Rancho Llano Seco is a producer of premier sustainably-raised pigs in Northern California. They have been providing world famous restaurants like legendary Chez Panisse with some of the best tasting pork in the world for years. In addition to supplying chefs and butchers, the family-run company is now focusing on growing its processed food line and building on its existing relationships with high-end Northern Californian retailers like Nugget Market and Berkeley Bowl.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Charles Thieriot, sixth-generation Owner and Director of Branded Products, to learn more about Llano Seco Meats and the company’s products, practices, storied history, and new retail developments.
“We’re hopefully catching the beginning of an era of excitement around local and sustainably-sourced food,” Charles told me. He noted that, though some large food companies produce high-quality meat products, the consolidation of meat processing, ranching, and farming in this country has led to a homogenous food landscape and a lack of focus on the provenance of the ingredients. “My goal is to bring the consistency and curb appeal of big national and international brands to an environmentally responsible and humane local food economy while also creating the sense of place and terroir of the small town European butcher shop.”
Rancho Llano Seco traces its heritage back more than 150 years. In 1841, Charles explained, the land that would become the Rancho was granted to Sebastian Keyser, an Austrian trapper, by Pío Pico, the governor of what was then Alta California, Mexico. In 1850, California was incorporated into the United States. The Rancho was purchased by John Parrot, an ancestor of the Thieriot family, in 1861 as a real estate investment. Mr. Parrot spent little time on the ranch. His wife Abbey protected the property from being broken apart through the generations by wisely incorporating. This meant that shares could be gifted to future generations without having to break up the land.
In a fortunate twist of fate, the land was kept remarkably similar to its original condition. “My ancestors weren’t farmers and didn’t live on the property, so they never exploited the resource to the degree of most farmland in our country. But this wasn’t by design. It didn’t become intentional conservation until my father’s generation.”
Now, over 50 percent of the ranch is under conservation easements with The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and The Northern California Regional Land Trust.
After a disastrous storm damaged a large almond orchard, Charles’ father decided to shift focus and begin investing in operations with higher barriers to entry—higher risk, but also higher potential margins. These included walnuts, organic beef, and responsibly-raised pigs. Charles has taken that program a step farther with heirloom beans, ancient grains, organic row crops, and, now, naturally-processed pork products.
In 2009, Charles moved back to California to help with the hog department.
“Through no ones fault, production of the pigs wasn’t great, and the marketing and the sale of the pork needed attention,” Charles said. “That’s when I got involved. Our focus had been purely retail, but our original processed line wasn’t good enough to compete. The raw pork was as good as you can find, but a line of smoked meats was at the time something we weren’t mature enough to produce competitively. We refocused on the many talented chefs and small butchers that were and still are popping up around Northern California. For the first five or so years, it was all about growing the fresh meat business, and for the last couple we’ve refocused on the processed retail side.”
With a booming business—achieving the rare feat of turning a profit selling raw meat—Charles turned his attention to another challenge—developing a market for secondary cuts of premium-quality pork at retail.
“Even fancy hot dogs and fancy hams and fancy processed meats are usually coming from commodity pork—with the quality added in the processing phase. It was very hard to find anyone to buy our secondary cuts fresh and pay the right price for the way our pigs are humanely-raised. The truth is that a really good meat processor can make really mediocre meat taste really good with their art,” said Charles. “I have a lot of respect for meat processors—people who make salami, who make ham, but it is kind of an equalizer between us and companies that aren’t as interested in investing in our triple bottom line—the pigs, the environment, and the people involved—in making those as happy and healthy as possible.”
Llano Seco pigs are, Charles explained, insulated from the vicissitudes of weather, allowed to root and socialize freely, encouraged to feed on a specially-grown, high-quality diet, and finally slaughtered at an older age—allowing the meat to develop and mature naturally into an exceptionally flavorful pork.
With a snack stick, a ham steak, and new varieties of cooked sausages, raw sausages, pre-spiced taco meat, and salamis coming to market soon, Charles told me, “The future is looking bright for Llano Seco.”
“I’m really excited about these salamis that we’re launching,” he said. “We’ve developed a theme for the line of salamis we have coming out that is very grounded in place and history. The flavors are going to be inspired by the communities that came together to make Northern California what it is—flavors that are not necessarily traditional European salami flavors.”
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