Lone Star: The meatpacker next door

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.11.13

It’s always Christmas at the Lone Star plant. Cold, that is. Red and white. Red meat, white hardhats and floor coats. Noses and cheeks glowing from the cold and the work. Doesn’t matter that it’s creeping up on 100 degrees outside. Inside, Tuesday might as well be Christmas Eve at 1409 E. Sixth St., and CEO Franklin Hall has wish lists to fill.
 
For years, Austinites have been sitting down to steaks, hamburgers, chops and chicken from a meatpacker hidden in plain sight on the doorstep of this emerging stretch of Sixth Street just east of the interstate. They might have walked past Lone Star Foodservice on their way to Cisco’s or the Liberty or East Side Show Room and not been aware that the little gingerbread house attached to the neo-Southwestern facade attached to the loading docks was all part of the operation that provides meat to dozens of restaurants in Austin and a growing bite of Texas.
 
With Father's Day coming, it’s time to know where Dad's restaurant steak comes from. Lone Star’s been part of East Sixth since 1952, and with the Hall family of Austin for 42 years. Franklin Hall’s father, Frank Hall, bought the business from another family in 1971. At the time Franklin Hall was 16, just a kid at Austin High School. He helped on Saturdays, on school breaks and in the summer.
 
Lone Star had both the wholesale plant and a retail shop at the time, and that’s where he landed, waiting on customers at the butcher counter. But he also learned the business end and packed on the wholesale side, experience that would serve him as the business matured. Hall bought the company from his father in 1996. Franklin Hall’s daughter, Margie Quina, handles public relations, advertising and community outreach for the business. His son, Edward Hall, moved to Dallas/Fort Worth to handle Lone Star accounts there. They both went to Austin High, just like Dad, just like Mom. A family of native Austinites.
 
The company employs 55 people, 30-35 of whom work at the meatpacking plant, a spotless pinball machine of stainless steel saws, slicers, worktables, patty pressers and vacuum sealers. It’s just shy of arctic in there, with a smell like morning frost. Nothing to give away its fulltime job as an abattoir’s waystation. Lone Star isn’t a meatpacker in the City of the Big Shoulders way. The meat no longer arrives on the hoof, but rather as primal and subprimal blocks that the plant breaks down into portion controlled cuts, into row after row of 14-ounce strips or 8-ounce filets or pork chops hewn from rib plates the size of tree trunks.
 
 
(Clockwise from top left: Lone Star clients have included Counter Cafe, Contigo, East Side Show Room, Chez Nous, Lucy’s Fried Chicken, Trio at the Four Seasons, Fonda San Miguel and the Snack Bar.)
 
There’s no longer a retail butcher shop at Lone Star. That went away even before the kids were born. The meat you get from Lone Star these days will come from restaurant menus: beef patties from Dan’s Hamburgers, quail at Swift’s Attic, shortrib at Second Bar + Kitchen, Niman Ranch lamb at Parkside, a Niman Ranch burger at the Snack Bar — in fact, if you’ve had Niman Ranch anything in Austin, chances are good that it passed through Lone Star.
 
Almost half of the restaurants on my Fed Man 55 Best Restaurants in Austin have been Lone Star customers. High-end places like Hudson’s on the Bend, the Carillon, Congress, Fonda San Miguel, Uchi and Trio at the Four Seasons. Progressive restaurants like Olive & June, Olivia and Foreign & Domestic. Comfortable places like Salty Sow, Black Star Co-op, Asti, Counter Cafe, Lucy’s Fried Chicken and the Three Little Pigs trailer.
 
But in Lone Star’s dry-aging room, one client’s name shows up on tag after tag of majestic marbled steaks wearing the concentrated scarlet armor of age: Jeffrey’s. The 38-year-old West Austin restaurant reopened in April as part of chef Larry McGuire’s restaurant group, and dry-aged steaks form the heart of the new menu. From the $50-$95 prices those steaks go for at Jeffrey’s, it’s no stretch to understand why they’re kept under lock and key at Lone Star, in a cooler purpose-built for the task. The aroma of a dry-aging room stays with you, something your senses can re-create from memory the same way they do cotton candy or coffee. It’s a controlled rot, like wheels of hard cheese, overseen by plant manager Tony Sousa.
 
Contigo’s another Lone Star client. For the Windy Bar Ranch ground beef that forms their Top 10 burger, for veal bones and for the enigmatic Niman Ranch beef tongue slider with pickled green tomato that makes a strong case for turning “other” meats into everyday staples. Contigo chef Andrew Wiseheart said he was evaluating the bar menu, but a few things have earned their residencies.
 
“They’ve been there since the beginning. I don’t want to take them off, because they’re very unique to Contigo,” he said. “And that slider’s at the top of the list.” And that ground beef? “We do very little to it. It’s just such good meat. We just cook it correctly.” Wiseheart said he’s enlisting Lone Star to explore a special cut of meat he’d like to do. For him, Lone Star’s smaller size means he can visit the plant with sales rep Travis Wesley and talk directly to the plant manager about what he wants. Something new at Contigo? Maybe, but Wiseheart wasn’t ready to share it. At least not until they can figure out the cut. That’s some meaty intrigue.
 
 
(Clockwise from top left: The loading docks and main building of the Lone Star plant on East Sixth Street. Pork quarters ready to be cut into chops. The dry-aging room. Rib-eye filets.)
 
Lone Star’s not above drawing a new cut from an ancient craft. Where was the flatiron before an enterprising butcher split a shoulder muscle in two and took off the fascia? I saw a cutter do the job in less than a minute. Another floor butcher turned beef shortribs into miniature tall-boned shanks for improvised osso buco. Yet another cutter in steel-mesh gloves turned rib-eyes into more marbled versions of the ever-chic filet mignon. All of it destined for restaurant coolers.
 
The closest you can get to the old butcher counter at Lone Star is the new butcher counter at the East Side newcomer Salt & Time, where they bring in the big cuts from Lone Star and turn them into smaller cuts for the meat case there. Wheatsville Food Co-Op carries Niman Ranch beef and pork through Lone Star as well. From its own website, Lone Star sells a narrow band of retail steaks, in boxes of four to 24 for $74-$399. Rib-eyes, strip loins, T-bones, tenderloins and a Lone Star exclusive called the Chateauloin, cut from the muscle adjoining the tenderloin.
 
Lone Star brings a kinder approach to what is, let’s admit, a brutal art. Hall brings a chaplain to the plant every week, available to counsel, comfort or be a sounding board to the floor staff. Or not. Nobody’s obligated. Hall is deferential about it, reserved in the way that people who do good things for the right reasons often are. But there’s no denying a deeper current to the Hall family’s work at Lone Star, through the work they do with Caritas and Goodwill. The plant has found places for people working through turmoil in their home countries and what Hall calls the “peaks and valleys in life.” People from Croatia and Cuba, Iraq and Mexico. People like Dolphin Nyembwe from the Congo, singled out for leadership because he sang his way through even the least glamorous jobs at the plant.
 
These days, the devil on the shoulder of every meatpacker is the drought that has rippled through Texas and the Midwest the last three years, with no real relief in anybody’s short-term forecast.
 
That, and a cattle supply that defies the nation’s population growth. “Today, we have the same number of cattle in the United States that we had in 1950,” Hall said. “We’ve got the same amount of cattle to feed twice as many people.” He saw beef prices shoot up 15 percent in 2011, a little less in 2012, with another upward tick this year. But Hall frames the industry’s plight against a brighter backdrop. “We are a prosperous country,” he said. “As a people, the percentage that we spend on food is one of the lowest in the world.”
 
As we consider where our Father’s Day steak comes from, does the CEO of this mid-city meatpacking plant ever scan the menus when he goes out to eat, looking specifically for the food that comes from his operation? “All the time.”
 
(TOP: From left, holding Lone Star's signature tomahawk rib-eye steaks: CEO Franklin Hall, DFW account rep Edward Hall, plant manager Tony Sousa and Austin account rep Travis Wesley. INSET: Shortrib osso buco. The Southwestern-style section of the Lone Star complex. Burger patties destined for Dan’s Hamburgers. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)