PSFN Member Highlight: David Pearlstein – Link Lab Artisan Meats

All photos by Matt Wright

PSFN member David Pearlstein has followed a nontraditional path to enter Seattle’s food world. As the owner of Link Lab Artisan Meats, a one year old USDA-inspected boutique sausage operation, David is on a mission to help responsible carnivores support Northwest local farmers through great handmade sausage. Here is a conversation we had with the guy who successfully navigated the jungle of USDA regulations and then turned his longtime-hobby into a healthy business…in his garage.

Q: I know you have a pretty interesting story of how you came to be a sausage maker – tell me about that.

In 1994 I moved to Seattle and became overly interested in food and ingredients, and the source of my foods. I couldn’t get over the abundance of amazing local ingredients that I hadn’t ever been around before. And behind every one of these local ingredients was a farmer, rancher, fisherman, or some person who was excited to share their hard work and their passion for their trade. This was not something I’d ever experienced or spent much time thinking about until I moved out to this part of the country. I spent several years learning to cook and learning to use local flavors as they became available throughout the year. In 1998, I watched Chef Bruce Naftaly make fresh garlic sausage for a cassoulet, and I fell in love with the idea that sausage should be made out of outstanding ingredients. Not just the scary and mysterious leftover bits that many people associate with sausage-making. Similar to cooking, good meat, good herbs, and good booze lead to great results.…in this case sausage. I spent the next 10 years experimenting with sausage recipes, different meats, spice quantities, meat-to-fat ratios, grinds/textures, mixing techniques, and just about anything that seemed to affect the final product. In January 2011, I launched Link Lab Artisan Meats LLC and began production and sale of great sausage. The transition from hobby to business was a reality, and I’ve now been in business for a full year.

Before starting Link Lab Artisan Meats, I worked as a reference librarian for a number of years, and after that I spent nine years working at Microsoft as a usability engineer.  In 2007, I left Microsoft to be a full time stay-at-home Dad for my daughter who was two at the time. Three years at home with a young child resulted in a series of epic food-projects that we did together, including making lots of sausage, curing lots of meat, and even hanging a 25 pound pig leg in the basement and watching it cure for two years into an amazing prosciutto. During this post-Microsoft time, I also began exploring what might be involved in transitioning my 10 year old sausage-making hobby into a proper business. I quickly discovered that there are a LOT of regulations and rules to be aware of and to follow, and that the USDA was going to be hugely involved in my work. None of these rules seemed particularly burdensome or expensive, but there were a lot of rules and formal procedures to follow for anyone intending to work with meat under inspection of the USDA.

That’s when I was grateful to have some research background. My library and project management background set me up really well to do the necessary research and to patiently work through an awful lot of rules.  I started meeting with butchers, restaurant owners, and sausage merchandisers from all around the country, asking a lot of questions, and trying to figure out how I could fit into this seemingly complicated fine-food ecosystem. I quickly learning that there was (still is) a lot of misinformation and confusion out there regarding what’s allowed, who  regulates different types of food production, and what path you need to follow to connect the dots and get a legal sausage business running.

All of my previous jobs had to do with helping people manage too much data, by trying to organize it, make it discoverable, and make sense out of mountains of information. That experience lent itself really nicely to the very large project of navigating all of the regulatory agencies involved opening a business that sells meat: The City of Seattle, the King County Department of Health, the Washington Department of Agriculture and, ultimately, the USDA all had a part to play in building Link Lab. .

After gaining a pretty solid understanding of the rules I was up against, I figured out exactly what I intended to produce with this new business, where I wanted my work to be sold, and came up with a set of plans to be as creative, as clean, as safe , and as legal as possible. And that’s where I am now– selling wholesale to restaurants and retailers which means that I’m making great, creative, artisan food, AND I’m part of the national food system.

So, yes, I had a very different life and totally different career before cutting and grinding all this meat.

Q: Which farms are you working with currently?

I work with several farmers from around the Northwest, and I’m always looking to expand my bench of farms and sources of great local meat. Several of my current farm-partners are active PSFN members, including Heritage Lane Farm in Lynden, WA. I met Creviston Valley Farms in Longbranch, WA through PSFN’s summer Wholesale Market. The partnership I have with Farmer Craig Mayberry of Heritage Lane Farms has been really fun.  We have figured out a lot of unique ways to work together. In addition to buying his great pork and making sausage to sell to my customers, he hires me to make sausage for him to take north, and sell to his retail customers. So up north by Bellingham, we have Link Lab Sausage with a Heritage Lane Farm label on it. Heritage Lane has built up a nice sized community of people who want his product, which means they want my sausage. We both like the results, and customers do, too!

Also, Chef Chris Johnson from United General Hospital in Sedro Woolley, WA has been a consistent advocate and customer of Link Lab since we were introduced to each other by PSFN’s Karen Mauden at the 2011 Farmer Fisher-Chef Connection. It’s kind of a long delivery drive up to Sedro Woolley, but Craig Mayberry and I have worked out a meat-carpool/ride-share program for my sausage. After Craig and I do business in Seattle, his next pork delivery is frequently a stop at United General. I give him a box of sausage to be delivered to  Chris on the way north. So we do a bit of … meat carpooling! It has been a nice way to start distributing Link Lab sausage to different parts of the sate that aren’t currently part of my delivery route. My operation is very small, and delivery is a pretty time consuming story that I’m still trying to figure out, so it’s fun to get creative with Craig.

Q: You’re in an interesting position as both a buyer of locally produced food, and as a producer of it yourself.

That’s why I came up with the name “Link Lab”. That link is not just the shape of the sausage; it’s the connection between people who want to do the right thing and farmers who are already doing the right thing.

Q: In your experience, what has been the best part about working with small, local farms? What’s the best thing about that relationship?

So many of our small local farms are run by good people! And they’re working really hard to do the right thing..  It seems that most of the folks I’ve met are the type of people I want to support. They tend to be honest and transparent about their operations. They’re happy to share what their farm is like: the animal breed, the food, the whole farming system. The farmers I’ve enjoyed working with the most are all open and honest with me and enthusiastic about what I’m doing at Link Lab.

All photos by Matt Wright

I attended a number of cooking classes at Le Gourmand Restaurant, and there was always an effort to share lots of details about the source of their ingredients. It was during these classes that I learned about butter churned on Sally Jackson’s farm, fresh bug-eating eggs sold at the church parking lot behind Dick’s, hand-collected stinging nettles pulled from the woods at from Discovery Park, and amazing meat being raised by great local farmers.

I didn’t go to culinary school, and I don’t come from a food science background, and haven’t spent a thousand hours working in the back of a kitchen (though, I suppose, now I have!) but everyone has to eat. And I figured, if I’m going to spend time cooking well, I owe it to myself to really understand something about the ingredients and food we put in our sauté pans and in our bodies.

Three Thanksgivings ago, I had a chance to visit Dog Mountain Farm and process my Thanksgiving turkey. People have obviously been killing and eating animals for a long time, but I hadn’t done it. It was one of those milestones where everything clicked, and I quickly got a fresh and important appreciation for the amount of resources that go into raising the animals that end up on our plates. It is not just the food required to nourish the animals, but the farm, and the farmers, and all the people who work there, and all the packaging and physical labor that goes into it… meat takes a lot of resources, and carnivores should be aware of this.

Q: You balance being a business owner, sausage maker, and someone helping with childcare at home. How do you balance all the different things you’re doing on a day to day basis?

Well… I stay up late! I mean… It’s really hard. My family and I do an awful lot of scheduling to make sure we don’t overlook the important things. I still do kindergarten drop off in the morning, and pickup most afternoons, and one thing that’s kind of nice is that working with the USDA means that I work on their schedule. My Federal Grant of Inspection allows me to work with meat between the hours of 6am and 2:30pm only. Who would have guessed that the USDA’s workday requirements would end up helping me maintain a healthy work-life balance? If I was permitted to cut and grind meat 24 hours each day, I might find myself doing that. And that would not be a good move toward strengthening the family. In reality, with a business there’s plenty of stuff not involving meat that just takes time and keeps me plenty busy.

All photos by Matt Wright

Q: So do you start making sausage at 6 AM?

Ha – No, I don’t. I have done that once or twice, but I typically start after dropping my daughter off at school. I do receive meat deliveries very early in the morning each week. My neighbors are amused and their dogs are envious.

Q: At this point your neighbors must know what you’re up to, but at first they must have had some suspicions…

Thankfully, they’re on board with Link Lab. From the very beginning I told them what I was up to, and that I would be obeying all of the relevant city zoning rules. Early on in talking to the City of Seattle I learned what types of business activity you are and are not allowed to do in each neighborhood. That was something I had to understand very clearly to make sure I wasn’t building a business where I wasn’t going to be able to work each day. I found out what the city would and wouldn’t allow, explained it to the neighbors and got their blessing. I keep the Link Lab kitchen and surrounding area very clean, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think my garage was filled with bikes and ladders….just like it used to be. Also, sausage makes a good gift for supportive neighbors!

Q: Of the varieties that you make, do you have a personal favorite?

I honestly do like all of them – a lot! I can’t say I have a favorite. It’s been interesting to see that the Fremont Beer Bratwurst, the Jalapeño sausage, and the chorizo have had the strongest reception. People like them, order them all the time, and want them on their menus pretty consistently. The beer brat, outside of being just delicious, also uses beer produced by one of my neighbors – the Fremont Brewing Company.  It uses their Universal Pale Ale. I love what they’re doing down there at the brewery and I like Matt, the owner. It’s really nice to be able to get other ingredients and local resources from other neighbors that are also as obsessive about doing the right thing with their product.

Q: Are there any varieties you’d love to make but haven’t yet?

As a hobbyist (not through Link Lab) I’ve made a lot of salami and cured meats and, like I mentioned,have even hung a pig leg and made prosciutto. I would love to do a lot more curing, but that’s not realistic with my small workspace.  But my facility is setup to efficiently make fresh ground sausage, and I have a lot more recipes that I’d love to produce and share with everyone. There are a lot of hot peppers from around the world that I love cooking with, and I expect to offer new sausages with many of these flavors soon.

Q: Any new products coming up? Something new on the fresh list for this next year?

I’m hoping that during this year I’ll get all my paperwork finalized and I’ll be able to offer bacon to everybody. I’ve been making it for a while, and I do it really well, but it’s a different thing than raw, ground sausage. So therefore I have to write up a whole separate production plan for a different product. It is not all that difficult to do, but it takes time – and I seem to be really busy making sausage, so to come up with another USDA approved program takes some uninterrupted desk-time. I’m pretty committed to making sure that happens within this year.

Q: With the varieties you have now and the poundage you’re able to create, are you looking for more buyers or are you at saturation?

Yes! I’m always looking for more buyers. My capacity is limited due to the size of my facility, but I am very careful to only promise what I can deliver. If we have to schedule farther out on the calendar to make everyone’s orders work out, that’s what I’ll do. Over promising and under-delivering is not something I’m willing to get into a habit of doing.

I’m not at a saturation point. The busiest week I’ve had so far is just over 300lbs. And, I’m confident that I can produce about twice that – perhaps 600-700lbs in a week – but I have to get a little bit smarter and more efficient about how I work. I expect the pounds per week to increase steadily. Also, I do not intend to work forever and retire in my garage. When demand is strong enough that I can justify moving out, I will be thrilled.

Q: What type of buyers are you looking for?

For now, I intend to keep Link Lab focus on wholesale to restaurants and retailers. Selling sausage directly to individuals is fun, but that’s not a sustainable business model for me.  Full Circle, Spud.com, and a couple of other online grocery stores have been fantastic. They buy sausage from me, and their customers buy it from them through their website. That’s a perfect scenario for me and my very-limited refrigeration space.  I love working with chefs and with restaurants. A great partnership I’ve created is Chef Thomas Horner of Hook & Plow Restaurant down at the Waterfront Marriott. He’s pretty much my ideal customer. He told me, “Bring me something delicious, and I will challenge my kitchen staff to make something great on our menu each week!” I can’t get a better request than that. I bring him different sausage varieties each week, and sure enough, he is really creative, producing some wonderful dishes. We all start with great ingredients! That’s why we get along so well.

Q: Where can the rest of us – individual consumers – buy your products?

My website keeps a current list of the retail shops and restaurants who sell our sausage.

Currently, A few places to easily get Link Lab Sausage include:

  • Sunset Hill Green Market in Ballard – they are wonderful, early adopters of all of my things and I love to support them.
  • Full Circle
  • Spud.com
  • Chimacum Farm Stand near Pt Townsend
  • Bellingham Co-op
  • Sno Isle Co-op

Restaurants and other retailers are listed on our website: Linklabartisanmeats.com.

Q: Hopefully helping you find more retail outlets is something PSFN can help you with.

Some of the best connections I’ve established in this first year of business have been initiated through the help of PSFN. Chef Christopher Linamen (Overlake Medical Center), Chef Chris Johnson (United General), Craig Mayberry (Heritage Lane), and Full Circle are all examples of great producers, consumers, and distributors who all love great sausage and who are great to work with.   All the people that I’ve met through PSFN, and community of industry professionals who embrace what I’m doing at Link Lab are consistently fun, interesting people that keep doing the right thing regarding food and our food-system.  I see PSFN as a partner, a great resource, and a bunch of great people to work with.

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