For well over 2000 years, sausages have been made in Europe. An article by Queen City Sausage in Cincinnati, Ohio tell us “It is believed that the Romans were among the first to preserve meat in sausage form. They learned with time that salt, smoking methods, and spices improved the process and the taste. By the middle ages, sausage was being made all over the continent.” This food has been important to human survival for centuries. You will even find a video at the Smithsonian on the art of making sausage.
The basic method of making sausages has not changed since the first one was grilled over an open fire. Meat, whether it is beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, is ground, spices added, and finally stuffed into the casings. Today, there are tools to help grind the meat instead of hand grinding, and the all-important casings that once came only from natural sources such as intestines are now available in synthetic versions. But the best sausages continue to only use natural casings from pork or lamb.
Born into a large Italian family in Kalamazoo, Michigan, it’s no wonder Jeff Garritano’s company Scratch Meats is making its mark in Portland, Oregon. I met with Jeff at his amazingly well-organized kitchen, where he shared that, in his family, Italian cooking was based on well-practiced family recipes. Each family prided themselves on specializing in cooking one of the key ingredients essential to family feasts. One aunt specialized in ravioli. Another had dominion over the sauce. Jeff’s family brought the sausages. Jeff’s family came from Calabria in Southern Italy and had brought their traditional methods to the United States, allowing Jeff to learn the art at a very young age.
Even though it is in his blood, Jeff did not plan on being a sausage maker. He felt teaching was his road to happiness. But he couldn’t escape his destiny for long. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree, Jeff moved to Portland for a job and the lifestyle. This was during 2003, and the country was still in a recession. Teaching jobs were scarce. To increase his value as a teacher, he moved to Italy for his master’s degree in Montessori education. Upon graduation, he was not ready to return to the U.S. Over the next three years Jeff traveled much of Europe─ giving him time to sample some of each country’s best sausages.
But Portland called him back, and upon his return, Jeff got a job at the Hollywood Whole Foods in the meat department. There he learned how to use the big meat grinders and other large equipment for processing the meat and making sausage.
However, he was soon got a job teaching science and math for seventh and eighth graders. In his spare time and with spare money, he bought some equipment and started making his family’s original Italian sausages. At gatherings with friends, there were never any leftovers. Soon, his friends were asking to buy them. An email list of interested friends was started. It expanded to include friends and then friends of friends. New people were constantly being added. The number of people buying the meaty links grew and grew some more. Finally, one summer during school break, Jeff had made enough merchandise to try his hand at a farmers market. He set up his booth at the Montevilla Farmers Market. Not expecting much, he was surprised at his success. This was enough to inspire him to enter additional markets.
Jeff continued teaching for a couple more years ─ working the markets only during the summer months. Then in 2014, he reached a tipping point. He could no longer do both, and jumped into the business full time.
Scratch Meats’ sausages are only sold at 13 farmers markets and some local restaurants. Keeping distribution small allows Jeff to focus on producing high-quality, authentic sausages from local, grass-fed cows, pigs, lambs, and free-range chickens. In addition, at some of the smaller farmers markets, the company offers steaks and ground cut meats. The Hollywood Market (HFM) became a regular market in 2016, after Jeff met Francesca, the HFM manager, at the Hillsdale Farmers Market. Every Saturday, Rachel or one of the other employees are cooking up samples at their booth. Stop by to taste one of the best sausages in Portland.
His team of nine highly efficient and dedicated employees, including his former boss at Whole Foods, make an average of 1600 to 1700 pounds of sausage – almost a ton a week. Employees do everything from grinding meat, seasoning and making the sausage mixtures, hand mixing, filling casings, twisting the long ropes of sausage, packaging, and labeling the merchandise. As the last step, the sausages are vacuum sealed and frozen immediately. One employee is in charge of all the inventory, where it is located in any one of the several large, unmarked freezers, and how much is on hand or out at the farmers markets – impressive. On Saturdays alone, eight employees cover six markets.
Scratch Meats specializes in using authentic recipes and the best ingredients. Jeff is committed to only sourcing from local, family farmers in Oregon or Washington that use ethically sustainable methods for feeding and raising animals. Eugene-based Sweet Briar Farms, another Hollywood Farmers Market vendor, provides the pork and eggs. Ethically-raised beef comes from Carmen Ranch in Wallowa, Oregon. Grass-fed lamb comes from Anderson Ranch located in Brownsville, Oregon. Farms in Mount Vernon, Washington produce the chickens. Lamb sausages use lamb casings, while hog is used for most other varieties. Additional ingredients found at the farmers markets, like seasonal fruit, are also part of the mix.
Starting with the whole shoulder of pork or lamb, full briskets of beef, and boneless chicken thigh meat, Scratch Meats grinds these top cuts. Eight original recipes make up the bulk of sales, but seasonal and non-traditional sausages are becoming a favorite for many customers. Currently, there are 13 varieties of original, seasonal, and European varieties available. During berry season, look for delights such as Pork and Cherry Bratwurst or Blueberry Maple Sausage. Peppers are also a favorite ingredient. For a mild pepper flavor, try out the Padron Chicken Sausage. When it’s time to kick it up with some heat try the Fresh Hot Pepper Bratwurst, a combination of Serrano and Habanero peppers with pork and beef. All peppers come from Lil Starts in North Portland and Scratch Meats buys ALL their peppers. Herbs and spices as well are locally sourced.
In addition to the special attention given to crafting top quality original recipes, Scratch Meats is getting quite a following of Europeans who normally can’t find their favorite sausages in the U.S. Jeff’s travels after college helped him to develop a solid repertoire of continental favorites. Lamborghini (not the car) or Lamb Merguez, Saucissons á l’ail are just a couple found on the menu.
Since Jeff gave up teaching 5 years ago, Scratch Meats is a small business run with a lot of passion. When asked about the company’s growth plans, Jeff said a growth plan is in development. He likes the way the company has expanded, yet he is concerned about getting too big. His dad and brother are both small business owners, and maintaining a feeling of pride in the business is important. New Seasons has approached him about being in the stores, but this changes the dynamics. Because Scratch Meats isn’t licensed to sell in stores, another entity would have to make the products. Jeff feels this could lead to a loss of control over the quality, sourcing, and taste. For instance, it is important that processing the meats at the farms is done using ethical and sustainable methods. Now, Jeff can make sure he is buying only from farms and ranches that meet his requirements. He doesn’t use any preservatives or sugar in his products and wants this to stay the same. Local restaurants are able to buy, but this can only be 20% of his business. People often stop by the kitchen to buy as well as get advice on cooking and recipes. Maybe a cookbook is in the works. So, the growth plan is being thoughtfully considered and all its implications. Scratch Meats is a great success story about one of Portland’s small businesses which Jeff feels we should all be proud of.