Fraternity. Integrity. Community.
These three words serve as the motto for the Butchers Guild, an elite organization of meat professionals who adhere to a set of ethical and sustainable practices known as The Oath. This group includes butchers, chefs and meat curing masters from across the country, yet only a handful of guild members operate in the Midwest.
Luckily for central Iowa’s carnivorous citizens, the Story City Locker fully embodies its commitment to fraternity, integrity and community—in fact, these words are emblazoned in a Butchers Guild logo that overlooks the facility’s processing kitchen and retail space. However, for owners Ty and Bobbie Gustafson, these concepts are more than mere wall decorations. Visit the facility and you will find evidence of The Oath in all that Gustafsons offer, most especially in the sinuous, marbled slabs of meat that hang from the building’s intricate rail system.
A tour of the facility is obviously not for the faint of heart. But in many ways, this is the point. In an era of prepackaged convenience, Americans are more disconnected from their food than ever before. As a result, Story City Locker is a transparent business that merges old time sensibilities with a sustainable dedication to the future. This vision is built upon “respecting the whole animal,” a phrase that is repeated by the locker’s many employees in an attempt to attract customers of all ages.
“Meat processing is not very glamorous, so as a business, we have to think about how we will make this fun to appeal to the younger generation,” Bobbie said. “It already appeals to the older population—it’s traditional to go the meat butcher, so that’s an easy sell. But the new ideas for what we’re doing here can be offensive to the older generation who conceptualizes meat lockers in this way, and we’re totally not that.”
This modern approach to butchery originates from the Gustafsons’ love—and concern—for the outdoors. An Iowa native, Ty grew up on a family farm that shaped his conservation mindset, and he and Bobbie now live in a hand-built cabin on a 36-acre property that uses wind power and other green technologies. However, three years ago, after becoming increasingly discontent in the corporate world, the couple began looking for a new career that better matched their lifestyle.
During this transition, Ty served on the Iowa Food Systems Council and realized that no “meatheads” were a part of the group. Bobbie, who has a background in design and marketing, saw this as a viable professional opportunity and encouraged Ty to seek advice from family friends Dale and Shirley Haupert, operators of the Atlantic Locker in southwest Iowa. In doing so, it quickly became clear that the state’s declining number of processors simply could not keep up with the growing demand for sustainably sourced meat.
“Our passion really started because we wanted to live more local,” Bobbie said. “At the time, we were living very global. Ty was doing a lot of international travel with his work, and we were raising two teenage girls, so meat processing would give Ty the opportunity to simplify his life and be around the people he is most comfortable with.”
In addition to the Hauperts’ mentorship, Ty and Bobbie collaborated with Practical Farmers of Iowa to help build connections with small-scale meat producers across the state. After beginning construction in May 2013, customers, hunters and farmers flocked to Story City Locker When it opened that October. The business has thrived since, and the Gustafsons credit their success first and foremost to the animals themselves.
Ty describes his business as one that “follows the path of the meat.” at the facility, up to five animals stay overnight in holding pins that promote docile behaviors. Separation panels are painted a calming black, and the concrete floor is purposefully scratched, as slippery floors agitate animals that have only lived on pastured land. Ty refuses to use electric shockers, and all his practices follow Temple Grandin’s model for humane livestock treatment. Last summer, the business also received Animal Welfare Approved certification.
“We focus on meat quality,” Ty said. “That’s our biggest thing, and that starts with how the animal is treated when it’s alive. Adrenaline, agitation, all of that has an impact on quality, so we try to reduce that all together.”
In the morning, the animals are moved to the slaughter floor, where they are placed into a chute without head restraints. While most industrial processors electrocute pigs and slaughter cows with a bolt-capture gun, Ty does neither. Instead either he or his livestock handler, Rob Volpendesta, uses an old-fashioned .22 rifle that minimizes distress. The animal is then bled out and placed into a “cradle” so that Ty and Rob can remove the hide and innards.
Afterward the carcass is hooked into the overhead rail system, placed into a pre-chill cooler for 24 hours, and then moved into a holding cooler for two weeks of aging. On processing day, the animal is lowered onto a butcher table, unhooked from the rail system, and wheeled to the processing room, where head butcher Dave Nixt and his assistants separate the meat into different cuts using saws, grinders and packaging machines. The meat is then moved to the holding freezer, the ready-to-eat cooler or the sausage kitchen, which is more commonly referred to as “Brian’s Room.”
With a passion for charcuterie, house chef Brian Malone happily spends his days curing meats, slicing bacon and stuffing sausages. This is a welcome change for Brain, who has cooked throughout world, including countries such as New Zealand. With the birth of his son, however, Brian felt a desire to settle down, and the Story City Locker enabled him to make a living producing decadent pâtés.
“The most joyful thing about working here is that it’s not on a large scale,” Brian said. “It’s on a very small scale that accommodates people who love these kinds of treats, and for us, hogs are definitely where it’s at. All of the stuff we get here is free-range, so it’s a completely different texture and flavor. That’s been a big learning curve, as far as understanding fat ratios and water contents, because every animal, every species, every breed is going to be different, where if you work in a restaurant with boxed meat, it’s all pretty much consistent.”
After leaving Brian’s Room, meat is usually taken to the curing room or the smoker room, where a massive Enviro-Pak Microprocessor converts hickory sawdust into smoke that can reach up to 500 degrees. In addition to these high-tech toys, there are seven refrigerated rooms and one freezer at the facility, which makes for a steep electric bill. In fact, this financial burden is one of the main reasons that the Gustafsons’ business is the state’s first new meat locker to open in 12 years.
“With a lot of lockers, the buildings are 80 years old and they were grandfathered in, so they might only have one refrigerated room and one freezer,” Ty said. “When that facility goes to change hands, someone has to bring it up to code, which makes it very expensive. That’s why a lot of lockers have been closing, because they can’t afford to update their facility for current food safety standards, and they just end up selling their equipment and building for something else.”
Though processing is the majority of the locker’s business, a hospitable retail space also helps boost sales and community connections with its wide selection of local products such as honey, sea salts and cheese. On average, the retail cooler features meat from seven different producers, including Broadhorn Farm in Truro and Turkey Foot Farm in Tama. After partnering with Farm to Folk to offer a CSA last year, Story City Locker has evolved that idea into Share the Harvest meat boxes that include a variety of cuts from a single producer. For example, a box might include several pounds of chops, sausage, bacon and ground pork.
Tom Wilson, who recently began his first year of meat production at Remnant Hills Farm in Cambridge, is a Share the Harvest provider that sought out Story City Locker after receiving positive feedback from the facility’s other partners. The processor is a perfect match for Tom, as he and his girlfriend raise hens, sheep, goats and pigs on their 40-acre rental using a rotational-based pasture system and non-GMO feed.
“We believe the inputs that go into the animals will determine the quality of that meat later on, so we like to have the sheep on the pasture, the goats out there browsing the shrubbery, the pigs in the woods rooting around, the chickens chasing bugs and digging through the grass outside,” Tom said. “We believe everything should be done how it’s meant to be done, and we know there is a market out there for individuals who care what goes into their bodies. Story City is a key part in that.”
In addition to supporting local farmers, the business also has strong connections with local families. Bobbie recently began the year-long “Cooking and Eating the Whole Beast” initiative, in which she and four other home cooks will each prepare a whole hog, whole sheep, whole goat, and half beef for their families. All participants will write and provide recipes for the Story City Locker blog as way to both promote the business and local foods.
“We have such a mindset of ‘I want what I want when I want it,’ and people don’t really think about eating in a seasonal way anymore,” Bobbie said. “It’s so soulful and so awesome to eat foods and meats that are in season because when you run out and don’t have them anymore, you experience deprivation and then it tastes even better the next time.”
However, the Gustafsons commitment to others moves well beyond their local farming community. For instance, last year Story City Locker donated more than 800 pounds of venison to the Food Bank of Iowa as part of the Help Us Stop Hunger program. The business also collaborates with an Iowa State University outreach program that has hosted farmers from South Korea, Ukraine and Tanzania who want to acquire efficient and ethical butchering practices. Looking forward, the Gustafsons only hope to serve their local and global communities even more.
“We just want to be a sustainable business that inspires other people to do something similar,” Ty said. “If someone in the Newton area wanted to open a locker, we would gladly help them. Our vision would be to find other ways to supply retail outlets with these high-quality meat products that farmers are raising. There’s no reason every county in Iowa shouldn’t have its own locker—used to be every town had one!”
WHEN YOU GO:
Story City Locker
236 West Broad Street, Story City
Monday, Wednesday—Friday: 11-5:30