Porter Road is changing the meat industry
Words by Ashley Locke
Walk into your nearest supermarket, and chances are it will have a full section of meats—plastic-wrapped styrofoam containers of bright-red ground beef, pale chicken breast, and pinkish pork chops. It’s rare for an item to be sold out, even though there are hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of shoppers a day—but how do the shelves stay constantly stocked? Where is all that meat coming from? That’s the story they won’t tell you—but Porter Road will.
“I grew up in Hendersonville—a native of the 615,” said Chris Carter, cofounder of Porter Road, referring to the local area code. “I went to the University of Memphis and did hospitality management—it was something I was passionate about.” But before he could do his own thing, he had to learn the ropes. “I fell into the kitchen because I wanted to own a restaurant. If you’re going to hire someone to do the most important job, you better know that job.”
After a flurry of years in culinary school and working different restaurant jobs, Chris landed at the Capitol Grille in Nashville’s famous Hermitage Hotel. He was catering on the side for extra cash when he met James Peisker. James’ résumé included helping to open several James Beard Award-winning restaurants. Despite his culinary success, his tenure at Capitol Grille wouldn’t last long. “Three days after meeting him, I asked him to open a restaurant with me,” said Chris. The two ended up putting in their two-week notices.
“We operated the catering company out of a little house on Porter Road to make money,” said Chris. They cooked using local, seasonal ingredients, and it was easy to find fresh, local produce. Local meat was a different story—the farmers were few and far between. “You could only find their meat frozen, or by chasing them down at farmers markets.”
Chris and James started talking about their meat problem. Why was it so hard to find good meat? “The farmers we were talking to said the system wasn’t built to support small, sustainable farming,” said Chris. “They’d raise cattle and ship them out west—the commodity industry. Animals were not being treated with the most care, and they were being butchered by someone who couldn’t care less about the two years the farmer put into raising that animal.”
That’s when they started wondering what they could do to fix it.
Their vision was audacious—fixing the supply chain issue at a local level. They wanted to butcher the meat themselves, which would allow them to implement seam butchery—a technique that isolates individual muscles in the animal. “We started to talk about the farmers we would work with, and what we would pay for the product,” said Chris. “We created a business plan and started stapling those papers to the wall.”
They came up with a few rules for their farm partners to follow:
- No added hormones
- No antibiotics ever
- No animal by-products ever fed
- No waste by-products fed
- Must be raised on pasture/woods
- No crates/cages/or tethers permitted ever
- All animals treated with the highest standards of animal husbandry—always
As long as the rules were followed, Porter Road would pay a premium for the meat. Sustainable, pasture-raised farming is more expensive than concentrated animal feeding operations, where the animals are crowded into indoor facilities and pumped with antibiotics. But the quality of the end product was well worth the cost to Chris and James.
The papers on the wall turned into a summer at the East Nashville Farmers Market under the name Porter Road Butcher. The momentum they gained at the market was enough to move into a permanent space. In 2011, they opened a shop on Gallatin—but they kept the name Porter Road—with just $500 in the bank. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The farm-to-table movement was growing, and Nashville was at the beginning of its boom, attracting people from all over the country. “When I grew up in Nashville, we didn’t have a butcher shop—no connection to any farms or anything,” said Chris. “The 301s and 212s all moved from areas where they had butcher shops on their street. We wanted to become the local butcher shop.”
Once the farming practices and butchering were under control, the duo realized they could do more. “In 2014 we bought our slaughterhouse in western Kentucky to control the supply chain,” said Chris. Now, from farm to table, the animals would never leave Porter Road’s sight. That level of control was unheard of in an industry known for shady practices.
Eventually, Porter Road launched online, again breaking barriers. “You’re looking at the country’s first true whole animal online butcher shop,” said Chris. “We actually touch our products, which is very unique for the online space. We can ship fresh products and freeze the larger products. We give the customer the ability to shop à la carte—no forcing into subscription only. It’s the exact same experience you have in the butcher shop.”
It’s true—all the questions you’d have for your local butcher are answered on the Porter Road site. Each cut of meat has a graphic showing what part of the animal it came from, an explanation of the texture and flavor, and recommendations on how to cook it. “At all costs, we’ll always be telling the truth. Truth in labeling, truth in menu,” said Chris. “It's about educating the consumer why it's good so that they can make their own decision—giving the consumer as much knowledge as they’re willing to take in. Don’t trust me because I have a photo of a farmer in a field. If someone isn’t going to show you, you don’t want to know how the sausage is made.”
Porter Road has already made an impact on the meat industry. “There are more and more doing it like we are, and that’s what we want,” said Chris. And they want to keep growing. “You don’t have to own much to have a meaningful stake—we want to be 1 percent of the meat industry, and we can make a huge difference.”
For Chris, everything comes down to their farm partners. “We have to create excitement for farmers—if you go to the ag programs, you’re not learning how to be a small family farmer. In order for us to get people to want to do the work we’re doing—our farmers are getting older and older—we have to make it a lucrative career.”
Right now, Porter Road ships meat all across the United States, but their goal is to cut the distance between the farm and the consumer. “We want a decentralization of the industry,” said Chris. “Doing what we did in western Kentucky, taking that model and putting it in farms across the country.”
Until then, Porter Road hopes to keep encouraging consumers to think about what they’re eating. “Eat better meat, and eat less. If something is higher quality, you need less of it,” said Chris. “People aren’t going to eat cardboard and save the world.” But they might eat Porter Road and save a farm.