“If we hadn’t met and began working together, I probably wouldn’t be in the meat business today.” With these words, fifth-generation meat man Bill Ruppersberger accurately sums up the story of how Baltimore’s Old Line Custom Meat Co. was established and reinvented with a sharp new cutting edge in product and in marketing.
His family’s company, Geo. G. Ruppersberger & Sons Inc., was established in 1866 as a veal and lamb slaughterer serving small, corner grocery stores in Baltimore City like many other city packing plants at the time. Later, beef was added with the slaughter being done at a communal plant (Baltimore Butchers Association) and the carcasses taken back to the plant and distributed. “It wasn’t until the late 1930s that we took on the beef slaughter activity ourselves and continued selling hanging beef, veal and lamb to small grocers and butcher shops. Our niche at the time, as was typical of many small slaughter plants of this period, was having a kosher kill. A rabbi has been on staff, to my knowledge, at least from the 1920s.
“Unfortunately, our company started seeing a great decline in the number of small butcher shops and independent grocers in the ’70s which was our client base. Glatt kosher became more prevalent which lowered our kosher percentages resulting in less kosher meat to sell. In addition, boxed beef appeared on the market, forcing us to do more fabrication in our plant which was not designed for the increased activity. We were buying good Angus cattle at auction in Lancaster and New Holland, Pennsylvania, but we were competing with commodity beef and had to try to match the large packers’ price points. We had no brand. Consequently, many of the small, city slaughter plants disappeared. By the time I met Ed Burchell in 2005, we were the last slaughter facility still operating in Baltimore City.”
Friends and connections
It was at the suggestion of a mutual customer that he met with Ed Burchell Sr. who had founded Roseda Black Angus Farm, a 350-acre farm in northern Baltimore County, in 1999. He describes himself as a non-farmer, a Baltimore city boy who, after graduating from Loyola College and serving in the Army in military intelligence during the Vietnam War era, rose to become CEO and partner of Meridian Health Care, a chain of nursing homes that served six states. After the sale of the nursing homes to a public company, Burchell decided to make a career change. After buying the farm, he became interested in cattle and beef. “I was curious about how, in the beef eating experience, one time you could have a really good steak and then the next time, not so good,” he states.
“Research convinced me that beef was rapidly losing market share to chicken and pork, largely because of the medical profession’s concerns over saturated fat and the inconsistency in beef quality. When I created Roseda Farm in 1996, we set as our goal to breed Angus cattle that produced quality beef. I hired Dean Bryant to run our cattle operation. Dean had graduated from Purdue Univ. with both an undergraduate and graduate degree in animal science. His research at Purdue and his experience as cattle manager of the Wye Angus herd (part of the Univ. of Maryland’s Agricultural School, located on the Eastern Shore of Maryland) convinced me that producing high quality beef was possible by consistently breeding cattle for certain genetic traits.”
Burchell’s research led him to further refine the program beyond genetics. He and Bryant decided to raise natural cattle, forgoing the use of hormonal implants and sub-therapeutic antibiotics, two concerns about beef production that consumers were beginning to raise. As a final component to ensure a great eating experience, they decided to dry age the whole carcass from 14 to 21 days.
The farm, which started out as a breeding operation focused on improving genetics, started to become a beef producer. At the time, the only way to get information back on carcass quality was to slaughter the cattle. Burchell had to find some way to sell the beef. He started selling freezer beef, processed at a small, local locker plant, to his friends and neighbors. Soon the supply outstripped this market.
He approached a local, upscale five-store grocery chain about selling his beef. This was at the forefront of the locavore movement. They agreed to give it a try, buying whole carcasses broken down by the locker plant into sub-primals. The program continued to grow, outstripping the locker plant’s ability to process the increased load.