By Grace Singleton, managing partner, Zingerman’s Delicatessen
Zingerman’s Delicatessen is proud of our partnership with Ferndale Market, a third-generation family farm in Minnesota. Ferndale Markets allows the birds to be free-range when Minnesota’s weather allows: April through November.
We’re sure you’ll enjoy the improved flavor of our roast turkey, especially in the Deli’s second-largest seller: the #18 Georgia Reuben! This longtime favorite is a grilled turkey Reuben loaded with coleslaw, real Swiss Emmenthal, our housemade Russian dressing, and served on hand-sliced, double-baked Bakehouse rye bread.
While it’s not quite as popular as our corned beef Reuben, our turkey Reuben sales still translate to an amazing amount of roast turkey every year: 30,000 pounds! There are lots of other ways to enjoy this delicious roast turkey – for example, the #73 Tarb’s Tenacious Tenure, sliced from our Deli Counter and on our Catering deli trays.
The Quest for Better Turkey
Zingerman’s is always working to improve the quality of our ingredients. When I first started at the Deli, we were buying our turkey from a major supplier in the industry. While the turkey was pretty good, my business partner Rick Strutz was sure there was something better available. We started asking for samples of roast turkey from as many suppliers offering whole roasted turkey breast as we could find. We tasted many samples, but we weren’t finding anything that was consistently better than what we were already using.
I think I may have given up on finding a better turkey, but Rick didn’t. He started talking to our supplier, Grobbel (previously UMD United Meat and Deli), about the possibility of making a roast turkey we could use. We were already familiar with the care they put into producing exceptional products – we’ve been buying our corned beef from them since the day the Deli opened.
Here’s an example of their attention to detail: the original owner of the company, Sy Ginsburg, made sure to spend time at the Deli with Ari & Paul when they first opened to teach them, as Sy puts it, “how to make a good sandwich!” Sy taught Ari & Paul how to cook, trim, and slice corned beef, and would even drop off our early orders himself, since UMD didn’t distribute to Ann Arbor yet. Sy would load the cases of corned beef into his station wagon, and time his deliveries during lunch so he could help Ari & Paul work the line, and help Zingerman’s put out an exceptional product.
When we asked Sy and his business partner, Scott, about making roast turkey, they weren’t just open to it, they helped us figure out how to do it. Adding a new product isn’t an easy thing for a facility to handle, especially when its not already set up to handle turkey, so they had to reach out to some friends in the industry and see what was possible. At first, they had to add shifts for production on Saturdays and Sundays, days they were normally closed, since turkey couldn’t be produced in a USDA plant at the same time as corned beef. It took a couple of years, but when all was said and done, we had a much better tasting turkey breast than we had before. We also had a chance to deepen a relationship with an already close supplier, and to help them add a new product to sell to their other accounts.
Continuous Improvement: Turkey Edition
Like any other product we sell at Zingerman’s, we are always looking for ways to improve flavor and quality.
Grobbel had been sourcing birds with no added hormones or antibiotics, but ultimately, the birds were still sold on the commodity market. While there were standards set for how the birds are raised and processed, they come from different farms across the US. This is a typical model, and an economical approach to providing a consistent, high volume product, but I was interested to see if there was a chance to work one-on-one with a farmer, to improve the quality of the birds, and to forge a stronger one-on-one relationship with a supplier of one of our year’s largest volume purchases.
In November of 2017, I had the opportunity to tour Ferndale Market, John Peterson’s third generation, broad-breasted white turkey farm in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Ferndale Market is a unique farm, letting the birds outside to be free-range as long as the weather was not too severe. In general, the farm lets the poults (baby birds) out in the spring to be free-range until Thanksgiving. When the birds are outside, they have unlimited access to 20 acres of pasture, which gives them exercise and access to insects and grass to eat, which diversifies their diet. These wandering birds are strong and healthy and are a fed custom diet free from growth promoters. Instead of using commodity feed, Ferndale Market works with a nutritionist and a veterinarian to take a proactive approach to the birds’ health using probiotics, prebiotics, and herbs and herbal supplements. Herbal supplements like yuca and oregano boost the immunity of the animals and allow Ferndale Market to be fully antibiotic-free.
To maintain the health of the pasture, the birds are moved to different sections of pasture every week through a movable support system featuring portable shelters, feeders, and drinkers. By moving these support systems as they roam, the pasture has time to regenerate after being fertilized by the birds. Thanks to the natural fertilization from the birds, Ferndale Market has eliminated the need for chemical fertilizers and manure management.
I was impressed with the farm’s practices and thought there might be a way we could work together.
You Really Can Taste the Difference
At Zingerman’s, we always rely on taste to make decisions about the food we buy. I was hopeful that by working with a single farm we could form a long-term relationship with a producer, improve the flavor of the turkey we sell, and make a positive economic impact for an independent farmer by providing a consistent demand. But first, we needed to do some taste tests.
We started with a small batch test. Scott at Grobbel helped organize his production team to make just 10 cases for us, and John of Ferndale Market worked on supplying the birds. The first test was very promising. The consistency of the texture and the overall quality levels were equal to what we were already serving, and the flavor was better! Once the small-batch test was complete, we wanted to test out a full batch, sourcing a full combo bin of turkey breasts to process (2,000 pounds). This would allow everyone involved (Zingerman’s Deli, Grobbel, and Ferndale Market) to test all aspects of the potential change in supply. For example, what shipping routes and rates are available from Minnesota to Michigan? When should the shipment land to coordinate with the processing? How are the birds packaged prior to shipping? We would also be able to see if there were any yield issues with these birds when we compared a full batch yield to what we were currently using, and working through a whole pallet of roasted turkey at Zingerman’s Deli (about 10-12 days of usage) would let us see if there were any variations in the consistency of the product and if we had any quality or yield issues when we sliced the turkey for use on our sandwiches. We did a few more taste tests, and the results were consistently better tasting than our existing supplier.
After almost 2 years of work, discussion, and product testing, starting in October of 2019 all of our turkey is sourced from a single-family farm: Ferndale Market. The new turkey exceeds our previous turkey specs and we can now say it’s fully antibiotic-free, and seasonally free-range, still with no-added-growth hormones, and now we also have a direct connection to the farmer and the family raising the birds. The birds are free-range 8 months of the year, and when they are indoors they are in a spacious cage-free setting with plenty of room to roam about.
The Importance of Relationships in Business
One of the things I am most proud of about how Zingerman’s does business is the relationships we have with our producers and vendors. We partner with people and try to find ways that we can all be successful by working together and communicating openly.
When you’re talking about sourcing and processing 30,000 pounds of turkey breasts every year, it’s really amazing to have the ability as the end-user to talk to the producer, and to the processor, and to work on the details in tandem. Typically when you source products on that scale, the industry isn’t set up for open communication and discussion, and it can often feel like there isn’t any desire to hear feedback on the product.
The reality is, this approach to growing and caring for turkeys takes more time and costs more. Ferndale Market recoups the higher costs of their approach by finding specific buyers like Zingerman’s Deli. When independent farmers have the ability to stay independent and sell directly to others at a fair price, they’re able to produce a higher quality product, sustain their families, and have a sustainable approach to land management as well. If John wasn’t independent, he wouldn’t be able to raise the birds how his grandfather did.
In addition to having access to an intentionally-raised product, these close relationships to our vendors help us learn about the history and the people behind these artisan labors of love.
Recently, John told me a little bit about his grandfather who started the farm. John’s grandfather passed away 30 years ago and John knows he’d be proud of what they’re doing on the farm, but he thinks he’d also say, “What’s the big deal, this is the way we’ve always farmed.”
Zingerman’s Delicatessen is happy to be a small part of Ferndale Market’s legacy and to support its thoughtful approach to raising quality turkey.