There are plenty of cities in the United States that are larger, but there are few that match Austin, Texas for its “cool” factor. As the home to Austin City Limits and the South by Southwest music festival, the city’s nickname of “Live Music Capital of the World” is justified. Take into account Austin’s booming technology sector, its college students and its movers and shakers in the state government, Austin is a vibrant, eclectic city.
The dining scene in Austin is no different, as there are many ambitious chefs looking to fuse world cuisines together into something innovative and delicious. The quality of the meal is only the beginning, though. More and more Austinites want a story to go with their meals — if they’re eating a steak, they want to know that the cattle was sustainably raised and fed an all-natural diet. They’d prefer that the animal was locally raised and humanely harvested, too. Chefs are only too willing to accommodate those diner demands, but finding a purveyor that can supply that kind of high-quality product can be difficult.
That’s where Lone Star Foodservice comes in. The company is an Austin institution itself, having a history that dates back more than 60 years. Since coming into the ownership of the Hall family in the 1970s, the company has focused on the foodservice sector, evolving to fit the culinary trends in Austin.
Franklin Hall, the company’s CEO, has seen the change in the city. When his father, Frank E. Hall bought the company in 1971, he says that the city was a growing but still somewhat sleepy college town. Now, the city has more than tripled in size to nearly 850,000 people, with the median age being around 30 years old.
“It’s a very young town demographically,” he explains. “We’ve got people with lots of new ideas, people who love to experiment and are comfortable in being on the cutting edge.”
As Austin’s dining scene has grown as edgy as its arts and music scene, Lone Star has changed as well. Five years ago, the company did not have a natural program. Now, natural meats account for a quarter of the company’s business. Along with partnering with some national companies like Niman Ranch, Certified Angus Beef, FreeBird Chicken and Tecumseh Poultry/Smart Chicken to provide all-natural meats, the company is now working with local ranches to provide locally raised beef.
As a purveyor of high-quality, Prime and high Choice steaks, chops and other meat products, Lone Star is in an ideal location, given the number of fine dining establishments throughout Texas, including Austin, Houston, the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, San Antonio and elsewhere. The company also has some national chain accounts and a fleet of nine trucks to deliver fresh steaks to customers.
When Lone Star first entered into the natural market by developing an association with Niman Ranch, the company began to learn what a natural program required. A true “never-ever” program required three things: no antibiotics, no hormones, and all-vegetarian feed.
“Over the last year now, we have added three more things, so we raised the bar on the gold standard,” Hall explains.
The company’s Natural program now requires animals to be raised sustainably, from independent, family-owned farms and ranches, and with humane care during their lifetime and humane harvesting.
Hall notes that customers used to ask simply for natural meats, but the company began to field more specific requests from chefs — who had been fielding requests of their own.
“The guests coming into the restaurant are wanting to know more of the story,” he explains, “whether it’s how the animals are cared for or whether it was sustainable and used eco-friendly practices, and did they come from independent family farms.”
Hall explains that there are three main concerns that consumers have about their natural meat products. One is sustainability, one is humane care and the other is family farms and ranches. Lone Star is trying to supply product that satisfies all those concerns.
“When we look for partnerships, we hope to find and many times do find the intersection of all these things,” he says, pointing to partnerships like Niman Ranch that address all requirements.
Like any savvy businessman, Hall sees relationships with chefs as collaborations, and many conversations between the restaurants and Lone Star’s sales team take place to determine the customers’ needs. It has been an educational process for both sides; the sales team’s meetings have become opportunities for each team member to learn about the company’s latest endeavors and relationships, so that they can in turn pass information back to their chefs.
In some cases, Lone Star associates will help train the wait staff at a restaurant to teach them about buzzwords like “sustainability” and “natural,” so that they can better explain the menu to diners. In other cases, it may mean explaining those terms to the chef or restaurant manager, to help combat the misinformation that exists.
“There are chefs that will read something and say ‘local,’ and they think local is the only answer. They want only local,” Hall explains. “Now we need to define local, and what is the chef’s definition of local. What works great for fruits and vegetables may not work for beef or pork.”
Restaurant Profile: Mettle
A relative newcomer to the Austin scene, Mettle has been open for less than six months, but its reputation is quickly growing.
There are many casual neighborhood bistros in town, but Chef Andrew Francisco has put his own spin on the menu, setting the restaurant apart.
Francisco has been in Austin since 2002, and he has seen the growth and changes to Austin’s dining scene.
“It’s an ambitious city, and more and more chefs are putting their own personalities on their menus, which creates a really eclectic dining scene,” he explains. “And we’re all very conscious of the product that we serve, which certainly helps with getting respect nationwide.”
Francisco spent his teenage years in Malaysia, so Mettle’s menu has a Southeast Asian flair. He also has a love of Tex-Mex food, leading to creations such as beef tongue tacos, pork belly quesadillas and a beef short rib French dip sandwich.
The restaurant is also known for its fried chicken.
Francisco is a proponent of natural meats, raised without hormones or antibiotics.
“I have three kids,” he explains, “and those things create problems for generations if we keep raising our livestock like that. Ultimately, though, [natural] is a better product.”
Lone Star Foodservice provides all the proteins used on Mettle’s menu, from flat-iron steaks to the brisket used in Mettle’s hamburgers. Francisco appreciates that the company is local and is committed to locally raised product. The quality of the meat is of greatest importance, but he also notes the company’s strong customer service.
“If our food is great but the waiter is mean to you, you’re probably not going to come back. It’s like that with using purveyors,” he says.
The fact that Texas has been in a severe drought also complicates the issue, because what is considered “local” may not be sustainable as well. Hall and the sales team consider it their mission to work with each customer to find a feasible solution to their needs. It may require Lone Star to go the extra mile (or two) on occasion, but that dedication to the customer has resulted in many strong relationships. As chefs move from restaurant to restaurant in their career, they will often bring Lone Star with them to supply the proteins on the menu. One of Lone Star’s chain accounts has 11 locations, and the closest one to Austin is 200 miles away. Hall points out that the company has been working with this chain for nine years. Why would a chain rely on fresh steaks from a Texas processor when its locations are in Colorado and Arizona?
“It’s about relationships,” Hall answers. “People do business with people they trust and do business the way they want it done.”
A perfect fit for Austin
Lone Star Foodservice has a progressive attitude that perfectly complements the vibe of the city itself. Hall is not afraid to think outside the box to implement ideas that are best for the company’s associates. Yes, associates and not employees – Lone Star does not use the “e-word” when referring to people who work for the company.
All associates participate in a stretching routine in the morning. The idea behind the routine is that the muscles can warm up before going into the cold processing environment, reducing the risk of strain or other injuries. Hall says that he picked the idea up after reading about a Japanese company that instituted the same practice.
Lone Star also has a chaplain come to visit on a weekly basis to talk with its associates. Lone Star employs a diverse group of people, including Christians, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and more, but the chaplain is not there to represent any one religion, explains Tony Sousa, the plant manager.
“He is here to let people know that if they need someone, he is here for them. It’s not about religion; it’s about caring,” Sousa explains.
All conversations between the associates and the chaplain are kept confidential, but Sousa notes that there are many employees who have gone through professional or personal struggles and benefited from having him there.
The company also is a supporter of Caritas Austin, a charity that brings refugees from troubled and war-torn countries to the United States as sponsors. The company has been involved with Caritas for 16 years, when it hired three people from Croatia. Two of them are still at Lone Star, and one of them is a team leader in production. Lone Star also employs people from Iraq, Congo, Cuba and Nicaragua.
Sousa says that the language barriers can be a challenge, but the rewards outweigh the challenges.
“We have examples of people who came here and did not speak any English, and now their kids are graduating from college,” he says. “That tells you that you have helped somebody, and they are very focused and appreciative of the opportunity you gave them.”
Sousa himself came from Brazil and started at the entry level at Lone Star, and he points out that he has done every job imaginable in the plant, including some that don’t exist anymore due to developments in technology. He says that Hall kept presenting him with opportunities, and it was up to him to grab them or not.
“Everyone is allowed the same opportunity, regardless of where they came from or if it’s their first job in the company” Sousa adds. “It’s truly the American dream.”
As CEO, Hall acknowledges that his role is to generate those kinds of ideas and finance them, but it is his management team who puts the ideas into practice.
The results have been extremely positive. The company employs 55 people, and about 65 percent of them have been with the company for five years or more.
“I do think that we are a progressive company,” Hall says. “There are a lot of things in the world that I can’t affect, but I can effect change in this business. That’s where I choose to try to do things positively, to help people and their families, and it’s been very rewarding.
“There’s nothing that will put a smile on my face than to have an associate have a success, or to have something to look forward to,” he adds. “For some people just coming here, it may be the hope for a better life.”
Restaurant Profile: Trace
Located at the W Austin, Trace takes its name from “traceability.” The restaurant employs an on-staff forager, whose job is to visit farmer’s markets and establish relationships to find local, sustainable food.
Chef Lawrence Kocurek is a native Austinite and is on his second stint as a chef in town after stops in New York and Florida. He’s worked at Trace for about a year, but he is no stranger to Lone Star Foodservice, having worked with the company in the past. He recalls that Lone Star CEO Franklin Hall came to the restaurant to interview him and see what he was doing on the menu.
“I had never had the owner of a purveyor company come and talk to me, and I’ve never looked back as far as using Lone Star,” Kocurek says.
He compliments Lone Star for finding products that he requested. He notes that chickens raised from local farmers can vary greatly in size, which can present a problem in a kitchen. Since Lone Star brought on the organic, air-chilled Smart Chicken, consistency isn’t an issue. The restaurant uses the whole chicken, producing its own chicken breakfast sausage in-house from the legs and thighs. The chicken breast has been a surprise hit on the menu as an entrée.
“When I put the chicken dish on, I thought, ‘We’re not going to sell any of these,’” Kocurek recalls. “The first week I had to order two more cases on the fly, because I didn’t expect to sell that much. Something as mundane as chicken for chefs to really geek out over — it doesn’t really happen.” Another popular entrée is a beef tasting. It includes an aged ribeye filet, a roasted marrow bone, beef cheek, ravioli stuffed with blue cheese and oxtail, sweetbread and a grilled honey-mustard tongue. The sauce is a beef heart ragout.
“The only thing I haven’t been able to get away with putting on the plate is the brain — but I want to,” Kocurek says with a laugh.
Fun in the niches
Lone Star Foodservice was a much more conventional company when Hall’s father left a 20-year career at Swift to buy the business. It was a retail/wholesale business then, but it began transitioning into a foodservice provider by 1980.
“We would see the hotels being built, and they were a little fancier than the ones that were here,” Hall says of the decision. “It was part of the evolutionary process of a city growing, and we wanted to position ourselves at the higher end. As Austin grew, we grew with it and benefited from it.”
Hall joined the company in 1979 after graduating from the University of Texas. Several years later, he bought a share of the business, and in 1996 he bought the rest of the business from his father, who worked for him for five years as an employee before retiring. Hall’s son, Edward, joined the company three years ago and lives in Ft. Worth, handling sales in the DFW area.
Given Lone Star’s expertise in Prime steaks, it is surprising to find that the company seriously got involved with steak cutting just 15 to 20 years ago. Its facility features a mix of associate expertise and technology to produce the best quality. A laser slicing machine allows the company to cut high volumes of boneless steak. Ribeyes can be weighed and cut into several different pieces, depending on what the needs of the company are.
“It not only helps us with steakhouse chains, but it gives us what I call surge capacity,” Hall says. If a resort needs dinner for 1,000 or 1,500 people, we don’t have to worry about the logistics of it. We have the machine that we can put the order on, and it will be done beautifully.”
For orders that require more handwork, Lone Star’s associates, many of whom had no meat industry experience prior to joining the company, can expertly produce any cut to a customer’s specification. A dry-aging room was added to the plant about four years ago for chefs looking for something special. Muscles are kept in the room for an average of 28 to 30 days before being trimmed.
One of Lone Star’s latest endeavors has been to partner with Texas ranches, like the Windy Bar Ranch in Stonewall and Branch Ranch in West Texas. Both ranches raise all-natural Angus cattle, and Lone Star buys whole carcasses from them. It’s not a large portion of the business, but it provides a local option for high-end restaurants.
“It does add a new dimension to our business,” Hall says, adding that the chefs do need to understand that the company must sell all the muscles on the carcass for the project to be sustainable and successful. So far, it has worked well.
“The fun is in the niches, and it challenges our team, because we’re constantly looking at new things,” he says. “We’ve got a great team, and they’re up to the challenge, so we keep moving ahead.”