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Portland Kitchen, Nicky USA teach kids about food systems, nutrition



TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Jace Hentges, master butcher for Portland meat distributor Nicky USA, shows students how to take apart a pig during a Portland Kitchen workshop earlier this month. A group of students from Madison, Grant and Parkrose high schools gathered around half a hog on a table after school one recent Thursday.

They spent the next two and a half hours learning about safe ways to handle and cook the meat, proper butchering techniques, and what “socially responsible” means when it comes to meat — including the use of antibiotics, types of feed, how farmers treat the animals and how it’s transported.

But whether the teens pursue a career in butchery or the culinary arts is irrelevant.

“We talk about it as primarily job skills training,” says Abigail Herrera, executive director of the nonprofit Portland Kitchen program. “The soft skills — collaboration, problem-solving, working as a team, showing up as a team —are skills you’ll have going into the rest of your life.”

Herrera, one of three part-time staff at her 2-year-old organization, says she believes the program is sorely needed to fill the gaps in high school curriculum today.

She says the program is entirely replicable, and can see it taking off in other parts of town, using underutilized kitchen space in local churches.

Here, Herrera chose to rent space at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Parkrose, midway between Madison and Parkrose high schools.

She wanted to start in a low-income neighborhood, to have a transformative effect on their lives and give them a significant boost in getting their first job.

Herrera goes into the schools to recruit students for the Portland Kitchen’s eight-week school-year program or summer session, both free to students and entirely funded by private donations.

Each session includes hands-on lessons in meat preparation and techniques in baking, creating stocks, soups and sauces, as well as special event preparation and an understanding of food systems and nutrition.

At the end of the class, students earn their food handler’s card and ServSafe certificate (needed for restaurant work) as well as a letter of recommendation and job experience for their resume.

“There’s a lot of opportunities in the food industry — a lot of opportunities in Portland, period,” Herrera says. “They just need somebody to vouch for them.”

Kitchen and Nicky

The meat portion of the Portland Kitchen’s program took on special meaning this year because of the Portland Kitchen’s new partnership with Nicky USA, the Southeast Portland-based meat distributor that’s been growing rapidly due to local demand for ethically sourced meats.

Nicky USA offered up its master butcher, Jace Hentges, to lead the students in the hog demonstration, with the hog donated by Oregon’s Carlton Farms.

Mark Cockcroft, Nicky USA’s director of marketing, watched the lesson in awe.

“They were curious; hilarious; they had it all,” he says, noting the one student who told them he’d wanted to be a butcher since he was 8 years old. “We were really excited to see how they responded.”

Nicky USA founder Geoff Latham couldn’t resist tapping into the opportunity for a partnership, having been strongly involved in local youth organizations as a coach and sponsor to youth athletics.

Sports are great for kids, Latham says, but he also values mentorships — since he’s had many in his life — and because they “help keep kids out of trouble.”

Besides, helping to raise the next generation of socially conscious food consumers and industry professionals is in his best interest.

“All the other food businesses in this town are dying for good people,” Latham says. “We don’t have enough people entering the workforce to keep up with the demand.”

So for Nicky USA’s 25th anniversary this year, Latham decided to partner with the Portland Kitchen to raise funds and awareness for their programs and offer opportunities for tours, shadowing and mentorship at every turn.

Between now and this summer, they’ll help stock the Portland Kitchen’s freezers with about $2,500 in meat, and the Portland Kitchen will receive proceeds from the Nicky USA 25th anniversary dinner this summer.

“We want to really help influence them and bring a cornerstone partner,” Cockcroft says. “We want to feel connected to them as they continue to progress.”

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The nonprofit Portland Kitchens free eight-week culinary program (offered during the school year and in the summer) uses food as a canvas to teach job training skills.

Specialty sourcing

Based in a 15,000-square-foot warehouse in inner Southeast Portland since 1994, Nicky USA has been sourcing specialty meats such as rabbit, quail, fallow venison, Northwest elk, water buffalo, emu and bison from sustainable farms and ranches across the Pacific Northwest.

The company now sources about 1,000 products from 30 local farms, moving more of its operations to in-house every day.

This past year the company bought a 36-acre farm in Aurora, where it raises rabbits and goats for friends and customers. It humanely processes the meat on site at its new U.S. Department of Agriculture-compliant mobile processing unit — one of the only ones in the country for both poultry and hooved animals.

With a new high-tech smoker at the warehouse, Latham can smoke his own meats, package them and take them to market — ensuring quality along every step of the process.

“There aren’t many farmers taking their product from the land to the restaurants,” Latham says.

Six days per week, Nicky USA trucks deliver to Portland restaurants — about 300 in all, plus customers in Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho and Arizona.

Portland sales grew by $600,000 last year, while sales in Seattle — where they opened a satellite warehouse in 2013 — grew by $1.6 million last year.

Within the next month, they’ll increase deliveries in Seattle from four to five days a week to keep up with demand.

In all, Nicky USA earned about $12 million in sales last year, and Latham — now with 52 employees — anticipates sales will grow as he expands his warehouse space to double capacity.

With his 15th annual Wild About Game cooking competition between Seattle and Portland chefs in October, Nicky USA is poised to rise even higher in its rockstar status in Portland’s food scene.

And that, Latham says, is humbling, as he reflects on his 25-year journey.

“We’re extremely proud of the work we do,” he says. “It’s a collaboration. We constantly strive to be more than a meat company. We look to build relationships above and beyond ... to support our customers and help them achieve their goals and help them be successful.”

@jenmomanderson

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