Every weekday morning, Mercedes Messinger drives from her meat processing plant in Mirror, Alta. (about a half hour east of Lacombe) to the Italian Centre Shop in Calgary.
Her company, Messinger Meats, has a large display counter near the front of the store, stocked with sausages, pork roasts and chops, bison, elk, and perhaps most importantly, a variety of cuts of Piedmontese beef. It’s a necessity that Messinger personally drives product down from her plant to fill the counter; by the next day, she is almost always greeted by a near empty case.
“Sometimes I’ll put out 10 Tomahawks and go back to the cooler to get more meat, and what I’ve just put out is gone by the time I get back,” she said. “But it’s a joy to come here every day. I get to meet people and hear what they say. I just enjoy it.”
Messinger and her husband Joe moved to Canada from Germany (they worked in butchery there as well, but wanted to try something new) in the early ‘00s, and bought their meat processing plant in 2004. After experimenting with various business models (including operating a storefront right out of the plant, drawing in a dedicated clientele despite their remote location) and experiencing relative degrees of success, Messinger Meats shifted gears.
Through a partnership with the Italian Centre Shops in both Calgary and Edmonton, the label is rapidly developing a cult following. While everything Messinger sells is made with the same level of dedication (healthy, hormone and chemical-free meats), the aforementioned Piedmontese beef has made them one of the most unique meat producers in the province.
Piedmontese beef comes from an Italian breed of cow. A few were shipped over to North America in the ‘70s, and there are currently about 15,000 head in North America, which makes up less than one per cent of the cattle on the continent. After tasting it for the first time a few years ago, Messinger instantly fell in love and decided it was the only beef she wanted to sell. She sources the Piedmontese solely from Peony Farms, a Lacombe farm owned and operated by Peter DenOudsten and his family.
The cows themselves have a gene that creates something called “double muscling,” which affects the length of the fibres of the muscle and the texture of the meat. It’s also lower in cholesterol and calories, and is higher in protein and Omega 3 and 6 fats. The flesh of the meat is a darker colour than you’ll usually find in Alberta, and also cooks about 30 per cent more quickly.
“The double muscle gives them a finer muscle fibre, so when you eat that meat you don’t have to chew the big fibres,” Messinger said. “It’s naturally more tender — there’s no tenderizing necessary. And we don’t have to hang it; there’s now this big trend with dry-aging, but that’s not necessary with the Piedmontese beef. It’s just perfect the way it is.”
If Piedemontese is what makes Messinger Meats’ product line special, it’s the company’s commitment to maintaining a small family business and building relationships with the like-minded partners that makes their business equally as unique.
Messinger closed her shop in the plant after she was invited to open a meat counter at Sinnott’s Independent in Red Deer, which she figured would be more convenient for her customers. From there she developed a deal with the Italian Centre Shop’s Teresa Spinelli, and now Messinger’s meat (and by extension, Peony Farms’ Pidemontese) is available exclusively in Edmonton and Calgary at Italian Centre Shop locations.
Messinger also recruited her three adult children, who left their existing careers to help with the business (just as Messinger drives to Calgary to stock the shelves each day, her daughter drives up to Edmonton), and that family connection is central to her business acumen. She knows that she could have gone with a larger grocery chain, hired non-family staff, and put her meat on a truck every day, but it’s just not how she wanted to do it. With her current model, everything stays in the family, she’s able to keep costs down, get her product to the people, and feel good about her contributions to the community.
“The Piedemontese beef goes from the farm family to our family to the Spinelli family to your family,” Messinger said. “I want people who have normal families to be able to afford the healthiest meat available. Teresa has the same philosophy, we are both agreed on that.”