Beef is still the king at Kissin Fresh Meats in Fishtown

Stephen Verica (right) talks with son Chris and butcher Billy Middleton at Kissin Fresh Meats in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.
Stephen Verica (right) talks with son Chris and butcher Billy Middleton at Kissin Fresh Meats in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 30, 2012

Asked about the latest study from the public health experts at Harvard who say eating red meat regularly probably trims a half-dozen years off your life expectancy, Stephen Verica sniffs dismissively.

"Basically," he says, "whoever has the research grant has to earn his money."

Verica, owner of Kissin Fresh Meats, is an unapologetic, unabashed, unreformed carnivore. "I eat beef or veal and pasta seven days a week," he says. "It's the way I was raised."

Let the experts carp about the dangers of heme iron intake and the increased risk of diabetes, heart attacks, and cancer. Verica stoutly defends the virtues of a juicy New York strip, a succulent prime rib, and a good old American burger hot off the grill. And he has staked his family business on the belief that even in a world of encroaching vegetarianism, a healthy market still exists for fine meat.

In the 50 years since Verica started his company (located, ironically, in Fishtown), he has watched as hundreds of his competitors gave up and closed down. "From Shackamaxon to Market on both sides of the street, Callowhill to 11th, it was all filled with places like this," he said, giving a tour of his wholesale meatpacking operation recently. "Now, we're it."

The dozen full- and part-time employees spend their days in the Siberian winter chill of harshly lit rooms where hundreds of beef, lamb, and pig parts hang from silvery hooks on tracks along the ceiling. Verica, weighing in at 280 pounds, dons a blood-spattered white cotton coat and saunters along the first row past whole sides of cattle. He understands the anatomy and economics of every piece, the cauliflowered waxy fat that coats slabs of red striated muscle, the bands of curved bone and strings of tendon.

Behind him, a butcher wearing a white gauzy head net takes a knife to a dangling hind quarter, slicing meat from the thick leg bone.

"It's brute work, cutting these up," says Stephen McDonnell, who operates a boutique prime meat operation out of the same space. "A lot of kids didn't want to do this work, so it died with Grandpop's generation."

Like Verica, McDonnell, who is also a large man and who recently had a hip replaced, says he has remained loyal to his trade out of tradition, habit, and love.

"It's what I know," McDonnell says. "It's what I was raised doing."

They have had to accommodate changing tastes, and those changes have been accelerating rapidly. Special orders for grass-fed beef and lamb from organic farms in the United States and from Australia and New Zealand have gone up about 25 percent over the last few years, McDonnell says.

"If you want to stay skinny minnie, not like me, then you eat the lean stuff," he says. "But I still think American beef with marbleization like this has better flavor."

Cooking shows on television have also influenced consumers, increasing the public appetite for brisket and oxtail, says Verica.

But nothing is going to bring back the golden age of meat. "In our heyday, we would get 12 cars of meat every week. Now, we do two." The cars, he explains, used to be railroad cars, but now they are truckloads, arriving from major suppliers in the Midwest.

Guy Giordano, CEO and president of Vincent Giordano Corp., a manufacturer of deli meats, will occasionally order special cuts from Kissin. "They're definitely the last of the Mohicans," says Giordano, who has been in business for 43 years.

The death knell for local meatpackers like Kissin, he says, was the introduction of "cryo-vacuum beef."

"Years back, they'd ship the whole carcasses in from Chicago, Nebraska, and Iowa . . . but the big packers like Tyson and JBS and Cargill realized it's cheaper to ship meat than bones and hide, so why not break the animals down and ship box beef?"

Kissin has survived as a specialty supplier, Giordano says. "He's got a nice niche."

When Verica's family was young, he used to take everyone out for prime rib on Wednesdays. As adults, two of his children still eat meat (and one has joined in running the company) but one has been lost to vegetarianism.

Verica believes his business will survive for at least another generation, if not longer.

"I can remember him telling me 20 years ago that this industry was dying," says Chris Colando, one of Verica's two sons-in-law, who also work for Kissin. "But we're holding on. We've adapted."

Until a few years ago, the company would not accept orders for less than $500 or 500 pounds worth of meat.

"Now, to be more competitive, we have to be more willing to do what the customer wants," says Colando.

As long as what the customer wants used to walk on four hooves.


Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590, mdribben@phillynews.com, or follow @dribbenonphilly on Twitter.

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