" You wanna see the coolers? "
Sure, why not?
"We're one of the last companies that still processes our own meat," says Fayette Packing owner David Keith. "Our niche has always been fresh."
Here at Fayette Packing, fresh means animals hanging from the ceiling. Someone has to provide the whole hogs, pork shoulders, and ribs for the teams competing at the three-day Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. But can't you just go to the neighborhood Kroger and fill your cart? Not if you're in it to win it, according to barbecue experts.
Shelby County commissioner and prize-winning barbecuer John Willingham once drove to a Tennessee farm in Fayette County and picked his own pig, fed it a mixture of food and barbecue seasoning, had it processed at Fayette Packing, and entered it in the contest. "I don't remember if he won with that pig or not," says Keith. "But it made for a great story."
Fayette Packing has been working with barbecue teams for the past 25 years. This year, the company will provide the meat, including 50 whole hogs, for about 100 teams. In the last five years, Keith estimates that Fayette's meats have finished at least third in the whole-hog, ribs, and shoulder categories. In 2002, the company was the official meat sponsor for the barbecue competition. Their reputation has expanded beyond Tom Lee Park, and the company now provides meat for the Tunica Rivergate Barbecue Festival and for traveling teams entering contests across the country.
The company was started by Keith's grandfather and has been in the meat business for 50 years. Many of its processed hogs and cattle are locally raised by Fayette County farmers. Orders are handled by 12 employees. Custom processing -- from slaughters to vacuum packing -- accounts for a small amount of business. From the holding pen to the table, pigs take about a week and cows require three weeks for processing. But most of Fayette's work is wholesale. The company makes sausage for Exline's pizza, shoulders for the Rendezvous, and their own brand of sausage and barbecue rub under the Keith Farms label.
"We did 18 pig kills today. If you'd come a little earlier, you would have seen the care we take with our meats," said Keith. "That's what matters: quality."
Fineberg Packing in North Memphis also supplies Memphis in May barbecue teams, including up to 10 teams this year. Although the company ceased live kills four years ago, it can still provide whole hogs through a third party.
These days, the company processes its own bologna, links, hot dogs, and bacon and functions as a supplier of finished meat products.
Fineberg's plant manager won't let his name be used in this story, but he's been at the business 45 years and everyone in the industry knows him . "The company is not about me. It's about that man up there," he says, pointing to a wall portrait of founder Ben Fineberg, who began the business in 1938.
Whoever gets the credit is not nearly as important as the 25 items that Fineberg sells, such as its Starling brand bologna found in grocery stores across the Mid-South.
"Darling, Get Starling" reads the label. The plant manager is proud of the bologna. In fact, he keeps a cutting board and knife in a desk drawer.
"Taste that," he says, slicing a thin piece. "We don't put any extra stuff in our bologna, like chicken livers."
Fineberg also sells items under the Chelsea label, as well as LaRosa hot tamales. About 50 employees man the plant, which like Fayette Packing, operates year round.
"We have provided jobs for people in this part of town for a long time," says the manager. "It's an accomplishment to just say you made it this far."