Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thomas Keller, Johnston County Hams, Suisun Valley Farm

Suisun Valley Farm's Mangalitsa Pigs

I've got Thomas Keller on the brain tonight, for a few reasons:

1) Per Se is buying Mangalitsa hams from Johnston County Hams. Month ago, I sold the fresh hams to Johnston County Hams. They paid a small fortune for those hams. Rufus Brown cured them into their current form. Now Rufus is selling them to the best restaurants in the USA.

2) Per Se's sister restaurant, The French Laundry, is buying five ridiculously fat (approx. 285# carcass) Mangalitsa pigs from Suisun Valley Farm. I bred those pigs and sold them to Suisun Valley Farm. My first Mangalitsa pig that I killed went to The French Laundry. Several years later, they keep buying Mangalitsa pigs. Despite them being ridiculously ugly and fat, they keep buying them - because they taste the best.

3) Per Se regularly buys our Mangalitsa loins from DeBragga.

Basically, Keller's staff loves Mangalitsa pork. The fact that they buy all this stuff tells everyone that Mangalitsa pork and Mangalitsa hams (from Johnston County Hams) are the best. Why do people think that?

Because of things like this article on Thomas Keller. There were a few parts that had special meaning for me:
He weighed out and smelled Australian winter truffles the size of softballs, each worth approximately $1,100. "You see how this smells a little off?" he asked me, holding one up to my nose. I didn't. "I'm going to send it back."
Ouch! What are those guys going to do when the truffles come back in? Is an imperfect truffle worth even a few hundred bucks? Someone is about to lose their shirt.

Heath Putnam Farms (aka "Wooly Pigs") produces great stuff. But sometimes, for one reason or another, the stuff isn't as good as it should be. When someone working for Keller or Paul Liebrandt sends something back, you pay attention. You give them a credit. You apologize for wasting their time - and you try to make sure it never happens again.

What I've learned:

1) As much as possible, avoid mistakes. Part of always being the best is avoiding unnecessary mistakes.

2) As long as you make the very best, you are in a strong position, because there's always some people who want the best, and have the money to pay for it. As soon as you aren't the very best, it isn't any fun.

3) Develop markets for the less-than-perfect stuff. Prepare yourself for the pain of discounting the stuff to clear it out. As you are selling it off and feeling the pain, figure out how to avoid ever being in that situation ever again.

Here's another quote from the article:

I remembered what Keller had told me the previous night: "I don't discuss price with my suppliers." If you want quality, you pay. And if you're Thomas Keller, you can. Unlike most restaurateurs, Keller doesn't struggle to keep his restaurant afloat: dinner service at the French Laundry stays at a "predictable 74 each night," said Keller - in the height of summer, in the dead of winter, always filled to capacity.

Keller will pay the most for the very best stuff. The fact that he'll pay what it costs doesn't mean you can ream him - because it isn't like you can sell him and someone else the same thing, but charge Keller more just because he'll spend more money.

If you produce a luxury good, there's some price at which all the stuff will get sold. That's approximately what you'll sell it for (maybe a bit less, so you don't get stuck with inventory). It is no fun when you produce too much of a super-premium product and have to discount it deeply to sell it all. Among other things, as your circle of customers widens, you deal with increasingly unpleasant people, whose checks are more likely to bounce.

Keller likewise limits supply to get his desired outcome. His dining room is purposefully small (or, you could likewise say, his prices are purposefully low).

Were the room bigger (or were his prices higher), he might not sell out all nights. That would make it difficult for him to run the restaurant, because he'd have to increase/decrease staff accordingly, and he'd have more wasted food. Most importantly, on emptier nights, guests wouldn't feel so lucky and special to have a spot in the dining room.

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