‘Buonissimo!’

by Bryan Salvage
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Herb and Kathy Eckhouse, founders of La Quercia
Herb and Kathy Eckhouse's La Quercia is part of a growing segment of the meat industry focused on high-end, Italian-inspired, meats that get better with age. (photo by Adam Albright)

Husband-and-wife team Herb and Kathy Eckhouse began producing prosciutto in their basement near Des Moines, Iowa, in 2002 and three years later they opened their La Quercia (pronounced: “La Kwair-cha”) Italian-American dry-cured meats production facility in Norwalk, Iowa. Producing such specialty products in the United States is a risky proposition. During their start-up, the Eckhouses wondered if people would buy prosciutto from a guy named Herb who lives in Iowa. “We thought, ‘Let’s give it a try and see how people respond’ – and they responded well,” Herb says.

How their business began and evolved is an interesting tale. During the second half of the 1980s, the Eckhouses, who previously had zero meat experience, lived for three-and-a-half years in Parma, Italy – the birthplace of Italian prosciutto. While there, they experienced how carefully processing fine ingredients and expert hand-craftsmanship resulted in extraordinary regional cuisine.

La Quercia began business in 2000 as a Prime-quality Italian prosciutto importer. This growing company has since ceased importing and evolved into a processor of approximately 40 premium-quality, American, artisan, cured and dried, whole and sliced-meat products, including variations of its No. 1 seller prosciutto in addition to pancetta, bacon, coppa, speck, lomo, guanciale, lardo and more.

Their importing experience allowed the Eckhouses to develop the invoicing/collections/customer-relationship side of the business – and the couple also learned what people liked and didn’t like about what is now their major competitor – imported prosciutto.

“When we returned to the US, we kept thinking of making good food from the bounty of Iowa,” Kathy says. “Using pork and making prosciutto just seemed to make sense, so that eventually became our goal.”

“We didn’t have this idea until after we returned to the US,” Herb adds. “In Italy, we experienced how ‘good food’ tastes. Once we returned, we began importing prosciutto, but we also started making it at home – and it turned out really well.”

During that time, the Eckhouses used a refrigerator in their garage and chose to make only those products they thought would work best for them. “We kept rigid records of what we were doing – weighing meat, measuring salt, assessing things as we went along – especially since producing prosciutto takes so long,” explains Kathy about the process, which now takes their plant from nine months to two to three years to complete, depending on the product.

Kathy Eckhouse visits a pig farm. Site visits are routine.
The Eckhouses also routinely visit hog farms and customers to maintain open communication.

“Next, we tried to codify that experience and develop specific recipes,” Herb says. This required receiving help from an Italian technology consultant who had been making the type of prosciutto they liked (dryer, more tender) for years. He also helped them transition production from their basement to La Quercia’s current production facility.

The Eckhouses also conducted their own taste tests. “One of the hardest things about making food is knowing when it tastes good,” Herb admits. “Our goal was – and remains – not to create an Italian great-grandfather’s recipe or the same product that comes from some little village in Italy...it’s to make something we think is really good to eat. We want to honor the meat, we don’t want it to be overbearing in flavor. In Italy, traditional Italian cuisine is very ingredient-focused. We use very high-quality ingredients.”

Some companies make different products, but many taste the same, Herb says. “One of our goals is to make each product be a distinct eating experience,” he adds.

From the start, the Eckhouses worked primarily with small, sustainable hog farms and slaughter houses located within 200 miles of La Quercia’s corporate/production complex near Des Moines. Pork is not purchased from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations hogs or from animals fed non-therapeutic antibiotics, onophores, hormones, synthetic hormones or animal byproducts. No nitrates or nitrites are used and ingredients contain no known allergens, including gluten. Organic spices are used when possible, and pure sea salt from the US is a mainstay. As a result, La Quercia has a very limited pool from which to buy its pork – only .5 percent of the entire US pork supply.

Herb is responsible for operations, supplier relationships, sales and marketing. Kathy also works in sales and marketing and she is the guardian of La Quercia’s standards as chief culinary officer. “We’re both involved in product development; we decide what tastes good,” Herb says.

The Eckhouses also routinely visit hog farms and customers to keep the lines of communication open. “Everybody throughout the chain – the farmer, slaughterer, processor, store, restaurant and the consumer – needs to prosper to have a sustainable program,” Kathy says.

Taste is everything!

All La Quercia products are dry-cured and are intended to be eaten without cooking. “We have a range of offerings [varietals and cuts] to accommodate our wide range of customers,” Herb says.

La Quercia brand prosciutto
La Quercia's prosciutto remains a top-seller for the company. (Photo by Adam Albright)

La Quercia introduced the US to its first Prosciutto Varietals – dry, cured ham made from specific sources with specific breeding and husbandry specifications. Its products are sold at high-end supermarkets throughout the US, including Whole Foods, and at some of the best-known specialty stores and high-end restaurants in the country. Product is also sold on the websites of several customers – and in Canada. “Our [retail and foodservice] customers really care about the quality of meat, where the animals come from and how they’re raised – and they want to enjoy a good eating experience every time,” Herb says.

Trends driving La Quercia’s business include the continuing growth and popularity of upscale, Italian-style deli meat; the increasing demand for more hand-made American food products; the continuing growth of natural products; and increasing disposable income among US consumers.

La Quercia’s newest product is Salami Americano, a 2 ¼-inch-diameter salami. “We use all the parts of the pig and trim to make various salamis,” Kathy says.

Using co-packers is not an option. “I’m in favor of developing the American, premium-quality, cured-meats industry, but you can’t pay attention to all the details when you co-pack,” Herb says.

Versatile and talented

Attached to the company‘s recently remodeled and expanded corporate office is a versatile, 10-year-old, 30,000-sq.-ft. production plant. Thirty-nine people staff the plant, which operates one production shift and one sanitation shift per day, five days per week. At present, the company buys approximately 3 million lbs. of pork annually to produce its growing range and number of products.

Herb and Kathy work on the production floor about nine hours per week handling different jobs. “Working in production shows our employees how seriously we take production and how important it is working with them on shifts,” Kathy says.

Sustainability is key to continuing success. La Quercia’s production facility, which opened in February 2005, was built with energy efficient materials and it even uses an environmentally friendly refrigerant. New curing space added in 2009 incorporates high-density, non-ozone depleting polyurethane foam; Freon R404A; heat recovery from the refrigeration compressors provide most of the heating; and computer-optimized compressors minimize horsepower on-line. High-efficiency fluorescent lighting was installed and on-demand hot-water heaters reduce electricity and gas use.

Hams in LaQuercia's curing room
Fresh hams are trimmed to specifications, salted, rested and salted again. The high-end Acorn Prosciutto aging cycle is two to three years.

Smoking is the only process not done at the plant; a local smokehouse naturally wood-smokes their meats. “We considered installing a smoker,” Kathy says, “but the strong, pervasive, smoky odor would permeate everything.”

Flexible is the word that best describes the production plant. “Lines and operations [much of the equipment is portable and not fixed] differ on any given day,” says Sebastian Beumer, plant manager. “We have a salami line operating today.

“Everything started with a table top,” Beumer adds. “We’re now looking to conveyors and auto lifters to bring products to our people. We strive to make everything more ergonomic for our workers. We’re also taking LEAN systems. We’re working to reduce wasted motions in processes. We’re working to streamline everything possible to get the most from our people through good organization.”

Hand-craftsmanship trumps automated equipment at La Quercia’s production facility. “Our machinery aids production, but our most important machines are our people,” Beumer says. “Most automated equipment comes in at the end of a process after the product is finished.”

Sometimes there are exceptions. Last July, its slicing line was upgraded with a new slicer and rollstock machine. But at the end of this line, final packed product travels via a conveyor through a wall opening into the newly designed and assembled final-pack area – which represents the biggest plant upgrade in recent years.

“Product comes here from the slicing room, we immediately sleeve it, it passes through a gluer, goes through a stack conveyor that will count out bundles for us, and then travels over to the casing machine. It’s all linear – there are no back-ups or bins of meat hanging around,” Beumer says. “We spent more than a year choosing different brands of equipment for that system and it’s paying off tremendously.

A leg of acorn prosciutto is sliced
The most important machines are La Quercia's people. (photo by Tala Drzewiecki

“It has been our experience, since our products from start to finish are so unique, that no one supplier is able to supply us with an entire line of [same-brand] equipment,” he adds. “We had to find each individual piece that works best for our needs.”

Beumer says they could have acquired an auto linker or robots to lift and hang their sausages, but they prefer doing this by hand. “Being heavily automated is not our style. We like the intimacy of handling meat start-to-finish with minimal machine aides,” he adds.

Plant workers perform different jobs throughout the week. “They’re multi-purpose personnel,” Beumer says. “During the week, one worker could bone-out meat, final-trim products, salt products, do something unrelated to prosciutto production and trim secondary items, such as pancetta. We move our people around so they are versatile and won’t get worn out doing the same task over and over again. The more they know, the more valuable they are to us.”

Prosciutto remains La Quercia’s best-selling product and producing it is a work of art. Beumer explains after fresh hams arrive at the plant, they’re trimmed down to specifications, salted, rested and salted again. ”Then we hang the hams,” he adds. “They continue to rest and are moved into several different rooms with different humidity settings as time passes. The aging cycle on prosciutto is nine months. “The cycle time for our [high-end] Acorn Prosciutto is from two to three years.”

Several types of casings are utilized: small salami uses natural hog casings while pancetta currently uses collagen casings, Beumer says. “On the finished side, we use plastic casings on some products. And our larger hotel/restaurant products use fibrous casings,” he adds.

Packaging includes vacuum bags for most products; a rollstock machine is employed for sliced-product packaging; modified- atmosphere packaging and vacuum packaging is used for pre-sliced; and all whole pieces are vacuum packaged.

LaQuercia's mascots, Coco Chanel and Molly
Coco Chanel and Molly are La Quercia's front-office mascots. The dogs are paid in treats stashed behind the service counter.

La Quercia’s sliced-meat packaging reduces waste because it uses lighter plastic films to avoid putting more plastic in landfills; recyclable paper sleeves over its pre-sliced packs instead of a heavy plastic tray; biodegradable, compostable interleaving; bags made with recycled material; and unbleached boxes with a minimum of 90-percent recycled content. Boxes are pre-printed or stamped to eliminate unnecessary stickers.

What’s next?

Looking ahead, the Eckhouses plan to be working on continuous improvement, further differentiating their meat supply, increasing distribution of their products in North America and developing more new products while making the best use of their growing production complex. “Right now, we’re optimizing the space we have,” Herb says. “But we have room to add on.”

Although La Quercia products cost more than traditional American-made meat products, an increasing number of customers are demanding better quality and flavor as well as more natural products. Are people willing to pay for this? Herb replies, “We wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.”

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