The last fun party I went to was Dumpling Wars 2020 in late February at Marz Community Brewing. I was a judge for the contest, which was jam-packed with people inhaling momos, mandu, khinkali, and soup dumplings. There was a popular vote on the 20 contestants, and the judges picked their own favorite. After minimal debate we decided that best in show was a black-squid-ink empanadilla stuffed with wild boar chorizo, perched in the bowl of a spoon atop a crumble of cured egg yolk with salsa brava and manchego aioli.
Relative to the other entries, this was a next-level dumpling, a striking, expertly plated synergy of contrasting textures, colors, and flavors. But the guy who made it, unlike the other contestants, was neither a working professional chef nor an amateur cook—nor someone we had ever heard of before.
Ricky Hanft is a butcher with a little shop in a little town in northwest Indiana. I didn’t have much chance to talk to him that night, but I took his card and stalked the Wurst’s Instagram account over the coming weeks. It hadn’t opened yet, but he was teasing out his upcoming debut with mesmerizing black-and-white shots of the deer processing work he was doing for local hunters in order to raise capital. His personal account had even more intriguing stuff: venison liver sausage; shaved corned beaver with cabbage, beaver stock-horseradish velouté, and caviar; dry-aged squab with Asian pear, Thai chili, and tamari-cured egg yolk.
What the heck was going on in Griffith, Indiana?
Turns out Hanft has worked as a line cook over the years, staging at Gilt Bar and the Publican during a brief run in culinary school. He was also on the opening crew at Publican Quality Meats, and he spent a summer in the kitchen at 3 Floyds. But those jobs didn’t pay the bills.
“I got into ironworking right after high school,” he says. “I’m fourth-generation, so it’s kind of a rite of passage. This is what the males in my family do.” Working in the steel mills and oil refineries paid for a house when he was just 22, but shortly after that the housing market collapsed and ironwork became scarce. He had to find another way to get by. Cooking was what he did to pay the bills between ironworking.
But in 2014 he decided he hadn’t seen enough of the world, so he sold his house and headed east to a job on a bridge deck in New Haven, Connecticut. But something kept pulling him back to food.
A friend from PQM was interviewing for a job with Josh Applestone, a pioneer in the craft butchery movement, who was opening his namesake company selling organic, grass-fed custom-cut meats in New York’s Hudson Valley. He invited Hanft to a barbecue Applestone was throwing, and the boss was intrigued that Hanft knew both food and how to fabricate metal.
“Having a background in construction gives me a different perspective about orders of operation and problem solving,” wrote Hanft in an e-mail. “The education I got as an ironworker is extremely useful as a butcher. The mindset of ‘I need a tool that I don’t have, so I’ll just make one’ has paid off numerous times. When you think about how raw iron ore enters a steel mill on one side of the plant and comes out the other side of the plant as a beam or coil and then apply that to raw beef coming in my backdoor and leaving as a hot dog, I’m just trying to create a system that mimics that concept and works as efficiently as possible.”
Applestone hired Hanft as an apprentice, and within a few years he had worked his way up to plant manager in a white, windowless refrigerated USDA facility where “all I did all day every day was cut and process. It was really nice because that’s how you get good.”
Still, he spent a lot of time perfecting dog food and hot dogs, but it wasn’t the “super sexy dry-cured charcuterie” he’d dreamed of making. With Applestone’s blessing he took a stage at the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, California, and was quickly appointed manager. At Applestone, meat was sold out of refrigerated vending machines for customers who knew exactly what they wanted, but the Local Butcher Shop owners Aaron and Monica Rocchino went above and beyond when it came to customer service, “to where people want you to cut a pound of dog food into eight individually wrapped pieces so they’re exerting no energy to feed their animal.”
Hanft took enough away from each experience that he began to hatch a plan for a shop of his own. On a visit back home, he met Steve Howe, a former schoolteacher who was raising hops and hogs on 30 acres of farmland that had been in his family since 1851. Howe, like Hanft, grew up in Highland, and schooled him on the plight of small farmers in northwest Indiana who were trying to raise pastured, antibiotic- and GMO-free livestock, but were kneecapped by a market structured for large commodity producers—particularly when it came time to slaughter and process the animals.
“You can take in the highest quality animal and there’s a question sometimes if even what you get back is your animal, because everything is an assembly line,” says Howe. “A pig is a pig. A beef is a beef. It doesn’t matter what went into it. That’s how the system is set up currently.” On top of that these farmers were burdened with selling and marketing their own meat direct to consumers, taking up time better spent farming.
Compared to the slaughterhouse hack jobs farmers had to live with, Howe believed Hanft’s butchering skills—cutting and selling—could benefit the whole community. These farmers are “forced to deal with the slaughterhouses that are jam-packed and just blowing through these animals. They spent all this time raising this beautiful animal and it comes back all hacked up,” says Hanft. He says Howe said to him, “If there was ever a time you would be interested in coming back I would do everything I could to help you in terms of lining up farms.”
Hanft decided to give it a go last spring, when he returned home and applied for a commercial line of credit from a local bank to build out a space on Griffith’s main drag next to a deli and down the street from a taxidermist. That’s when he started processing deer (and beaver and wild boar). The money was also meant to go toward hiring and training staff and to pay for the first round of animals that Howe had lined up from a handful of local farmers, most of whom were raising 50 animals or less at a time. Two of them had been considering selling their farms, says Hanft.
Howe and Hanft developed standards with the farmers, all situated within 150 miles of Griffith—cows are grass-fed and grass-finished; pigs live on pasture; there are no GMOs in any animal feed; and they’re given no antibiotics.“I was able to put together a deal with them that we’ll buy all their animals so they can just focus on farming and then they don’t have to worry about being salesmen on top of that,” says Hanft. “We collectively determine what everybody needs to make in order to keep the lights on.”
Howe would audit the farms’ antibiotics plans and feed slips, and to keep to a consistent supply, set up a slaughter schedule with two small independent slaughterhouses, which would be relieved of the burden of butchering since Hanft would be taking whole animals off their hands.
Then the pandemic hit, which stalled Hanft’s loan and everything else except the pastured cows and pigs whose slaughter dates had been booked a year in advance in time for an early May opening. And also in time for major slaughterhouse shutdowns that flooded the independent operations with commodity animals.
Hanft couldn’t cancel his slaughterhouse appointments—the farmers were counting on him too. He had to scramble. His parents mortgaged their house and gambled their retirement on the build-out, while he had to put off hiring help that would allow him to produce value-added products like stocks and soups. “You buy an animal, you sell that animal, and that gives you enough money to buy the next round of animals,” he says. “So I was sitting on five beef and numerous pigs prior to even opening. I had to get creative in terms of not only what I was gonna do with them but how I was gonna store them.”
He also wasn’t able to get a health inspection until his construction was complete, but by that point his walk-in was operational and he jumped through a few hoops to get the Indiana State Board of Animal Health and the Lake County Health Department’s approval to begin dry-aging them. In the meantime, he got to work making sausage: brats, Polishes, Italian, Thai, loukaniko, chorizo, and all-beef hot dogs based on a recipe he worked on at Applestone’s with the help of a German master butcher.
I tried those dogs a week after Hanft opened in mid-June, a month and a half late. They’re warmly spiced, intensely beefy, and they snap audibly from a block away. I also bought a couple of freshly cut, deeply flavorful rib eyes raised by Third Day Farm in Walkerton, Indiana, each capped with the telltale yellow fat of an animal that spent its entire life on grass. I can’t stop thinking about them.
The day I stopped in, Hanft’s mom and dad were working behind the counter, and he was going crazy trying to catch up in the days leading up to the Fourth of July. “I’ll work all day trying to keep that butcher case filled, and then at night I close everything down, clean up and then start processing again for the upcoming day. I’m in a catch-22 where I have to sell these animals and pay these farmers before I can even consider hiring a staff. You’re playing a game of chess. What’s the next move? It’s a small price to pay in terms of what’s going on in the world right now. I’m fortunate to even get the doors open.”
Still he’s made commitments and he’s committed to making it work. And he still keeps something of a low profile. The shop has no phone and no e-mail, partly because he wants to encourage customers to recognize that each cow yields only a certain number of rib eyes, each pig so many chops, each chicken just two breasts. He doesn’t have time to answer the phone anyway, but this is largely to discourage people from snapping up prized cuts before they’re even on display. “What we have in the case that day is what we have available,” he says. “In my mind that’s the only fair way to do it.”
But he does have time to advise walk-in customers on what to do with all the other cuts he has. And there’s a small cookbook library on the wall for reference. If you’re lucky he might have some pork from the Mangalitsa-Berkshire crosses that Howe raises. Howe says it’ll be in stock regularly in December, but for now it’s available off and on. “They have a healthy creamy fat as well as a nice muscular physique,” says Howe. “Best of both worlds.” v