I didn’t grow up with a real affection for food, but I always appreciated the capacity it has to create a sense of gathering, food as a convenor has always motivated me…

Justin VerMeer

Co-Owner, Driftless Provisions

We sit down with Ryan, Justin, and Spence of Driftless Provisions, we learn about handcrafted salami, charcuterie, and how they got their start. We also delve into their history and find out what sets their product apart, along with what’s on the horizon for this business.

Driftless Provisions Transcript

Amy Gabay 00:04
We sit down with Ryan, Justin and Spence of Driftless Provisions. We learn about handcrafted salami, charcuterie, and how they got their start. We also delve into their history and find out what sets their products apart, along with what’s on the horizon for this business. You can find more conversations on our website, lacrosselocal.com. I’m Amy and I’m Brent. And this is La Crosse Local.

Driftless Provisions 00:29
I guess. Okay, Ryan Wagner, born in Newton, Wisconsin or actually born in Manitowoc, but eastern side of the state. And my meat story goes back to when I was growing up hunting and curing and making venison sausage with old German folk in the Manitowoc area. So we would make some of the best summer sausage that I’ve still had to this day, super smoky and very unique compared to anything else you just buy off the shelf. So that’s always been with me. And as I grew older and grew into food and sharing the way I cook and the way I hunt with folks, it became pretty apparent that my knowledge in the old timers knowledge wasn’t really holding on to as strong as it should be. And people wanted to know what I did and how I did it and share good food with each other. So that’s kind of how I came around to do what I do. My name’s Justin, I grew up in Brandon, South Dakota, I came into food through, you know, I didn’t grow up with a real affection for food. But I’ve always appreciated the capacity it has to create like the sense of gathering. It’s like food as a convener has always motivated me and the opportunity to get into fine craft like this was really exciting for me. And I’m here with Ryan sort of roped me into this. Yeah, my name is Spencer Schaller, born and raised in La Crosse, spent some time traveling, I guess, out of the group, I’m the one that came from the restaurant side. I’ve been cooking for 12 years throughout the driftless region. I met Ryan probably about six years ago, and just recently, a month ago, left the restaurant industry and got roped in like Justin, into these salami dreams.

Brent Hanifl 02:23
So just hearing you guys kind of talk about your backgrounds, traditional aspects of it, of people asking about how do you do this? What’s the process of that? How did Driftless Provisions get it started?

Driftless Provisions 02:34
To be honest it started in in a root cellar in the driftless region. So I tasted salami or good salami, probably for the first time only six, seven years ago. And I thought this is different. This is different than the German summer sausage. And this is super unique. And then I did just a little research and realize that it was kind of up and coming in the US. So I thought okay, let’s make a business out of this. But I have to figure out how to do it. So started making it in a root cellar when I moved out here to the driftless region and Viroqua. And from there handed it out. And Spencer might have been one of my first, not customers, but first people to try the salami and as a chef, he didn’t spit it out. And I thought, Hey, we can do this. We had to work on my pronunciation of some of the European salami types was very off. But yeah, from there, it was quite obvious that as a startup of this nature in the Midwest, we were unique. So we could run with that and be not the first to market from this area because there’s others out there, but one of the first to markets and build off of that and help train I guess the Midwest palette of what charcuterie actually is.

Brent Hanifl 03:52
Yeah, I can imagine just from my own experience working at Briedl’s Meat Market, which is now Bubba’s meat market on Redfield Street in La Crosse, more of the traditional summer sausages, the Bologna, everything from Braunschweiger to blood sausages. So what’s sets your product apart? I mean, it sounds like you have a traditional European influences, but what really kind of makes it stand on its own.

Driftless Provisions 04:14
You know, as far as that goes, it’s this tradition is extraordinarily old. And most of us who are making salami are making it more or less the same way, it’s fermented, it’s dry, cured, it’s a consolidated form of a sausage. You know, one of the strong differentiators is sort of what is the guiding, maybe for us at least, what we like to imagine is the guiding ethos, which is, you know, we’re rooted here in a landscape of right practice and growing in harmony with seasons in the landscape. And we’re trying to, wherever we have the opportunity, these things shape our practice. And so I guess I’ll leave it there, Like, this ethos that we were shaped by. On a practical level, there’s a couple things that differentiate us where the only you know, the three of us are distinguishing our product is tends to be a little smaller, price point is lower, you get more variety for your dollar in these cases. But I think the big ticket thing is our ethos. I was gonna dovetail off of that just a little bit and touch on the the fact that we’re bringing the three of us to the table. If you look at our lineup, we’re bringing elk and venison salami to the forefront. And that’s sort of something that I wanted to do right away, because that’s what I started using. When I started making salami was the venison that we would harvest. So we’re really excited that Spencer is on board now bringing that chef background that train chef background, to the table and to the new facility here where we can get super creative, also have a smokehouse that we’re about to get online within the next hopefully month or so. And that will shape our business in a new way as well.

Brent Hanifl 05:56
So what’s been the public response to the business and the items?

I think, great, it’s very difficult to tell with COVID happening, it was difficult to get in front of people and see reactions, whereas our first year in business, you know, Justin and I sat in front of customers at farmer’s markets every week for that first summer and into fall. And like I said earlier, kind of not maybe not training, but getting people to understand and experience charcuterie. It was really joyful. Just to give somebody a piece of a, tiny piece of meat and and watch the reaction. That was really nice. And obviously things changed all of last year where we didn’t have that. So now it’s it’s online responses or online, you know, feedback, which isn’t always the best feedback. But people are more candid when they’re writing anonymously. It’s been great. And people still write to us and say, This is awesome. And chime in on our social media as well.

Brent Hanifl 06:58
Just mentioned there, it’s probably tougher being you know, just in business for about a year. And then COVID just came about, how’s that experience been? You know, I’ve actually heard that people have been spending a lot more online, they’re not even spending less, but they’re actually going after, I wouldn’t say maybe luxury goods but you know, unique items online has being good for you guys? Or is it something that you don’t have anything to base it off of?

Driftless Provisions 07:19
It’s hard to say. We expected to grow. And we did grow a little. So we didn’t you know, we didn’t suffer very much from lack of interest, I guess you would say, and our online sales grew a little bit. Our wholesale sales grew a little bit. It wasn’t astronomical, I think if we had been positioned a little bit better with them, or maybe a year or two longer building awareness and an audience we might have done even better. But all in all, it was a fine year for us. Yeah, we were actually able to take the slowdown in stride and focus on a new facility here, which is really nice. I’m not sure if we would have had the wherewithal or the time to put into it, the energy that needed to happen, here in the new facility. Had we been hitting the road and doing crazy amounts of sales. But as it turned out, buyers stopped taking in person visits to the stores and whatnot. And the production kind of slacked because of some things, including COVID. But we were able to put the time and effort into this facility in are super jacked to get it online. Ryan spent the summer raising funds for this. And so, you know, all in all, we were really lucky. We feel like to have the audience we have and the supporters we have to make this happen.

Brent Hanifl 08:38
You mentioned the smokehouse a few times what’s coming up for the business. So its the smokehouse and what else do you have online for 2021?

Driftless Provisions 08:45
Oh man. I mean, I guess our first thing is kind of just like the old world that, you know, Ryan has been kind of talking about the way that we craft salami is kind of, that’s the approach we want to take with everything that we have. So I think you know, the big thing is probably bacon is probably one thing that we’re going to look at and not your traditional, but maybe more so like grandma and grandpa’s old school butcher shop where it was just a salt and sugar cure, maybe just a little bit of maple from the driftless region. And we kind of want to highlight that instead of traditionally, nowadays bacon is injected with a salt brine, or it’s put into a salt brine. Thus the process is two to three times as fast as what it normally would be. So I think for us, that’s the one big thing that we’re super excited about for that taking our salami, possibly putting a cold smoke on it before it goes into fermentation and dry curing just to kind of alter flavors a little bit and do something that you know we haven’t had before. So I think that addition to the salami game, it just kind of gives us multiple different facets where we can utilize the smokehouse in many different ways. hopefully some sausages down the road you know we’ve been talking to, and do we, things like that not a ton of the area you know has seen before but hopefully we can add that in there.

Brent Hanifl 10:11
So with your smoker are you going to be doing it over a log flame or is it electric? We used to put flaming wood on top of a garbage can to just kick it into this room and lock the door.

Driftless Provisions 10:23
That’s the old school way. I had a good buddy Roger, Roger Loose that has his smokehouse out in the backyard, you know brick, just a brick building and he would run into that thing and smoke would come out and he’d be in there for too long and then he come out his eyes would be red and coughing, but the products were amazing. Yeah, yeah that’s not gonna be how we operate. Not that i don’t want to do that but the usda facility we’ve got some tighter restrictions, time and temperature restrictions, that is more difficult to get with that old school style of smoking. It’s not off my radar necessarily just because we’ve got one of the other companies in this building Wisco Pop, the owner there Austin really loves old school smoking and he’s been pushing us to get an old barrel and do those types of i guess smoke products that would be fun down the road. Probably more apt to be retail exempt private products rather than usda stamped ready for wholesale products.

Brent Hanifl 11:34
Well cool just want to know. He always said it was good smoke, it was good smoke for you. If people want to find out more about your business what’s the best avenue for them to follow?

Driftless Provisions 11:41
Either find us online driftlessprovisions.com or instagram, we’re active there at Driftless Provisions where you know in La Crosse the People’s Food Coop. In Viroqua the local food coop and watch i guess your other your local retailers we’ll be there soon i think.

Brent Hanifl 11:57
Sure and just one more question, if you could go through each one of you what is something that you’re currently enjoying? Like one of your products right now that you think is the number one on your list for people to check out if they’ve never had it before.

Driftless Provisions 12:08
Paprika little spicy just a delightful, delightful snack. I really tend to go towards that wild game meat so the elk Cacciatore the venison picante either or the elk we’re currently out of stock but hopefully hitting the shelves within the next month or so .iI’s got a little kick but then the coriander puts this kind of wild blueberry sort of taste to it for whatever reason ,it’s a little interesting I would say mine is probably the spicy Finnochio na and the reason is i think in the in the pizza world that’s probably the one swami that we have right now that i would showcase as kind of a nice topping on pizza and i feel like everyone right now especially during COVID is throwing pizzas out there, so if i was going to do a homemade pizza or something i probably land towards that one

Amy Gabay 13:05
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