a -10 degree freezer. My father paid me for my work and expected me to work just as hard as anyone else. The only break I was given was that I was allowed to leave at lunch, when my mom picked me up to take me to the beach. You can look at it as favoritism, but keep in mind that I was younger than the legal working age and most certainly the youngest plant worker by a margin of many years.

It has been 20 years (7 of which I didn’t eat meat) since I have been in a slaughterhouse. Recently, I toured an uber-modern facility in New Zealand, not knowing what it would feel like or whether I could handle the sight of it. I knew however that I wanted to see everything. Apparently, many visitors don’t want to see the actual kill floor, but only want to see the boning room where primal cuts are broken down into retail and food service cuts. I wanted to see it all.

New Zealand facilities are reputed to be among the world’s most hygienic, humane and technologically sophisticated. That reputation is for good reason.

In the coming posts, I will try my best to articulate what it is like to be in a slaughterhouse in the first place, but will also explain why New Zealand is the class of the world in terms of animal husbandry and meat processing.

Next Post in This Series:
A Slaughterhouse Without the Things From My Memory

Post Written by Justin Marx

A Slaughterhouse Without the Things from My Memory

My recent visit to a New Zealand meat packing plant was intense, insightful and a walk down memory lane. What struck me most was the sounds and smells from my memory that were not there. Warning: this might be graphic; I can’t tell because I’m desensitized. But, I don’t want to hold anything back since one of my goals with this blog is to share my experiences, especially those that few people see.


The Missing Smells
My strongest memory of slaughterhouses in the 80s was the hot, steamy, smelly kill floor. In my youth, the act of cleaning cattle in the back pens with a hose was almost pointless. The holding pens were dingy, dirty, shit- and ammonia-smelling, closed-air affairs. The calves came to the kill floor with shit all over their hooves, tails and rumps regardless of how much we sprayed a hose at them.

Here in New Zealand, the holding pens are clean, free of shit and they are very well ventilated open-air environments. And, this cleanliness is before the cattle are cleaned one by one in a giant shower as they make their way up the chute.

In the 80s, our kill floor was hot and steamy. In this New Zealand facility, the smell was almost benign. The strongest odor was a subtle smell of bleach. Sure, this New Zealand kill floor was warm and many of the workers had only shorts and a t-shirt on behind their smocks, but the humidity was fine and the temperature was moderate.

Hygenically, I can recall a dirty environment from my youth. I remember barrels of organs being dragged around and lots of product held in racks on the slaughterhouse floor itself. In this New Zealand facility, the different non-meat parts almost immediately leave the kill floor via a panoply of chutes and conveyors. The hooves are lopped off by giant scissors and down a chute they go. The hide is pulled off and drops right through a hole in the floor. The guts drop to a giant conveyor where they are separated and down various chutes they go. Aside from the exact spot where throats are slit, there’s hardly any blood at all on the kill floor. I was surprised by the absence of blood on the kill floor and blown away by the lack of odor.

The Missing Sounds
Notably absent in the New Zealand facility was mooing and the sound of kicking. In the old days, our slaughterhouse was full of bovine crying. It is sad to think about. Back then, the veal calves were shackled, stunned and hoisted upside down by a chain wrapped around a hind leg. The panicked cries of the calves must have spread fear among the rest of the animals because it was a cacophony of bawling. Once upside-down their throat was cut and I can remember the sound of them trying to breathe for some time and the sound of them kicking the wall for awhile after that.

Today, slaughter facilities are designed to minimize stress on that animal and this New Zealand facility was the most progressive I have ever seen. In this New Zealand facility, the animals walk through a chute single file and at the end, they are stunned electrically to make them pass out. They fall over through a hole in the wall onto their backs. Their throat is slit while they are passed out and THEN they are hoisted. They don’t know what hit them and they are out of view from the live animals. Here there is no mooing, no struggled breathing, no kicking.

The Missing Buckets and Barrels of Stuff
Certainly the lack of odor has something to do with the fact that product simply does not stay in one place. In the old days as the animals were disassembled, the hide went in this lug. The stomach drops in that one. The heart goes in this bucket, the spleen in this one, the liver in the other one, etc. The lugs on racks ultimately got wheeled off the kill floor and into a cooler or outside, where they waited for the gut truck. All of the non-muscle meats, hides, testicles, etc. would be held in racks on the slaughterhouse floor.

In this New Zealand facility, all of those parts completely left the room as soon as they were cut from the carcass. I don’t know where all of them went, but they certainly left the meat area immediately. In one room that I did see, was a completely separate packing area that received the items that came down the various chutes. Brains immediately dropped into a box, the entire box still pulsing, before it was labeled and moved to the freezer. The tongues were individually saran wrapped and placed neatly in a slotted box. That box was immediately labeled and moved to the freezer. And on and on. In this New Zealand facility, cuts and parts did not sit anywhere. They were immediately cleaned, processed, packed, frozen.

As for the meat cuts, I remember lug after lug of meat cuts on racks in the old days. A major innovation that I saw in New Zealand is that the facility was so sophisticated that it didn’t have to process one cut at a time before moving to the next cut. As the carcass got cut up, all of the products went on the same production line. In the past, the parts would have waited in open-air lugs in the cooler before each individual cut was bagged, labeled and boxed. Here in New Zealand, the cuts just moved down the line together. When they got to the place where they were to be bagged, an operator punched in a code that corresponded to the cut. The automated labeling system did the rest. So, instead of the cuts having to sit around and collect bacteria, they were immediately vacuum sealed, boxed and chilled.

Next Post in This Series:
What It’s Like in a Slaughterhouse

Related Posts:
I Grew Up In a Slaughterhouse
A Disassembly Factory

Post Written by Justin Marx

A Disassembly Factory

The easiest analogy to describe what it is like in a meat slaughter and processing facility is to imagine a car factory.   Imagine a car production line where a car chassis is suspended by a hook from the ceiling and it moves from station to station as this part and that part are added and attached and ultimately the car is assembled.

Now imagine the opposite of that.  Rather than assembling a car, a meat plant is disassembling an animal.  After it is slaughtered, the animal hangs from a hook by its leg and moves along the disassembly line.  Each butcher along the way has a specific job.   The blood is drained, the feet are cut off, the head is removed, the hide is mechanically pulled off, the belly is opened and the guts are released, the side of beef is split with a giant handheld bandsaw/chainsaw, and a few dozen other various things happen that I can’t explain because I don’t know the names of the parts.  And, that’s just on the kill floor.

The sides of beef then move on rails to the chiller to chill down.  When it comes out of there, it is separated to hind and fore, both of which move down separate disassembly lines.  A progression of butchers separate the bones and the larger cuts and put them in various chutes.  From there, the meat gets cut up into smaller and smaller pieces by other butchers until it is in a more familiar form to us.  Nothing is wasted.  The aorta goes here.  The jowl goes there.  In addition to the whole muscle cuts, the blood gets used by the medical/pharma industry, bones get made into pet food and the trimmings which are a mix of fat and meat get graded by percentage of fat content and ultimately become ground beef.

In the New Zealand Grass-fed Beef plant that I just toured, there must have been 300 workers each with their own very specific job.

I have a lot to share, but wanted to get this post out today.  More to follow tomorrow hopefully…

Next Post in This Series:
I Grew Up in a Slaughterhouse

LA Produce Terminal

On a recent trip to LA I wasn’t most excited about the celebrities or the sunshine. I was most excited about visiting the LA produce terminal. Maybe it is because I grew up seeing the industrial side of meat, but only knowing produce from behind the consumer side of the food industry veil. Who knows.

The LA produce terminal is impressive on many levels. For one, it is enormous. Think of your grocery store. And, then think of how big that store would be if it were selling to restaurants. And, then think of how much bigger it would be if it were selling to distributors. This is where distributors shop. There are probably a couple miles of vendors (with cavernous warehouses behind)

You can find pretty much any produce species you can imagine from grocery store tomatoes to the most exotic asian fruit.

Vendors sit in rustic booths fashioned like an curbside airline check-in and seemed to be frantically checking in produce orders.

And equally impressive was that by 8 AM they were starting to shut down. (look at the below photo … most of the doors were already closed). Shutting down at 8 AM?! These guys make the meat industry look like college kids sleeping off hangovers.

The LA produce terminal is the epicenter of the US produce universe and is very interesting to walk through. It’s open to the public, so next time you are in LA drop in super early and check it out.