“Are you ready for the heads?”
LouisJohn Slagel waits for an answer in the subterranean prep kitchen at Girl & the Goat. The 29-year-old farmer has already bounded multiple times from his delivery truck, parked in the ice-slicked alley behind the perennially packed West Loop restaurant, down a flight of stairs to the kitchen’s walk-in cooler—40 pounds of pork cuts on one trip, boxes of 15 dozen eggs on another—weaving through the flurry of dinner preparations (a handful of cooks chopping vegetables and stirring sauces while Tears for Fears tunes blast from a speaker). It’s a Wednesday afternoon in February, and this is his ninth stop so far today. Over the course of the last two hours, he’s wound his way across Bridgeport and Pilsen and other parts of the West Side. Two hours before that, he left Fairbury, Illinois, for the trek up to the city. Two hours before that, at 7 a.m., he was slaughtering hogs.
All that’s left to do here is drop off the heads.
The process is a well-choreographed weekly routine at this point. A quick nod and then Slagel is trailed up the stairs by four cooks. Outside, he vaults his lean frame onto his truck, reaches into a heavy-duty gray trashcan, and pulls out a clear plastic bag containing the noggins of two pigs.
He tosses the bag to one of the cooks, who tosses it to the next, who, as a third holds the door open, tosses it to another waiting inside the restaurant, who lays it carefully in one of three bins. “One,” someone yells. Two. Three. Four. Thirty-five bags of heads (all 70 of them earless, because the ears get sold separately by the pound), each called out individually. When all are accounted for, they get hauled down to the kitchen. Slagel gets back in the driver’s seat and sets out for the next restaurant.
Two days earlier, the pigs to whom those heads belonged were mucking around Slagel Family Farm, 800 acres of Midwestern flatland a hundred miles southwest of Chicago. By the end of the weekend, their faces will have been roasted, thinly sliced, and topped with a fried egg for a dish that’s been on the menu at Girl & the Goat since Stephanie Izard opened the restaurant in 2010.
Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to dine out regularly in Chicago and not come across Slagel Family Farm name-dropped on a menu. It’s in the description for the suckling pig at Spiaggia. It’s thanked at Boltwood (one of Chicago’s best new restaurants). The rib eye at Three Aces is not just a rib eye; it’s a “Slagel Farms 12oz Ribeye.” The Publican, arguably the meatiest spot in this most meaty of food cities, has made Slagel its go-to supplier, as has its sister café, Publican Quality Meats. In all, you can find Slagel pork, beef, and chicken on the plates of about 100 area restaurants—a group that includes corner bars such as Tuman’s Tap & Grill and culinary royalty such as Avec and Longman & Eagle.
It would be easy to write off this tiny family operation as just another beneficiary of the farm-to-table movement. After all, Slagel’s animals are raised, as they have been for much of the farm’s 127-year history, in a certain way: None are artificially inseminated or treated with hormones, they all live cage-free and get to roam, and they consume a varied diet, not just factory feed. These days, having a relationship with a farm that treats its animals with such care is practically mandatory for a particular set of restaurants. “If you want to rise to a certain level, if you want those three or four stars, you have to use the markets and the farms now,” says Boltwood’s chef, Brian Huston, who has leaned on Slagel as a supplier since the restaurant opened last summer.
But what makes the rise of Slagel Family Farm particularly remarkable is that not all that long ago, no one had heard of it. Before 2007, it was selling its hogs, which now net up to $300 apiece, for half that to conglomerate meat suppliers such as Tyson and Cargill. The animals were hacked up and stocked in countless grocery stores without a single nod to their carefully considered origins. And that’s how things were always going to be. Until, that is, LouisJohn Slagel took control of his family’s farm, and the mild-mannered kid built a mini-empire.
Slagel Family Farm is really three separate sites, each just a few miles from where LouisJohn’s great-great-grandfather Sam, a German immigrant, started a hog farm in 1888. One site mostly produces the grains and other crops that the animals consume (LouisJohn’s father, Dennis, and uncle Bob manage that end of things), and that’s where LouisJohn grew up, the fourth of 13 kids.
Five miles away is the farmstead he now runs and lives on with his wife, Leslie, and their two sons, three-year-old Branson and 11-month-old Colton. The property has two barns: One has been converted into an event space for dinners and weddings; the other is home to cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, goats, turkeys, several cats, a lumbering black Lab named Diesel who jumps on anyone and anything, a donkey, and an alpaca to scare off the ever-present coyotes. (“The alpaca’s name is Alfie,” says LouisJohn. “I don’t know the donkey’s name.”) About 15 miles from that is a chicken farm that LouisJohn oversees but is worked primarily by one of his younger brothers. Compared with that of most livestock farms, Slagel’s output is miniscule: A big commercial hog farm might tend to thousands of sows; Slagel has about a hundred.
LouisJohn wanted to be a farmer from the time he was five and first got behind the wheel of a piece of machinery, a loader that his mom let him drive to move a rock in the middle of a field. “There wasn’t anyone around, and I drove it pretty slow,” he explains. While his two older brothers were heading into the construction business, LouisJohn got serious about Future Farmers of America. His high school team won best in the state in the meat science competition—identifying and grading cuts of pork and beef—and placed second nationally.
He enrolled in the agriculture program at Joliet Junior College, where, during a discussion with a professor after class, he boasted that his family was raising prime beef cattle. The professor rolled his eyes, so Slagel brought in some samples to prove it. The impressed instructor suggested that the family’s meat could be sold to higher-end customers.
Accomplishing this became the subject of Slagel’s final project for a marketing class. His idea involved selling the meat through his childhood grocery, Dave’s Supermarket in Fairbury. Once out of college, he would put his plan to the test.
But first he had to take more of a leadership role at the farm. To do that, his father had long told him, LouisJohn would have to invest a chunk of his own money. So he plunked down $70,000 that he’d saved up from years of construction work, supplemented by a small loan from a local bank, to get a 50 percent share of the family’s pig operations (his father and a younger brother now own the remaining shares) and complete ownership of its cows.
Next, he had a college friend draw a logo (the same one used today—a quaint barn with a silo and windmill and the motto “The Natural Choice in Quality Meats”) and then convinced Dave’s to stock a small supply of the family’s goods.
They sold terribly. “Most people here either eat their own stuff or already know a farmer,” Slagel explains.
So in 2007, with plummeting pork prices putting a strain on the family business’s finances, Slagel was faced with two options. He could sell the farm to one of the big farming conglomerates, essentially turning it into a subsidiary. But that would mean playing by their rules: confinement to squeeze in more animals, hormones to fatten them up as quickly as possible. The family would have to give up the heritage breeds and practices that had been passed down for generations.
That left him with the other option: marketing to high-end customers directly—in particular, restaurants that were embracing the farm-to-table movement and willing to pay a premium for high-grade meat. “I realized if I was going to try to make money and support the farm through this, I needed a bigger customer base,” he says.
Slagel knew of other small farms that were successfully selling to Chicago-area restaurants—Gunthorp Farms for pork, Kilgus Farmstead for dairy. He called a couple of nearby ones to see if he could work out a deal to sell in tandem, but nobody was interested. So he decided to contact restaurants on his own. He grabbed a copy of Chicago magazine, turned to the dining listings, and started cold-calling any place whose write-up mentioned “local” or “sustainable.” Almost everyone turned him down.
Except Paul Kahan. On the verge of opening the Publican, the James Beard Award–winning chef told Slagel to come up to Chicago with some samples. If he liked the meat, he’d buy it on the spot. “I was fairly confident,” Slagel says. “I knew we had a good product.” He was more nervous that a bigtime chef would balk at ordering directly from a farmer who couldn’t offer unlimited quantities of meat on demand the way a corporate supplier could.
Slagel drove by himself to Chicago—a city he’d spent little time in other than for the occasional night out—carrying a load of steaks and pork. He got lost looking for Kahan’s restaurant Blackbird, circling around before finally stumbling on the alley alongside it.
There, Slagel met with Kahan and Brian Huston, who was then at Avec and would soon become the founding chef at the Publican (and, later, his own Boltwood). Huston wasn’t sure what to make of the then-22-year-old. “My first thought was, Who is this guy?” Huston recalls. “I’ve also had teenage kids from Indiana want to sell me rabbits, and, well, that doesn’t always work out. But he backed it up.”
At the time, the chefs were desperately in need of a supplier for one of the Publican’s signature dishes: a simple roasted half chicken. They knew from the start that it would be a staple, but none of the birds they’d tried had met their standards. Then Huston tasted Slagel’s. “It kind of knocked me out,” he says. “You’ve had a thousand chickens in your life, but then you have Louis’s and you can’t go back. That chicken dish is as much him as it is the marinade.”
Not long after Huston and Kahan signed on, other chefs started coming around. Paul Virant of Perennial Virant and Vie and Dean Zanella, then at Custom House Tavern, were early customers. Jason Hammel of Lula Cafe recalls being struck by Slagel’s soft sell when they met. Slagel knew that the restaurant already had a stable of meat suppliers. “He kept saying he didn’t want to tread on anyone, but if I was ever interested, to let him know,” Hammel says. Slagel continued to call on him from time to time, leaving Hammel with samples, including a cheddar bratwurst. “I would never serve that, because it’s just not what we do,” Hammel says. “But I remember eating it, and it was good.” Now Slagel supplies chicken, pork, and assorted animal parts to not only Lula but also Hammel’s other restaurant, Nightwood, in Pilsen.
Chefs who’d seen and tasted his products elsewhere began phoning. Soon five customers became 10, then 20. He had to add a second delivery truck, driven by his sister Shanna, then eventually a third.
The rapid expansion hasn’t been without hiccups. For instance, on his first day out, one of Slagel’s new delivery drivers, his 19-year-old brother, Logan, backed into a garage door beneath the John Hancock Center after dropping off an order at the Signature Room, doing $8,000 worth of damage. Oops. “That’s what insurance is for, I guess,” says Slagel.
But there haven’t been any major spats, Slagel says—rare for a business run by relatives. It helps that Slagel and most of his family members are pretty even-keeled. It also helps that the farm has been profitable since LouisJohn took charge.
Each week follows a set rhythm. Sunday nights, the orders come in. Some restaurants keep consistent from week to week—Three Aces always wants a side of beef—but others have until first thing Monday to switch it up.
At 7 a.m. on Monday, the butchering begins. It’s unusual for a farm, particularly one this small, to maintain its own processing facility (the meat industry’s gentle euphemism for a slaughterhouse). It’s labor-intensive and requires near-constant supervision from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But,” Slagel says, “if I let someone else do it, I wouldn’t be able to take such exact orders from the chefs and get them things the way they like them.” That’s how he can provide Fat Rice a pork chop cut razor-thin or Publican Quality Meats a side of beef with wagyu-level marbling.
The farm started doing its own processing in 2008, when Slagel, having heard that a butcher in the neighboring town of Forrest was looking to retire, bought the facility. At first, he did the cutting himself, along with his wife and a handful of employees; eventually, he enlisted his uncle, veteran butcher Morris Kaeb, to run the operation. “When I first got there, he was handling the meat too much,” Kaeb says of his nephew. “I taught them how to do it easier.” Now the butchering arm has 15 employees prepping cows, pigs, rabbits, lambs, goats, and, as of January, chickens.
The beef has to dry-age for a few weeks before it’s ready to go out, so the cows get slaughtered first on Mondays. (Slagel tries to keep the time between when an animal is alive on the farm and when it’s sitting in a restaurant’s cooler as short as possible.) Hogs are slaughtered on Mondays, too, chilled overnight, and prepped on Tuesdays. Lambs, chickens, and goats are butchered on Tuesdays for Wednesday deliveries.
Slagel has found ways to keep his processing team busy during the rest of the week. On Thursdays and Fridays, they cut meat for nearby farmers, and Slagel is toying with producing a high-end pet food line using old breeding stock.
On processing days, Slagel is a regular presence on the butchering floor, and employees will flag him down with questions as the meat gets packed into boxes and weighed. When one asks, “Do you have any idea how many pounds West Loop Salumi wants of—” Slagel cuts her off without even checking an order sheet: “They want a hundred pounds.”
If an extra box of, say, pork loins turns up, Slagel will go through his list of clients and try to figure out who’s most likely to want them, a practice the chefs adore.
“You’ll get a text that just says, ‘Any interest in a quarter of veal?’ ” Hammel says. “And he knows you. He knows you’d probably be interested. It’s a more spontaneous way to make menus.”
Slagel’s phone is constantly ringing, and he’s forever excusing himself to take a call from a customer on his Bluetooth. His voice remains measured, just loud enough to be heard over the buzzing meat saws.
About the only time he ever gets agitated is when he starts in on what he considers empty or diluted marketing buzzwords, like “grass-fed beef” (“If you’ve had grass-fed beef and liked it, you were probably being lied to,” he’s fond of saying, arguing that cows were meant to eat a mixture of grass and grain and taste better if they do) and “Angus beef” (“They’ve changed the rules, and you can really count any cow that’s mostly black as Angus”). He despises factory chicken farms (“They’re all just shoved in cages”). And he wants PETA to put its muscle behind supporting farms that raise their livestock with care (“People aren’t going to stop eating meat”).
He knows, though, that not everybody can afford the kind of meat his family produces. “I’m not out to overhaul the system. And when I want to eat at Subway, I don’t feel bad about it. We’re just here to fill a niche.”
Slagel’s delivery days in Chicago are usually 13-hour affairs—two-hour drives up and back bookending nine hours of winding through narrow alleys. In addition to three sets of deliveries on Wednesdays, there’s a fourth in the suburbs on Thursdays.
On this particular Wednesday, the last stop is White Oak Tavern & Inn, only a couple of weeks old but busy, even on a weeknight. Slagel is making good time—it’s just after 8:30.
He stops the truck in the middle of Ashland Avenue, flashers on and the back doors open so he can unload. Cars navigate around him in the dark. He carries boxes of eggs across the slick sidewalk, speeding down a flight of stairs to the kitchen.
The truck is now empty except for a last box of eggs. Slagel always brings a little something extra, just to see if he can make an additional sale. As one of the chefs signs the invoice, Slagel gives his pitch: “Do you have any interest in another box of eggs? It’s the only thing left on the truck.”
Silence. The chef looks at his order form, does some mental math. “Eh, fuck it. We’ll fucking take ’em,” he finally says.
Slagel smiles and nods. He runs out to his truck and returns moments later with the box. Then he makes his way up to the dining room for a quick chat with executive chef John Asbaty. White Oak is planning a Slagel-themed dinner, and he wants to make sure everything is on track and that Asbaty’s customers are interested. (It is, and they are.)
After saying goodbye, Slagel hops back into the truck. An off-brand berry-flavored energy drink sits, unopened, on the dashboard. Slagel won’t get home until after 11, and he has to be up before 6 to do some last-minute slaughtering for tomorrow’s suburban orders. But he isn’t thinking about that right now. Mostly, he’s just happy to be done on the early side. For the last time tonight, he starts up the truck.